‘This Too Shall Pass,’ by Milena Busquets
By Sharon Marcus – June 1, 2016
The New York Times
THIS TOO SHALL PASS
By Milena Busquets
Translated by Valerie Miles
169 pp. Hogarth. $24.
If you like your genres mixed, you may well enjoy Milena Busquets’s melancholy comedy “This Too Shall Pass.” Sex and death, past and present, philosophy and farce collide in this short novel set in Cadaqués, a beach town in Spain.
The book opens with Blanca, our narrator, attending her mother’s funeral. Soon after, Blanca decides to spend a summer week at her mother’s seaside house, where she juggles lovers old and new, two female friends, her own two sons and sundry acquaintances. Not much happens: Dinners get cooked, boats are sailed, quarrels flare, sex sizzles and disappoints.
The real action lies in Blanca’s recollections of her mother’s mostly happy life and painful last months suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Busquets captures how, in the immediate aftermath of a parent’s death, joyful memories can burden more than they console. Past contentment offers a mocking contrast to a present heavy with loss. To offset her mother’s absence, Blanca often addresses her directly: “Since your death, the only thing that alleviates me is physical contact, however fleeting or casual or light.” In these moments, language offers some solace by conjuring the dead and making the past present.
Blanca attempts to cure grief with sex. She has recently turned 40, and her mother’s death has sharpened her awareness that her own youth is nearing its end. Sex and death have long been major literary and philosophical themes: Freud famously posited Eros and Thanatos as the two fundamental human drives; Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir and Meghan O’Rourke have all written books about daughters mourning mothers; Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” features a woman who, like Blanca, drowns her pain in sexual adventures. Busquets’s clearest influence, however, is Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice.” Like Gustav von Aschenbach, Blanca pursues an elusive, beautiful stranger, only to encounter an entirely different vision at tale’s end.
Throughout “This Too Shall Pass,” Blanca offers aphorisms like “Only true love can end pain.” On the one hand, these abstract statements belie her frequent claims to be driven by impulse and appetite. On the other, they give the book a heady, intellectual air, adding a twist of Alain de Botton to the novel’s effervescent blend of Erica Jong and Pedro Almodóvar.
Busquets is at her most vivid when describing settings — a hilly beach town on the Mediterranean and Blanca’s Barcelona loft, which hangs “between trees, smelling of currants and roses, butter cookies, wood and pepper and moss.” Her characters, however, are less fully realized. We are told that Blanca’s friend “turns everything into the frivolous and festive,” but the main evidence for that comes from descriptions of her offbeat hats and dresses, not from anything specific she says or does. The prose is most alive when Blanca describes attractive men, but here again she often reduces these men to muscular legs, strong hands, tousled hair and plump, “kiss-me lips.”
Weightier than a sex farce but slighter than a novel of ideas, “This Too Shall Pass” is more of a thinking person’s summer book than a female “Death in Venice.” Yet, like a day at the beach — a European beach, with cigarettes and espresso — this novel lingers in the mind well after it is over, reminding us of the intimacy between pleasure and loss.