The Rocks is a delightful novel. Cleverly, it is built backwards. Its opening chapter, set in 2005, has two of our central characters, Gerald and Lulu, both very old, who were once married much earlier in their lives but who now clearly hate each other quite furiously, randomly encountering one another near a rocky cliff on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, getting into a heated argument, and then suddenly and tragically tumbling off the cliff to their deaths. We then meet Gerald’s adult daughter, Aegina, and Lulu’s adult son, Luc, as they are taking care of the bureaucratic necessities of their respective parents’ untimely deaths, and we learn that there was some romance in the past between these two, just as with their parents, but it’s clear that whatever the thing was between them is over with now. They meet each other here in this opening section as if after a long absence, with a kind of long-ago fondness hanging between them, and it’s sad and beautiful.
And here’s the lovely trick of this novel. As a reader, at this point, one is inclined to root for the romance between Luc and Aegina, to hope that they can rekindle whatever spark there was in the past between them, but Nichols has something else in mind for us. Rather than moving forward in time, the second section of the novel is set in 1995, ten years earlier. Gerald and Lulu are alive, Luc and Aegina are still (already?) not together, and the community on Mallorca that has developed around the lovely hotel, known as the Rocks, that Lulu runs is focusing on preparing for the big to-do of Lulu’s seventieth birthday festivities. And we find ourselves, as readers, anticipating the unfolding-in-reverse adventure before us. We realize that we will be traveling back in time, bit by bit, to eventually see Luc and Aegina together, and further back to see Gerald and Lulu, who hate each other so fiercely now, happy and in love, and even further, how they fell for one another in the first place and what drove them apart.
And Nichols ushers us through it all with great care and craftsmanship. The Rocks is a brilliant novel, all set in the sun-splashed Mediterranean, with a motley cast of wild characters all hanging around the Rocks every summer, and it’s just beautiful. In spite of the backward chronological orientation, Nichols manages to build in ample suspense for the reader with plenty of surprises, such that one sinks into the raw, simple drama of the romances and other narrative subplots while also being pretty frequently astounded at the cleverness of the vehicle in which it’s all packaged. I can’t recommend it enough.