The Four Temperaments is a novel about a father and son, both married, who fall in love with the same woman. Middle-aged musician Oscar meets Ginny Valentine because she is a dancer in the ballet, where he plays in the orchestra. His brief affair with the vibrant (if rather shallow) Ginny rocks his long-term marriage to faithful and perceptive Ruth, but things get more complex when Ginny meets Oscar’s son Gabriel. Gabriel’s marriage is rocky, his wife perpetually troubled and maybe mentally ill, and he falls for Ginny even harder than his father did.
The narrative shifts points of view among this troubled quartet as the two ill-fated relationships play out. As the girl at the heart of all this conflict, Ginny is an intriguing character — perhaps because she isn’t all that intriguing. One negative reader’s review I read of this novel said that the reader was never convinced that Ginny was attractive enough to make two men risk their marriages for her. But that worked perfectly for me — because people’s decisions to fall in love aren’t rational and aren’t always obvious to other people. Ginny is sometimes selfish and shallow, or at least short-sighted; her only real passion is her all-consuming passion for ballet, and it’s when she’s alight with that passion that she becomes irresistible both to Oscar and to Gabriel.
The most likeable character, perhaps, is Ruth — maybe because she’s the only innocent victim. It’s easy for Ruth to win the reader’s sympathy. Some sympathy goes, too, to Gabriel’s wife Penelope, who gets a few brief turns as the point-of-view character before she stars in a plot twist that throws the entire story onto an unexpected track.
But while it’s easy to sympathize with wronged wives, McDonough manages to make the straying husbands, and even the hapless girl at the centre of it all, real and relatable characters as well. Setting, too, is vividly rendered in this novel, as life in a professional ballet troupe and life in Manhattan are delineated with countless tiny and believable details, making the whole thing a pleasure to read. If I have a quibble, it’s with the title — having come of age in the era when “four temperaments” personality tests were all the rage, I never really grasped how that concept connected to the novel’s characters. Maybe it was just a little too subtle for me, but trying to puzzle it out didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the story.