Review: ‘The Rocks’ by Peter Nichols

The Rocks. Peter Nichols. Riverhead. 432 pages. $27.95.
The Rocks. Peter Nichols. Riverhead. 432 pages. $27.95.

On the surface, Peter Nichols’ new book is precisely the sort of novel you think of as a summer read. A Mediterranean island, the gorgeous and glamorous Mallorca, graces the cover — after one glance, you’ll start planning your next vacation. The image promises heat and romance and sex, as well as intrigue, and The Rocks delivers on all of those counts.

There’s a persistent dark thread, though, that runs through this novel about mysterious family secrets, which adds a distinct air of melancholy and remorse. The Rocks isn’t merely a beach read; it’s also an examination of regret — at mistakes, misunderstandings and plain bad timing — and the price we pay for not being able to let go of the past.

Nichols follows the trajectory of two love stories, working backward in time. He sets the tone swiftly with a startling opening vignette in 2005. An elderly couple, Lulu and Gerald — briefly wed decades earlier but now lifelong enemies — take an accidental tumble off one of the island’s imposing cliffs. “They rolled together, not toward one of the flat spots where guests spread towels. They tumbled off a ledge into the sea.”

Elegant Lulu has spent decades as proprietor of The Rocks — short for Villa Los Roques, a seaside hotel catering to expats and summer visitors (“Her guests had always marveled at how young she looked”). Gerald, who once wrote a book charting the actual course of Homer’s Odyssey, has survived on its modest sales and by selling off his beloved olive groves to developers. He has been somewhat less lucky than Lulu. (“Though they were the same age, Gerald had not been as blessed by nature. … He walked slowly with a stick.”)

Lulu and Gerald have lived in the same small town all these years but managed to mostly avoid confrontations until this catastrophe, which also brings together their children from other spouses: Lulu’s son Luc, a filmmaker who dreams of greatness but never quite achieves it, and Gerald’s daughter Aegina, a divorced, successful businesswoman with a teenage son, Charlie. Luc and Aegina have a past, too, and Nichols winds their story backward, as well, revealing why both romances went badly awry.

A former yacht captain and author of such works as the international nonfiction bestsellers A Voyage for Madmen and Evolution’s Captain, Nichols has a feel for the island and its surrounding waters, and he fleshes out his characters with compassion and complexity.

He can’t resist cheating a bit: The final chapters, instead of ending at the beginning, jump back to the present to provide a gleam of hope amid all the missed opportunities. This conceit works, though. The journey, not the destination, is what’s important, The Rocks tells us. “Mostly a wretched, storm-tossed misery, full of wrong turns and monsters,” as Gerald sees it. But after all that, there’s nothing wrong with the glimmer of a happy ending.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.