The Conversation by David Brooks
The Conversation captures all of the security, warmth and freedom of a summer’s evening spent in a European city. The story follows a meal shared by two strangers who have met by chance, and the conversation that this situation – in equal parts unique and quotidian – allows.
The sense of the mundane is introduced early, as Stephen, a middle-aged Australian man who works in France, surveys the menus on offer around the Piazza Unita. Sheer coincidence finds him sharing a table with Irena, a younger Italian woman, at the Caffe Cosini.
Instantly comfortable in each other’s company, the two question one another about their family histories and about their own relationships. Irena is having a dilemma about a romance with an older man, and is interested in Stephen’s perspective. She questions him intently about his marriages, affairs, loves and heartbreaks.
In turn, Irena shares with Stephen the details of each of her most significant sexual and romantic encounters. The two discuss what love, desire, lust, sex, passion and devotion mean. The conversation they have is intimate and familiar, with each of them acknowledging the privilege of baring their souls to a stranger they most certainly will never meet again.
Despite the poetry and rich sensuality of the setting, I occasionally felt alienated by the prose in moments when Stephen’s thoughts turned to his own second-guesses and insecurities, and the almost gushing manner with which the bright young woman insisted on hearing more and more about this wise older man’s life and loves. At times the story’s reliance on food for its structure and pace hovered on becoming pretentious.
However, despite these slight discomforts, Brooks retrieves The Conversation from becoming too titillating or too philosophical. He has managed to write a novel that deals with some of our biggest, most unanswerable questions, all the while letting them rest lightly, subtly infused with surprising company and the sharing of a meal.
Amy Vuleta works as a bookseller at Readings St Kilda.