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What keeps an unhappily married couple together? In her impressive debut, long-listed for the 2004 Man Booker, Dean dissects two hollow unions against the sultry backdrop of a Caribbean resort. George and Dorothy Davis, an English couple married more than 50 years, are worn down by neglect and boredom; Jan and Annemieke de Groot, Belgians married 31 years, are pulled apart by Jan's terminal cancer, which exposes issues they've suppressed for years. Dean is at her best in interior moments, when characters ponder their lives with private, brutal candor. "This was how they had always been," Annemieke reflects on her marriage, "his illness had simply developed the difference between them as light develops photographic film." As for George and Dorothy, they seem awfully reminiscent of Edward Albee's spiteful George and Martha. "You couldn't tell him that there was any marriage that wasn't equal measures love and hate," George Davis reflects, who decides bitterly that his wife now "wasn't content to have the last word; she had to have it twice." On holiday, friendships form, affairs spark and revelations startle. Adept at sharp dialogue and brisk plotting, Dean is also attentive to character development, choosing authenticity over sentimentality in a book that is poignant, often funny and unexpectedly redemptive. (Jan.)
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Travel can broaden the mind, but it can also serve to affirm old habits and prejudices if, as is the case with the Europeans populating this novel, emotional baggage is lugged along with the suitcases. At a Caribbean resort, elderly Britishers Dorothy and George Davis are thrown together with a younger and more urbane Belgian couple, Annemieke and Jan De Groot. Although this is the Davises' first trip abroad (courtesy of their pushy daughter), it may well be the unhappily married De Groots' last, for Jan is slowly dying of cancer. Although he hopes the holiday will help them become better friends, Annemieke spends most of her time in pursuit of extramarital sexual adventure. George and Dorothy, meanwhile, are coming to terms with the fact that Dorothy is in an increasingly advanced stage of Alzheimer's. The novel might have sunk under the weight of its themes of loss, but Dean suffuses it with a comic touch and handles her several narrative threads with skill. Give this to readers who enjoy thoughtful -character-centered fiction. Mary Ellen Quinn
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