Andrea Gillies’ second novel opens with Nina Findlay recovering in a hospital in a tiny postcard-perfect Greek island. She’s lucky to be alive. She’s survived a head-on collision with a minibus with only a broken leg, whereas her life just before the accident was in tatters following the implosion of her relationship with two brothers. Thus the scene is set for Nina to revisit her past and contemplate her future.
Nina’s story unfolds in a non-linear fashion, the present interweaving through the recent and distant past, from her teenage years through to her current predicament. She’s a forty-something woman, recently separated from her husband (“I disgraced myself and moved out”) and estranged from her brother-in-law, with whom she may or may not be in love. What’s more, she currently finds herself impatiently wooed by the over-attentive Dr Christos, “with shoulder-length black hair, some of it twisted, almost into ringlets.” It is his curiosity and his forthright probing questions, as he tends to the mysterious patient confined to her bed for the duration of the novel, that drives the narrative structure. It is a testament to Gillies’ powerful writing, and her ability to write believable uncomplicated conversation between complicated characters, that this device works and keeps the novel flowing. The fact that Nina likes to talk about herself helps, but what is truth and what is delusion in the stories she shares?
Romance is everywhere, there is love – filial, parental, platonic, amorous – and flirting and coupling and unravelling. But The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay is not chick-lit. There’s a provocative intelligence in Gillies’ tale that challenges perceptions and beliefs about love, honesty and betrayal. At its heart lies a mystery in the diary of Nina’s mother that holds the key to her own self-knowledge.
Gillies tells me about the nature of love and all its maddening complications – and reveals the models behind each of her core characters.
FG: At the start of your novel Dr Christos talks to Nina about a mosaic of a sea nymph that reminds him of her: “People confuse them with sirens but they were the opposite of sirens. Sirens meant harm to men, but these sea nymphs were more like guardian angels.” Is there a middle line between Nereid and siren?
AG: Nina Findlay is preoccupied in the book by trying to locate and walk that middle line. Her mother Anna set herself up in life as a goddess – it didn’t hurt that she looked like one – and she inculcated the idea of courtly love in her daughter: that love should be kept aside from marriage, so that it’s never tested by domesticity, and that Nina should marry practically, to someone she likes. The Nereid and the siren pursue Nina through the novel. All the men she’s known have expectations of her: her father, her husband, her husband’s brother, and then the man she gets to know in Greece, Dr Christos. One of her enlightenments, in a series of enlightenments, is that men she’s certain see her as a Nereid might see her as a siren after all.
The challenge I set myself was to unfold an absorbing romance (written in some ways like a detective novel, with red herrings and mystery woven in) that takes place in two realities.”
Nina’s story unfolds during her convalescence in a small private hospital on a remote Greek island. Was this always going to be the plot device for the narrative of your story? Tell us how you set about shaping your novel.
The challenge I set myself was to unfold an absorbing romance (written in some ways like a detective novel, with red herrings and mystery woven in) that takes place in two realities: in the present, in an apparently idyllic Greek island setting, where Nina came in the belief that she could control everything, and in the past, in stories from her home in Scotland, where she’d lost control, and then to bring those two narratives crashing together. Halfway in, when her soon-to-be ex-husband comes to the island to visit her in hospital, Nina’s faced with trying to be two Ninas: the one she’s sold to the doctor as herself, and the one her ex is all too familiar with. As in my first novel, The White Lie, the progress of the book works by means of narrative looping, returning to the past and seeing things there that may corroborate or may contradict what’s been said in the present. I like to pass over a small detail early in the book and then return to it later and show it in a different light, which I suppose is part of the desire to write romance as if it were a suspense novel.
Nina is a dominant character – full of life, confusion, regret and uncertainty. She’s endearing and exasperating. Her mother Anna is equally unforgettable and haunts the novel like a ghost. The mother-daughter theme is strong, as is the dynamic between the two brothers, Paolo and Luca. You’ve created several powerful and memorable characters. Can you share your character development secrets?
At the beginning of the process I don’t know my people very well, so I put them into rooms and leave them to talk, and write down what they have to say to one another. Hidden conflicts emerge out of people talking to one another about elements of the plot, about their predicament, parts of which I’ve determined before I let them loose on one another. I wanted Anna to be surprisingly theoretical about love and how it really works, implausible but also deeply influential. I wanted Nina to be oriented by her, so that at different points of the book Anna seems wrong, right, and then right for the wrong reasons. Paolo and Luca were given roles in Anna’s drama even while teenagers (because she’d inculcated in Nina early that the choice she had to make was always going to be between the two), and it’s her view of them – Paolo sturdy, dependable, a good bet for a life partner; Luca quixotic, fun and dangerous – that Nina adheres to, then rebels against, and then, after her catastrophe, comes to see in a completely new way.
The reader follows Nina’s present predicament alongside the story of her turbulent past. As her history unfolds we learn about the complex triangle involving her best friend Luca and his older brother Paolo, the man she married. And now the story of her present sees a relationship developing with the ever-attendant Dr Christos. Will she ever settle with the right man? Is this the essence of Nina’s quest for enlightenment? And is Dr Christos the catalyst?
Thinking she is going to be alone for the rest of her life, having rejected her husband and having been through the fire with his brother, the man she thought she loved, Nina tries to convince herself that Dr Christos, who seems to be presenting himself as a possible third suitor, would be a good bet for a second marriage. Even though she’s learned that the love triangle she was convinced enriched her life was in truth undermining it, she tries to apply old ways of thinking to the Dr Christos situation, and idealises him, and it’s a key part of the book that she’s enlightened as to the doctor’s true character, and his real identity. It’s only when Nina becomes clear about the present situation she’s got herself into, and also when she sees the past clearly, that she begins at last to grow up and to own herself and her own heart. That’s when she can start making the right decisions at last.
Soon after Luca marries Francesa, Nina gives him a soapstone heart, and in return he gives her a Murano glass heart: “I thought we should exchange hearts. It seemed only fair.” This is surely the behaviour of lovers. Would you describe their relationship as naïve or dishonest?
I was interested, in the relationship between Nina and Luca, in exploring the very fine and wiggly line, in man-woman co-dependency, between friendship and love, and how we use the vocabulary, and how personal it is, the way we define people and try to stick to those definitions. Nina and Luca, always inseparable, speaking with one voice, unable to stop their ongoing conversation from being exclusive of others, unable to keep physically apart, will both assert at various points in the story that they are only friends. They play a dangerous game, once they’re married to other people, one that threatens both marriages. It’s a crucial thing in the emotional development of Nina’s story that she has misconstrued, for most of her adult life, what it is that she and Luca are about, assuming the terms of their need for one another are the same. All it takes to dismantle the triangle is a turn of events. When there’s an unexpected series of events that tests the two of them, things take a shocking twist that propels her out of her marriage.
Nina heads to Greece to escape the fallout of a family tragedy and to find answers. Is Nina suitably enlightened during her stay on the island?
The perfection of the tiny Greek island where Nina lands after her disaster has two roles in the story: to represent a possible happiness that’s self-determining and new, a reinvention if you like, but also to manifest itself as another kind of illusion. Nina and Paolo went on honeymoon to that same small island 25 years earlier, and so we expect that memory to be a good one, that that’s why she’s returned, but maybe it wasn’t that. Nina is there to buy a house and to begin a new life, but by her sixth day in Greece she’s already beginning to unravel. It’s already clear by the sixth day that the island isn’t what she’d projected onto it, and she isn’t going to be the person there that she thought she needed to be. The solution has to come from somewhere else. Her enlightenment comes out of a near-death experience, when she’s involved in a bizarre road accident and is forced to sit still and listen to herself. It’s in recounting stories to Dr Christos that she thinks illustrate her point, and realising that not all of them do that, that she comes finally to a kind of self-knowledge.
“Perhaps romantic love is always a kind of undiagnosed madness.” Is this how you personally would define romantic love?
It isn’t my definition, but Anna’s, Nina’s mother’s. It’s among the lines that Anna wrote in her final diary the year that she died. Nina was only 20 when she lost Anna, and the diary is only given to her by her father 25 years later, when she’s left Paolo and is struggling to make sense of things. One of Nina’s more straightforward enlightenments is to see her mother in a new light, in those private thoughts. There, Anna is a woman Nina never knew, for once not working hard at dazzling everybody around her. Anna based her advice to her daughter about marriage on her own marriage, to a man she doesn’t love but has made a good life with, or so she thinks. Anna’s position, to the end, despite everything that happens, is that it’s safer not to love but to like, while at the same time trying to ensure that we’re loved in return, so that we cannot have our hearts broken and our lives destroyed. This philosophy, though, leads only to irony.
There is a spiritual thread running through the novel and Nina believes she has seen the ghost of her mother. A sceptical Christos has a rational explanation. “But where was the soul now? Not gone, surely; not ended.” Is this an area that intrigues you, and will you be exploring the mystery further in future writing?
Sometimes it’s a struggle for me to prevent my characters having conversations that many people would classify as pretentious. I’m probably pretentious myself, in the modern usage of the word: it’s applied to pretty much any discussion of the big unknowable things, and the fear of being pretentious puts a break on our being fully creative and free. In the first draft of Nina Findlay they all talked a lot to one another about life and love and God and death, but when it came to subsequent drafts I knew I had to edit a lot of that out and keep only those bits of it that carried the story forward. I’m having some fun in the current book I’m working on, unleashing some of these preoccupations a little more, as it concerns a nun who comes on holiday to an English village and is soon involved in the unspooling of an affair between two married people. Because she’s a nun and a counsellor she exerts a natural authority, but may not be everything she seems, and she may have a past dark association with one of the other characters. There was lots of meaty morality and religion stuff in it at first, but I’m already editing out conversations in advance of the critical application of the P-word.
The setting is beautiful – Greece and Scotland are evoked magnificently, and the storyline and characters lend themselves to being adapted. What’s the likelihood in the near future? And which actors, living or dead, would you like to see cast as Nina, Luca, Paolo, Francesca and Dr Christos?
I’m perhaps unusual in so far as I cast characters with the faces, voices and mannerisms of actors right at the beginning of the first draft. (My nun, for example, is being played by Judi Dench). It helps me visualise the story: a lot of my process concerns letting characters loose on one another, in the situation I’ve put them in, and watching the action unfurling in my head as if it’s cinema. As for a film, there are no firm plans yet but we’ll see. (The White Lie is more likely in the near future, as it’s been optioned for a television drama). In the writing of Nina Findlay, Nina was played by Joely Richardson, Anna was (her actual mother) Vanessa Redgrave, Luca a young Al Pacino (ha!); Paolo was played by Chris Noth, Francesca by Monica Belluci and Dr Christos (this is embarrassing) by an older, but no less intense and messianic Russell Brand…
Andrea Gillies won both The Wellcome Prize 2009 and The Orwell Prize 2010 for her first book, Keeper, which was prompted by living with someone with Alzheimer’s. Keeper and her novels The White Lie (2012) and The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay are published by Short Books. Read more.
Follow her on Twitter: @andreagillies