Most people have someone they think of as ‘the one that got away’, the person who could have been the love of their life if only the circumstances, the timing, had been different. Maybe, years later, they find themselves thinking about the person who slipped through their fingers and wondering ‘What if?’ For Bernie, the protagonist in Susanna Freymark’s Losing February, that person is Jack, a friend from university who kissed her once on the forehead, wrote her a poem on a souvenir tea towel and disappeared from her life.
Twenty-four years later, Bernie is a journalist and aspiring writer as well as a recently separated mother of three. She has kept the tea towel and decides to track Jack down to ask his permission to quote the poem in her novel. When Jack contacts her after his brother sees her ad in a newspaper, they embark on a relationship of sorts, emailing, texting and speaking on the phone. Soon Bernie is infatuated with Jack anew, an obsession that blooms into love. But Jack is married with two children and, despite his declarations of love, it soon becomes clear that he is not willing to give up the life he has made for himself. When circumstances again force Bernie and Jack apart, Bernie spirals into depression, filling the space left by Jack’s emails and text with online – and eventually offline – sex with strangers.
Losing February is a fascinating study of a woman experiencing a mid-life crisis. Although Bernie has split amicably from her husband, she is adrift, and in choosing the unavailable and manipulative Jack as her next anchor, she begins to alienate herself from her real life and the people who care about her most:
I knew things were bad when I caught myself writing letters in my head to the children. Telling them what they meant to me and how much I loved them. I felt a tiredness I couldn’t shake, and I toyed with ways to blot out the sorrow that was eating into me … In between work and trying to edit my novel, my mind was occupied with not contacting Jack. I knew there were people in the world worse off than me, but when you lose faith in yourself you believe everyone would be better off without you. I was a drag; worse even, I was nothing.
After Jack ends their affair, Bernie seeks out men online in the hope of replacing him with someone free to love her. But the assignations she has with these men further distance her from her support network, for how can she tell her friends about the explicit photos she sends strangers, the graphic phone calls, the humiliating trysts she endures? These are selfish and repulsive men, and Bernie knows she is barely human to them, just a collection of warm, wet, willing holes.
I pored over the sites and found more unsuitable men. Sometimes I was turned on by their brutal approach and typed back the sluttiest words I could find … I told them what they wanted to hear and sometimes I was aroused by the fierceness of their desire. Then I masturbated and even orgasmed. But mostly I faked it, knowing that none of them cared about my pleasure. But it was the way my words aroused them and how they lost control … That was becoming the addiction.
Freymark describes Bernie’s encounters in unflinching physical and emotional detail, and there can be no doubt about the lengths Bernie will go to to feel something that is not connected to the love she still carries for Jack. These increasingly impersonal encounters, however, begin to feel like items on a menu of sexual deviance, just another humiliation Bernie almost mindlessly submits herself to, and reading about them becomes so exhausting that it is a relief when Freymark finally allows Bernie to end her secret online life.
Susanna Freymark’s exploration of one woman’s attempt to build a new life by seeking to rekindle the lost love of her youth makes for a courageous first novel. Bernie’s story is heartbreakingly honest and deftly written, offering a glimpse into a secret world.
Susanna Freymark Losing February Pan Macmillan 2013 PB 288pp $29.99
Kylie Mason is a freelance book editor based in Sydney. http://www.kyliemmason.com
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