four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
22-May-June-2006
By: 
Louise Dean
user_rating: 
0

A-BecomingStrangersWhen two couples cross paths at a Caribbean resort, the passions, comforts, guilt, indiscretions, and losses in both marriages start to surface. British couple George and Dorothy Davis have been married more than 50 years, and, as George admits, "You couldn’t tell him that there was any marriage that wasn’t equal measures love and hate." Jan and Annemieke De Groot, a younger Belgian couple, are dealing with Jan’s terminal cancer. The two men form a deep friendship as Dorothy’s Alzheimer’s worsens; Annemieke pursues an extramarital affair; and the emotional baggage of decades of marriage threatens their claims to life in the present.
Harcourt. 304 pages. $23. ISBN: 0151011745

Guardian (London) 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s no thriller—the events depicted are painfully, realistically small—but the sympathy and tenderness with which Dean catalogues them creates constant suspense. … All I know is, by the time I reached George’s two-page memoir, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. In the end, I was so uplifted, I did both." Julie Myerson

Independent (London) 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It reads like mature Anne Tyler, but is a first novel: Dean has launched six fully-formed characters, most over 50, all compassionately drawn. But the second half, as the action accelerates, is even better, both page-turning and heart-breaking." Jonathan Myerson

Atlantic 4 of 5 Stars
"All of Dean’s characters—the stubbornly unfashionable old English couple, the jaded European nouveaux riches, the arrogant Americans, the unpredictable Irish-by-way-of-South-Africa born-again Christian, the bumbling resort manager whose fantasies resemble car commercials—are wonderfully true to their circumstances but are also vividly and consistently themselves, not ‘types.’" Christina Schwarz

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Dean crafts a gut-wrenching tale of marital recklessness and guilt that is reminiscent of John Updike at his most masterful. … The twin themes of loss and despair can be heavy going, but just when the torrent of heartache threatens to become treacly, Dean swoops in with an observation that breaks the mood." Patricia Conover

Times (London) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Her] central theme is that friendship is more enduring than romantic love. … This knowledge of [her grandparents’] complexities makes her portraits generous; it also tempers any instinct to idolise them, though they did idolise her." Penny Wark

Critical Summary

Long-listed for the 2004 Booker Prize and winner of the Betty Trask Award, Becoming Strangers is far more sophisticated than the typical first novel. Based on the lives of one set of Dean’s grandparents, the novel delves into marriage, relationships, romantic love, and friendship. Dean skillfully develops these themes and the relationships among the four primary characters and all the secondary ones, showing how ordinary people bury and then unearth the realities that their lives have become. One critic thought that Dean drew her men more realistically than her women, but overall, "Dean peels back the skin of these marriages with an unflinching lack of sentimentality and an immense talent for close observation and evocative, often poetic detail" (Atlantic).