The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for wasting time on a dud relationship


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Ailment: Wasting time on a dud relationship

Cure: The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

It is painful to see someone we love throw themselves away on someone we fear can never make them happy. We grieve for the loss of their potential, for their inevitable future suffering. We yearn to see them come to their senses and move on. And yet, do we do any better if we find ourselves in the same situation? Though we may, at some level, know that our relationship isn't right, we often fail to rescue ourselves as we would rescue others.

Victims of this sorry predicament – and you know who you are – must fall in love with Caroline Bell, the grave, raven-haired beauty at the centre of Shirley Hazzard's under-read masterpiece, The Transit of Venus. Caro, as we come to know her, is one of two orphaned Australian sisters who have come to 1950s London to start new lives – Grace into a conservative marriage and kids, Caro into a government job and emancipation.

Caro is loved – hopelessly, devotedly – by a working-class academic named Ted Tice. But it's the tall, graceful, upper-class Paul Ivory to whom she succumbs, a dashing young playwright tipped for great things. Paul's easy manner and pleasure in his own good looks makes him bound to outshine his hesitant rival; and though, when they meet, Paul is engaged, he is drawn to Caro's "sombre glow" and their mutual attraction is over-powering. They both know that their affair can come to nothing; but she cannot resist his visceral pull.

Hazzard's densely-crafted prose requires the best of one's attention to read – and rewards your concentration richly. Dissecting subtle emotions with a surgical accuracy, she elevates you to a new level of emotional understanding. By the time you turn the last page, you'll have changed. You will have set new standards of honesty for yourself, and you'll want more, not just for Caro, but for yourself.