Esther Freud talks to Allan Radcliffe about her fascination with relationships between parents and children, and why she finds it hard to read about books set in Italy
Esther Freud has been called ‘the best writer about childhood we have.’ Certainly, since her 1992 autobiographical debut Hideous Kinky, the tale of two young girls accompanying their free-spirited mother on a pilgrimage to 1960s Marrakech, her work has been characterised by child protagonists’ attempts to make sense of a strange, and occasionally terrifying, adult world.
Freud’s sixth novel is another sympathetic coming of age tale, its edges darkened by a creeping menace. Love Falls is told from the point of view of 17-year-old Lara, who accompanies her absentee father Lambert, a writer, to Tuscany in the weeks leading up to the royal wedding of 1981. Excluded from her dad’s reminiscences, Lara is increasingly drawn to the neighbouring Willoughby clan, particularly beautiful youngest son, Kip, only to find herself embroiled in bitter familial infighting and power games.
While it is perhaps fitting that a member of the famous Freud dynasty (her father is the painter, Lucien) should be so fascinated by relationships between parents and children, the author simply sees the child’s eye view as a rich dramatic device. ‘I like writing about things as if they are freshly discovered,’ she says. ‘When you’re young, everything is new and strange and unusual. There are so many dramatic possibilities to having a child or a teenager as a protagonist that just wouldn’t be there if the story was told from the point of view of one of the adult characters.’
Lara’s passage from gauche adolescence to adulthood is played out against the backdrop of the most iconic fairytale love story of the media age. ‘I was playing with the idea of romance, and the royal wedding was such a symbol of romance that it seemed a great backdrop,’ she continues. ‘And especially because so many things about that event, and all the hype that surrounded it, have been undermined by everything we know now about that relationship.’ While there’s a dreamlike quality to the writing in Love Falls, reflecting the sensory overload of this long, hot, formative summer, the novel is also distinguished by a vivid sense of place, as we follow Lara through Florence’s narrow streets, markets and galleries and across the Tuscan plains.
Yet, Freud reveals that while she did make a pilgrimage to Italy during the writing of the novel, she remains ambivalent about research, preferring to get lost in the world of memory and imagination. ‘I took a break for about ten months to have a baby and when I went back to the book I realised I’d written endless descriptions of cathedrals and libraries and piazzas, most of which I ended up taking out.’
While writing the novel, Freud was also aware of the long shadow cast by previous Tuscan-set literary romances, most notably EM Forster’s classic comic portrayals of the English abroad, A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread. ‘When I started trying to write about Tuscany, I had other books about Italy hanging over my shoulder, and realised that I couldn’t win and that it had been done and done and done. So I decided: “I will never read another book set in Italy.”’
Love Falls is published by Bloomsbury on Mon 4 Jun.