Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review: I Couldn't Love You More

I almost didn't read this book.  Within the first chapter of I Couldn't Love You More, I found myself thinking, "if I review this book and my mother (a pastor's wife) reads it, she will think I'm off my nutter for reading something filled with smut." I can overlook cursing in a book.  I just skim right past it.  But, it is harder for me to stick with a book when it has gratuitous graphic sexual references.  Why do authors feel the need to include such private scenes?  I'm guessing they want to titillate the reader.  I think this book would have been near perfect if the sexual references and sex scenes had been left out.  Now that I've finished, I'm so glad that I stuck with it and overlooked things because the story redeemed my disturbance with the smut.

The back cover promised "a gripping story that doesn't let up," and "an unbearably suspenseful climax."  Once I got to the half-way point of this novel, I couldn't put it down and when I got towards the end, I couldn't stop weeping.  This novel pulls on your heartstrings and carries you into a situation you hope you never find yourself in, but can't tear yourself away from because you are anxious to know how it resolves and hope so desperately that it resolves the way you'd choose.

Eliot Gordon can't quite commit herself to marriage.  She has been living with her divorced partner for five years, but fears that making a vow would mean getting locked into a situation.  She prefers to choose every day to stay with her man, Grant, and thinks that is the best route (especially given that his first marriage ended so badly).  Grant believes the reason she won't commit is because it would mean (emotionally) moving away from her mother and sisters.  The first scene pulls you into the complicated bond these women share.

But she has other sisters to be concerned with, as well.  Eliot is a fiercely loyal mother to both her two step-daughters, Charlotte (age 14) and Gail (age 7) and her own daughter, Hailey (age 4).  Since her step-daughters' own mother can't really be bothered with them, Eliot holds herself up to very high standards for meeting their needs and being a consistent, loving parent.  The title of the novel refers to her feelings towards these step-daughters.

She's doing a fine job of holding her family together, until her first love, Finn Montgomery, reappears in her life.  Not only does he dredge up memories of great joy and great pain, he sucks Eliot into a stupor where she loses her focus on her family.  All it takes is a moment and things can change dramatically.  It is this pivotal moment that propels the rest of the novel into a vortex of pain and self-reflection.

The novel treats so many common human emotions (love for family, love for children - biological and otherwise, conflict brought on by the false allure of something rendered perfect by faulty memory and perception, feelings of abandonment and questions of parental mistakes, etc.).  When Eliot is eventually forced to make a decision between choosing to save her own daughter or one of her step-daughters, things begin to spiral out of control.  Honesty becomes difficult to maintain, but imperative to fight for.

There were so many moments, towards the end, when the writing resonated with me. Speaking of sisters, Eliot says, "It is impossible to tally up all the ways our sisters exasperate us.  Our memories are too long; our grievances go back too far - some back to before we were born.  Sisters hurt each other in ways they would never hurt anyone else; ways that are too painful, too humiliating, to discuss outside the family... Yet ... I will never be able to give my sister even a modicum of what she has given me, but in some ways it doesn't matter.  Love is not a zero-sum game; there is no even-steven.  There are only acts of grace, large and small, through which we reveal who we are."

Of writing, Eliot's mother (an author) says, "My whole life has been spent chasing down that other book, the one that will prove my value as an author, an artist, a human being.  So even though part of me knows no matter how hard I work, that book will never materialize - it can't, because then what? - I still have to go after it ... rather, I can't not....  I would rather be a failed writer than a successful accountant."  And Eliot reflects, "Haven't you read a story that when you're finished feels exactly right?  As though there were no other way it could've unfolded, even if the ending is completely different from how you first envisioned it?  This is because there's encoding in fiction, just as in life; and very often a story will assume its own predetermined form with its own internal logic despite a writer's best efforts to shape it otherwise.  And in life, just as in fiction, we are each the sum total of all the stories that have preceded us, stories that are in us and of us, however unique our DNA."

This book is about powerful bonds of love and the trials that threaten to unravel those bonds.  It is about good parenting and bad parenting.  It is about rising above the things which might pull us down.  It is about self-reflection and second chances.  I can't explain how much this book moved me.  I agonized over how it would end.  I felt invested in these flawed characters.  I wanted the best to come to them, even when they didn't deserve it. 

Indeed, I'm wishing I had read this book earlier in the month, because I would have rallied for this book instead of Where'd You Go, Bernadette as a book club selection.  It holds far more valuable conversational fodder.  It comes with a list of discussion questions at the back, along with an essay of explanation from the author.  I'll have to remember to suggest this next year when we are making our book club suggestions.  It is an excellent book for a book club discussion.  I highly recommend this book, despite some unsavory aspects to the telling.

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