Obsessive love. It's the subject W. Somerset Maugham wrestled to the ground from the male perspective many decades ago in Of Human Bondage
. In her fourth novel, The Romantic
, Barbara Gowdy explores the female version of this relentless emotion, and she captures as well as Maugham the clawing claustrophobia that such an obsession can taint a life with. It's a state of mind well-suited to Gowdy's strange talent for creating isolated, eccentric characters with disturbing emotional lives. (Who could forget the necrophiliac undertaker's assistant who stars in her short story "Kissed"?)
Gowdy's heroine, Louise Kirk, falls hopelessly in love with her childhood playmate Abel Richter, after--and maybe because of--her mother's sudden decampment from the family when Louise is just nine. On the outskirts of Toronto in the early '60s, Louise and Abel roam a hidden ravine together, examining plants and animals and eventually each other with an odd mixture of lust and idealism. Abel, an adopted boy living with German immigrant parents, suffers the same outsider status Louise feels, and he should be the perfect companion for her, except for his singular notion that one's destiny in life can best be achieved in "complete isolation," which locks her out and drives her mad. He loves her, but in much the same way as he loves the stars and Bach and a wounded baby bat. When she finds herself pregnant, Louise behaves very badly and perhaps sets Abel on the self-destructive path that will end in his early death.
The deliberate flatness of Gowdy's style plays against the subject matter of thwarted passion, usually to good effect, although on occasion it becomes too flat to sustain the reader's interest. But then she will drop in striking metaphors that pull you back. Near the end of his life, when Louise is finally managing to get her feelings of unrequited love under control, she says, "I imagine holding my hand a few inches above a boulder. It's twilight, summer, growing cool. The boulder gives off the heat of the day. My love for Abel is like the heat between the boulder and the falling night. That feeling, or that place." Lovely. --Bronwyn Drainie
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From Publishers Weekly
In her previous novels (The White Bone; Mr. Sandman; etc), Gowdy's imagination blazed new trails, melding bizarre characters into memorable situations. This novel is as beautifully written as its predecessors, but more traditional than the Canadian writer's usual fiction. She examines the mysteries of love and its absence in two damaged children whose adult lives remain shadowed by their early experiences. In the early 1960s in Toronto, when she is 10, narrator Louise Kirk falls in love with a new neighbor boy named Abelard, the adopted son of the Richter family. Louise's mother, a former beauty queen who said things like, "Nobody would believe you're my daughter," abandoned Louise and her passive father a year ago, and Louise prays that the Richters will adopt her, too. Louise has oceans of love to lavish and focuses all her psychic and emotional energy on Abel, who can't bear the weight of it because he is more fragile than she is. She remains obsessed with Abel even after his family moves away, and on the night he briefly reappears, when she is in high school, she conceives his child. But the curious, tender boy she knew has become an alcoholic, taking refuge in Rimbaud and determined to end his life. The narrative moves back and forth in time, spinning out the story of the doomed relationship. Each of the characters, even minor ones, has a unique voice and a vivid, quirky personality. Louise's need to have Abel create the world for her resonates with unfulfilled passion. In reining in her imagination to the limits of a conventional love story, Gowdy has produced her most haunting and sensitive novel to date.
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