Recently I reread this book because it was my turn to pick a book for our book club and I selected this one. It had been a while since I read it, however, so I took it up again. I won’t recapitulate the plot here; you can check my original review if you desire.
This time, I didn’t need to race through to find out what would happen next, and could savor the exquisite language the author uses to express both passion and pain. I felt the pain more too, because I was reading more slowly. The characters Ralph, Catherine, and Antonio suffer from a self-loathing that is expressed in unquenchable lust. They feel doomed to lust as if to hell; but love is not and could never be part of the equation. Thus they could look forward only to loneliness and despair for the rest of their lives. They never had lived with love, and had no idea what it could mean; that, for example, simplicity could be a part of it, or that kindness and forgiveness formed part of its intricate lattice.
They understood lust though. They knew its addictive qualities. They knew that, like any drug, it bestowed the bliss of forgetfulness upon the user. They knew there was a sexual frisson in the very act of self-destructiveness it betokened. They knew it could be a poison for others as well, and that it could serve as an instrument of revenge.
Goolrick invokes the poet Walt Whitman in this book to express the desire for death, but he could have also chosen Auden to testify to the mystery of love. “O tell me the truth about love,” Auden pleaded, and indeed, that is what each character is trying to discover. And Auden could also have conveyed what they felt upon love’s loss:
“The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.”
And so the characters want to lose themselves and lose awareness through lust; but they also crave restitution with all of their being. They want restitution for the loss of innocence and of the knowledge of kindness; they want restitution for the deprivation of love. They want restitution for the scars that disfigure them inside and out. And so they rail against love.
“[They]. . . .hurt themselves [and] wreck their own lives and then go on to wreck the lives of those around them, who cannot be helped or assuaged by love or kindness or luck or charm, who forget kindness, the feeling and practice of it, and how it can save even the worst, most misshapen life from despair.”
What ultimately saves Catherine is hearing Ralph’s heartbeat, not literally, but figuratively. Ralph believes, in spite of everything, “that there is a persistence of song.” Catherine finds out the truth about love from Ralph, and it astonishes her.
Evaluation: This is book that will sear you to your very soul with its raw pain and psychological insights, and yet it will do so in gorgeous language and with an innovative and spellbinding plot line. I loved it the first time; I loved it even more the second.
Published by Algonquin Books, 2009