It’s interesting to read a book that purports to be a romance, which then proceeds to question the very definition of love; of its endurance, its permanence, and it’s expression. A book called “Love Story” should be a romance — this book by Liane Moriarty, however, is anything but.
The story sounds simple enough; half thriller, half romance. A woman whose day-job is a strange mix of hypnotist and psychologist meets a man and falls in love. Unfortunately, his ex is still in love with him and stalks him. And the twist? The ex is also one of the hypnotists clients. The first half of the book reads like a strangely written thriller — the reader learns from the first paragraph that the stalker-ex is one of the hypnotists clients, and small clues are spilled throughout the next hundred pages as the reader tries to guess the stalker’s identity. It’s fun, it’s campy, and it’s surprisingly suspenseful, particularly given that this is the most benign stalker of all time — the worst action she takes is breaking and entering the hypnotists house to bake cookies. Not even poisonous cookies — actually, quite delicious cookies, which our heroine, the hypnotists, eats to destress.
There’s an abrupt tonal shift about one third through, however, as we’re introduced to secondary and tertiary characters, and as the stalker’s identity is revealed. The story turns infinitely more thematic, tracing the relationships between the characters, resolving into three separate categories; the love of a mother for a child; the romantic love between a man and woman; and finally female friendships. These three categories are drawn out through the three, foil, female characters of the novel: the hypnotist, the stalker, and a dead ex-wife.
Mother for Child
Each of the three main characters (and yes, I’m including the deceased wife, Colleen, who never actually appears in the novel, outside of depictions in photographs and passing mention). We meet Colleen’s mother, who still grieves her daughter’s death. Their relationship was clearly strong, foundational, but ordinary for all of that. They visited once a month and talked on the phone. The love is unquestionable, but it’s also quite ordinary. Then there’s Colleen’s love for her son, Jack. Colleen died while Jack was still very young, but it’s clear that her love was strong, possessive, enduring — but for all of that, quite ordinary. Colleen, as it turns out, is the everyman in this love story, a kind of gauge by which to view the other women.
Then there’s our hypnotist, Ellen. Her relationship with her mother is far, far different. Her mother decided to have a child, though she was not married (nor looking to marry). She carefully selected Ellen’s father by looking at salient and important characteristics, and then seduced him, became pregnant, and became a mother. She raised Ellen in a strange, commune with her two best friends — for all that she deeply loved Ellen, she was still distant, consumed by work, professional ambitious. We learn by the end of the novel that her love is no less intense for its strangeness, but throughout the book she is portrayed as a cold woman, not given to hugs or optimistic support of her daughter. Ellen’s love for her own daughter is similarly intense, leading her to an understanding of her mother’s distance — not an incapacity for love, but a kind of defense against it.
And finally there’s our stalker, who passionately loved her mother and was passionately loved in return. We learn little of this relationship , outside of its intensity, and Saskia’s immense depression and descent when her mother dies. And then we learn of Saskia’s relationship with Jack, who becomes a pseudo-mother to him when Colleen died. She raised him for almost three years, from toddlerhood. When she and Patrick break up, her torn bond with Jack causes her the most pain. She stands in marked contrast to Ellen, who loves Jack, but without the passion accorded to her own daughter. Saskia, on the other hand, doesn’t differentiate based on blood – for years she continues to watch over Jack, visiting his soccer games, observing that he’s properly dressed for the weather, etc. etc. ad nauseum.
Female friendships also play a strong role throughout the book. Here, however, is the one area where we receive no view from Colleen, who as far as the reader can tell has no female friendships (at least none that have endured past her death — which, fair enough). Ellen’s mother, Anne, however, has such a strong friendship with her two best girlfriends that not only have they lived together for more than thirty years, but also joined in raising Ellen.
Ellen, herself, has a strong mainstay of friends — two female friends serve as the foils in this case – one childless and brittle, but feisty, the other a more caring, patient, compassionate mother. Ellen plays them off against one another — when she wants shared commiseration she calls the childless friends; when she wants someone to rejoice over her good fortune she calls the mother. Both of them help Ellen to confront herself when she isn’t being fair or temperate. One of the strongest scenes in the book involves these three women all talking together at dinner — a time when Ellen is being unreasonable, and her two best friends bond over this.
Saskia begins the book without friends — she is singularly focused on her dissolved relationships with Patrick and Jack. By the end, however, she, too, has gained a pair of close girlfriends. Like Ellen’s, they serve as a grounding support system — there’s something more real and sincere about these female relationships than there is with the various males in the book.
And finally, there’s romance — and all three women share the same romantic interest in Patrick, an incredibly normal, relatively good-looking, suburban surveyer. First there’s Colleen’s love for him, which Moriarty initially paints as an idyllic, almost unrealistic love story. She’s blond and attractive, he’s always smiling, they never fight, they’re always happy. Later we learn that it’s a youthful love, and a young love, but one that was never able to mature or grow.
Saskia’s love for Patrick is all-consuming. She is literally incapable of letting him go, stalking him for years later. There’s a point when Ellen herself notes that she has neve loved Patrick as much as Saskia — when she thinks that she isn’t capable of it, in fact.
A number of other themes intertwine throughout the book — an exploration of the bizarre relationship between a stalker and a victim, questions about the ethics of hypnosis, and the ever popular exploration of perspective. In the end, though, the story is, at its heart, a love story — it just isn’t the love story that’s most expected.