What Poets Need - Finuala Dowling

Poet John Carson lives in a crumbling seaside house with his sister and niece. He writes feverishly to the woman who has abandoned him as a lover, yet kept him as a correspondent. Theresa: beautiful, generous . . . and married. The occasional fleeting encounter between the lovers fuels John the writer, but leaves John the man close to despair. To keep his feelings in check, John loses himself in the details of his home life – the never-ending chores of domesticity, his niece’s mysterious eating disorder and the menu he is attempting to write in rhyming couplets save him from himself, most of the time. There is also the eccentric old woman who lives in their garden cottage and the poetry journal that he has just been appointed to edit. Will John and Theresa find a way to overcome everything that holds them apart or is, in fact, a state of permanent longing really what poets need?





In this epistolary novel, sporadically employed poet John Carson is living in South Africa with his sister and niece while writing to his ex-lover, Theresa. While trying to drum up inspiration for his own poetry, John helps his single sister in the raising of his 9 year old niece, Sal. He also tries to make ends meet by working as the editor of a start-up poetry journal and designing the menu for a new restaurant in town, the owner wanting the dish descriptions to be written in rhyming couplets.


John's letters to Theresa, while they do address their former romantic connection and his present pining away for her, are mostly made up of his day to day activities, his random thoughts, writing inspirations, and his concerns over his niece who starts to show signs of an eating disorder after some schoolmates bully her about her weight (more troubling, the girl doesn't even have a weight problem so it takes virtually no time for her weight to drop to seriously dangerous levels).


As she spoke, her eyes sometimes filled with tears, which rather alarmed me. I found myself willing her not to cry. Talking to her was like playing that fairground game when you have to use a steady hand to move a loop of wire along a live electrical circuit without setting off the alarm.


So, as you can maybe guess, the story here isn't all that uplifting. It's also not all that interesting. It's not badly written, just the plot veers into largely forgettable. I might be a little biased in that I was pretty quickly turned off by John being all mopey over a very much married Theresa, who explains to John that she called off the relationship after her husband caught on to what was going on. Getting caught gives Theresa a change of heart. She decides she "can't hurt him" (her husband, that is), so she decides to honestly try to repair her marriage. Almost commendable, except that she encourages John to keep writing to her, giving him the mistaken idea that he only needs to bide his time until she "comes to her senses" again. I was also a little confused with Theresa's letters going on about how she believed in her marriage vows. Wait, what?! You're giving this speech to your side-guy?! I also had to laugh at her line, "If you are willing, if you will accept, what I can offer you, forever and ever, is a very painful unrequited love." Theresa, you generous goose!  LOL


Ugh, these two. Yeah, I just ended up not liking the two of them much at all.


I also thought John tended to overshare in some of his letters. He gives play by plays of cold and allergy symptoms, troubles with neighbors, his past failed relationship with a feminist, his bouts of constipation... just made me think THIS is the route he wants to go to try to woo this woman back?! If I was the woman I'd be feeling like good riddance, I dodged a whiney bullet there! 


The bit I did really like is when John starts to grow up a bit and puts his obsession with Theresa to the side to address Sal's worsening eating disorder. He really steps up as the uncle and does all he can to be a nurturing, supportive adult figure in her life, trying to figure out ways to build her self-esteem back up and get her to feel okay about eating again. THAT part I became really invested in. Sadly, it was a pretty small element drowned in the soap opera between him and Theresa.




Note To Readers: According to HowToPronounce.com, the pronunciation of Finuala seems to have a few different pronunciations depending on what part of the world you're from -- it could be FIN-U-AL-AH, FIN-U-ELLA, or FIN-U-ARRLA.