A Canadian cabin. Photo: Getty
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The end of the affair: Rose Tremain’s The American Lover reviewed

The protagonists of Rose Tremain’s fifth collection of short stories – her first since 2005’s The Darkness of Wallis Simpson – are all operating under some form of constraint: social, sexual, emotional, pressingly immediate or far distant, unrelentingly real or garlanded with imaginative flourishes.

The American Lover 
Rose Tremain
Chatto & Windus, 232pp, £16.99

The protagonists of Rose Tremain’s fifth collection of short stories – her first since 2005’s The Darkness of Wallis Simpson – are all operating under some form of constraint: social, sexual, emotional, pressingly immediate or far distant, unrelentingly real or garlanded with imaginative flourishes. The ways they either attempt to free themselves or come to terms with the limits of their situation are often unexpected and always distinct from one another, giving the 13 pieces here a deeply enjoyable variety of tone and attitude.

This is hardly surprising given the range of Tremain’s novels, taking us from the time of King Charles II (Restoration and Merivel, themselves separated by nearly 25 years) to 19th-century New Zealand (The Colour) and, in the Orange Prize-winning The Road Home, to the London of the contemporary economic migrant. In long and short form, her work can move from portents of tragedy to comic vignette in a moment.

In “A View of Lake Superior in the Fall”, a couple in the first flush of retirement flee their Nashville home for a summer cabin in Canada, not from a generalised desire for tranquillity but specifically to escape the unpredictable rampages of their daughter, her “crazy and never-ending carnival of woe”. The inversion is clear: parents running away, unconditional love proved painfully conditional, a fair-weather retreat as a home for all seasons. We know that disaster is probably looming, but not its direction of travel – an uncomfortable sensation that Tremain is expert at manipulating.

It resurfaces in entirely different circumstances in “Extra Geography”, in which two teenage girls at a British boarding school attempt to stave off the boredom occasioned by the end of the lacrosse season. “We weren’t heroines any more,” confides the narrator, “just ordinary girls, and this felt worrying, as though we might soon die.” Their impending and premature deaths are unlikely to become a reality, but provide a fantasy strong enough to wreak havoc when they refocus their energy on wooing a teacher from New Zealand whose exotic foreignness overrides her chunky ankles. “We thought we’d start by being romantic and courtly,” they decide, with little knowledge of what that might really mean.

The concept of allure is explored at greater length in the collection’s title story, in which the invalid Beth lies recuperating in her parents’ London flat. Her legs have been broken in a car crash, and she wonders if “they might resemble the legs of a home-made rag doll, or those floppy limbs the women seem to have in paintings by Chagall, and that forever more, she would have to be carried through life in the arms of people who were whole”. But her imagination is even more vividly engaged by recalling a past love affair and recounting it to her Portuguese maid.

It is, on one level, the straightforward story of a married man who dallies and then disappears, but for Beth the affair has reached near-mythical status, helped by the riches that she won, and then lost, by writing a novel about it. Her fictional alter ego was “the smart top-copy of a person now, and I’m the carbon, messed up and fragile and half invisible”. For the maid, Rosalita, who once made costumes for matadors and whose brother was killed by a bull, real damage is corporeal – she can comprehend Beth’s broken legs but has more difficulty with her smashed-up soul – and the opposition between reality and fable is further underlined by the story’s 1974, three-day-week setting, in which a power cut, rather than romance, would prompt the lighting of candles.

Beth’s fictional portrayal of her relationship is, in one important respect, ineffec­tive; it does not bring her lover back to her. Elsewhere, Tremain turns her attention to the power of the written word and the writer, most notably in “The Jester of Astapovo”, which re-creates the days leading up to the death of Tolstoy, and in “The Housekeeper”, which imagines the inspiration for Daphne du Maurier’s Mrs Danvers. In the former story, the “jester” is Ivan Andreyevich Ozolin, master of the tiny rural station at which Tolstoy is forced to stop by mortal illness. The writer has been in flight from his wife and Ivan, too, understands marital disharmony: he has become entranced by an older woman and would love to escape the wife who never laughs at his jokes. The episode provides him with an unexpected moment in the limelight – as the world (and Tolstoy’s wife) descends on Astapovo, events become tinged with farce – and a springboard to action.

“The Housekeeper”, a truly chilling tale, could almost be seen as that story’s negative, in which the arrival of the writer, and her appropriation of the stories of those she meets, leave her one-time lover with nothing but memories and a fur coat. Such, Tremain appears to intimate, might be the perils of tangling with a person dedicated to seeing and recording everything. In these wide-ranging stories – playful, elaborate, but never showy, not even when they involve recasting Romeo and Juliet as a passionate affair between a Sloaney PR girl and her Moldavian builder – she allows her readers to feel similarly imperilled but, mercifully, unobserved. 

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser