Beth Penn lives a peaceful life with her partner Sol and their daughter Fern. But Beth is troubled by increasing unease. She cannot shake her uncertainty over her mother, who disappeared when Beth was a child, and she has a sense that her daughter is keeping secrets from her. So she goes to therapy. Dr. Tamara Bywater is there to help her patients. But what if the very person who is meant to be the solution becomes the most dangerous problem of all? And why is what's bad for us so enticing?
The British writer Joanna Briscoe has a dreamy, elliptical style that reflects the dreamy, elliptical sensibilities of her characters ... if Dr. Bywater is an exaggeratedly devilish figure, Beth’s husband, Sol, is far too saintly, at least for most of the book. What really happened with her mother? What is happening with her daughter? And who will win the tug of war for her soul?
The author has a fine eye for aesthetic detail and an even finer one for parental relationships. The star of the show is not actually Beth’s love life, but her heart-breaking attempts to revive her relationship with her daughter ... The illicitness of the strictly forbidden therapist-patient relationship appeals to Beth’s hunger for middle-aged thrills. But Bywater transforms from a buttoned-up professional with a gentle nature to an inconstant suitor who toys with Beth’s affections. I found the evolution a little abrupt and Beth’s willingness to risk all for someone so questionable increasingly hard to swallow ... What fascinated me far more was Beth’s relationship with Fern ... The setting may be bourgeois but the beautifully observed familial pains are universal.
I should have seen the warning signs. The titles of Joanna Briscoe’s novels have an unfortunate habit of sounding like perfumes you would think twice before sampling ... We’re nominally within the realms of realism, but while the novel is set in London, it soon becomes clear that this is the strange alternate universe of the Hampstead novel...in which people have names such as Solomon, Sofia and Aranxto. Briscoe’s London is almost exclusively populated by people who spend their days dabbing oils on to canvases and their evenings at the candlelit Soho restaurant Andrew Edmunds ... They stare out of the sash windows of their £3 million homes wondering: is this my last chance for a feverish extramarital affair? ... I’m afraid they own a lot of woolly garments and also happen to like the Netflix series House of Cards. This detail alone strikes me as an excellent argument for more diversity in publishing ... Briscoe hints at a teacher-student relationship, only there is no chasm in age between Tamara and Beth. They are two bored, middle-aged drama queens yearning for a thrill ... Indeed, it’s strange how squeamish Briscoe is about describing anything that actually occurs between the bodies of these frustrated women. Beth’s desire seems weightless and unreal — an anxious mother caught up in a banal fantasy ... Yet The Seduction feels shrill and unstable from the beginning, with some of the worst dialogue I’ve read ... Ultimately, The Seduction is a messy rehash of Briscoe’s other tales of upper-middle-class crisis. The women are histrionic and flighty, the men controlling and obstinate. There are nutty narcissists, unexplained smells and half-seen figures flitting around in mysterious ways. Fragments of literature or art unlock a secret — the sort of event that only happens in Novelland. And the plot relies on every character behaving in an implausibly stupid way just so the author can hurl them all towards disaster. But disaster is not inevitable — just grindingly predictable.