The Forgotten Waltz

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The Forgotten Waltz
Anne Enright
W.W. Norton and Company, October 2011
259 pages
$15.95

This post was written by Caitlin O’Neil Amaral.

For a second-generation Irish American like me, whose family has turned the old sod into a mythical land of sorrow and song, Anne Enright is a bracing antidote. Contrary to popular belief, Ireland didn’t cease operations when my grandparents hopped the boat. Those left behind continued to live and struggle as the rest of us do, and they continue the battle today. Standing outside the island’s lyric tradition, Enright is more interested in the truths of modern life, especially the messy ones that everyone tries to gloss over.

A case in point is The Forgotten Waltz, her latest novel, which traces the marriage-busting affair of Gina Moynihan, a Dubliner in her mid-thirties who works in IT, and her lover, Seán Vallely.  As other reviewers have pointed out, Gina is not one to self-flagellate or throw herself in front of a train. When it comes to affairs and divorce, women in fiction have come that far, at least. (Thank you very much, Anna Karenina.) Instead Enright trains her anti-romantic, anti-dramatic eye on the ordinariness of what has transpired. How often marriages fail. How often love appears unbidden.

Gina tells her story from her dead mother’s house, where she is encamped in the unusually snowy winter of 2009, awaiting the fallout of her affair and the collapse of the Dublin real estate market. Wrapped in the cocoon of winter, she reflects on the seven years since she first met Seán with a pathologist’s precision, seeking to diagnose what happened, how and why. There is no dramatic crisis or turning point, only a breathtakingly banal series of moments that, one by one, tip Gina and Seán toward adultery, and ultimately love.  She must throw over her loving husband, and Seán must reconcile the damage to his already fragile 11-year-old daughter, Evie. However much it hurts, however difficult the choice may be, they do it. They are willing to ruin everything.

That Gina’s life unravels in tandem with the Irish economy is fitting; one dream of life disappears along with another, a long hoped for triumph amounting in the end to another chapter of misfortune to drink and sing about. But Enright’s point is that the cataclysms of our lives often happen in silence, like the snow. Life goes on, for Gina, for Ireland. And as for the rest of us, well, we’ll just have to accept that the Irish, however twee or charming their pale smiling faces appear, are as confused and human a bunch as the rest of us. My family won’t believe it.

A former award-winning writer for WGBH in Boston, Caitlin O’Neil Amaral has written for The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, Runner’s World, Budget Travel, The Boston Globe, Poets & Writers magazine, and other publications.