The Short Version: Some five years after Darley left Alexandria in the wake of his tumultuous affair with Justine, he returns to the city and his friends to find that everything has changed. While the outline of the city is roughly the same, their mental and emotional landscapes are irrevocably scarred. Eventually, Darley realizes he must leave the city that has so changed his life – but not before more changes smash through every last memory of that glorious time in Alexandria.
The Review: I am exhausted. Emotionally, physically, mentally. The event of reading these four books has been unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. Truly. Without the hyperbole and exaggeration I’m often guilty of using when I talk about something truly wondrous.
See, the thing about this is that it’s not only a wondrous set of novels – it’s that they touched a deeper part of me than most novels ever will. It was a Friday afternoon in early June when a lovely girl told me that these were the most beautiful books she had ever read; her favorites. And that I had to read them. Wanting to impress the girl (and strangely believing her – I often don’t believe the hype at such recommendations as I’ve rarely met a reader as discerning as I [yes I realize how egotistical that sounds]) I raced out and bought Justine. And then ordered this complete edition. And worked through these four books as the summer wore on and I grew closer with this girl and she leaves New York on Thursday afternoon. There’s a reason I held off on these books, wanting to savor them – because savoring them meant savoring this summer. There’s also a reason I’ve been running non-stop for the last 100 hours writing and workshopping a play with no intention of stopping until Friday morning – so I don’t have time to think about saying goodbye.
And that’s what this book is. It is a luxurious goodbye to all of our friends. None of these books save the first can truly stand on their own – I guess Mountolive comes closest – but this book isn’t an addendum like Balthazar. Instead, it is a coda. A standalone piece except that it requires the knowledge of what came before in order to appreciate it fully. Most of our friends are there, but some of them barely recognizable. Justine appears maybe three times, Nessim about the same. Mountolive – who rose so quickly to a starring role – is a background player again. Pombal and Darley and Clea and Balthazar make up the main narrative… but even then, old Scob and Narouz and Pursewarden all pop in (despite being quite deceased).
So too is the city something unrecognizable even though all the parts are there. Time is a goon – it changes everything. The changeover of the island getaway at the end is like the epilogue microcosm of the story – a place stays the same even as it changes entirely and how does one reconcile what we remember of a place to what exists there now? Is something we experienced any less true when remembered? Is our recollection any less true than our companion’s? Do the people and objects make the city – or does the city exist without them, simply coloring their lives and making their scenes play out on a particular stage?
I cried often while reading this novel. Surprisingly often – I’m not much of a crier, though I often get emotional. A passage where Darley returns to the rooms he shared with Melissa… oh my. Everyone who has ever lost someone – whether literally (via death) or emotional (broken hearts) – has felt that way. Where a room that you associated with someone suddenly seems empty of them. It can be crushing – and the way Durrell writes it is so simply and truthfully beautiful that I couldn’t keep it together. The tragedies that befall our dear friends are no less tear-jerking, either. I dare not spoil them – that’d be awful of me.
The end of the book was fascinating to me. Even as I found myself emotional over the ending(s, plural, happening in my life) I found myself buoyed up. It is such a final note without being fatalistic or truly “FINAL” – it is, instead, the way most things end. The people who collect around a certain gravitational well – a person, a place, a thing, a time, a thought – eventually all split off and continue about their merry journeys through life. So, too, do our surviving comrades! Darley leaves Alexandria, knowing he’ll likely never return… and most of his friends do too. They see the place now truly as memory – what Darley had grappled with over the course of the first two novels becomes reality: that you can never ‘go home’ again. Alexandria has served its purpose for these lovers, fighters, friends, enemies. It will remain there for others – but for them, their time has come. But their stories are not over. There is the hint of France, there is the hint of Darley’s new writing – “I felt as if the whole universe had given me a nudge!”
Even as we leave Alexandria for the last time – the only thing left our memories as the sands wash away our presence – our stories go on. Perhaps Darley and Clea will come together again someday. Perhaps they won’t. But no one will ever regret the time they spent – none of them.
Rating: 6 out of 5. For this book and the quartet as a whole. There is nothing else in the world I’ve ever read that even comes close to matching the scope and intellect and emotional warmth of this series. This was the summer I read Durrell. I will never, ever forget it – as long as I live. Like Darley, I’ll write about it… and I’ll wonder about the ramifications for a long time to come… but I’ll never forget it, even after I’ve moved beyond it. I look forward to coming back to the quartet in later days – like an old friend, I expect it’ll embrace me warmly.
Until then, I remain –
your faithful reader –