Sunday, April 11, 2021

Tender by Belinda McKeon

TenderTender by Belinda McKeon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

McKeon takes a line from James Salter’s Light Years as her epigraph: “You know, you only have one friend like that; there can’t be two.”

Tender is an absorbing at times irritating examination of an obsessive friendship among the young, of Irish history during the Nineties when homosexuality is finally legalized in Ireland, of urban university life versus the rural upbringing they share, of art and literature as the protagonist studies Hughes and Plath and writes art criticism, and finally the jealousy that undoes them. Catherine is eighteen when she meets aspiring photographer James in 1997. He is a year older, just back from working in Berlin. They bond like magic and talk daily. The author opens the book with a James Salter quote: “You know, you only have one friend like that; there can’t be two.”

The book is structured in interesting ways, starting out with much talking in the narrative as the two become close, moving into choppiness in Moonfoam and Silver when deeper relationships and sex intrude and tapering off to lots of poetry in Romance when the connection falters and fails. The final sections occur at a reunion fourteen years later.

My exasperation with Catherine in the beginning of the story was high, her youth, her naivete, her self-absorption but slowly the reader understands her intensity, her desperation not to lose James. By the time she loses herself in an ill-planned confrontation and forsakes the friendship, it is a much more empathetic eye gazing at young Catherine and absorbing her shock and horror at what happens around her. Fortunately, the author gives us a look at the two of them fourteen years hence to see how all turned out. There's humor, too, and beautiful sentences. And again very much along the periphery of this story of young people at Trinity College in Dublin are the weight and effect of the Troubles in Ireland.

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