Everything Love Is

  • By Claire King
  • Bloomsbury USA
  • 384 pp.

A mysterious therapist dedicated to helping others wrestles to make sense of his own uncertain origins.

Baptiste Molino lives aboard a houseboat on the Canal du Midi outside Toulouse. The boat is the perfect metaphor for his tenuous life. Baptiste is anchored to his present, yet he seems adrift, floating quietly away from a life that holds him by only the thinnest tethers of habit and duty. In Everything Love Is, Claire King creates a delicate portrait of a man in a quiet crisis of identity and memory, where the love of friends and strangers buoys him, even when the time comes when he can no longer tell the two apart.

A therapist whose practice is devoted to helping others find their happiness, Baptiste prefers to hold his own happiness at arm’s length. He lives alone, his closest friend a waitress at a bar where he is a vicarious participant in the locals’ goings-on, preferring to observe rather than engage. He maintains a sweet flirtation with Sophie, the waitress, but she dotes on him as a favorite niece would, her youth and his somber affect making romance seem unlikely, even ill-advised.

At the core of Baptiste’s loneliness is a longing to connect with his past. He was born in May 1968 aboard a train bound for Toulouse. It was an era of great social unrest in France, and Baptiste’s birth coincided with anti-government demonstrations in Paris that devolved into riots as students clashed with police. But Baptiste was born into a different catastrophe: His mother died moments after his birth.

The midwife who was able to save his life spirits him away. She and her husband adopt the orphaned boy, but no one ever learns the identity of the poor deceased mother who spoke no French and carried with her only a battered old violin. Baptiste doesn’t learn of the circumstances of his birth until he is 12, and the discovery changes him. He pulls in, withdrawing from his parents and, as he grows older, from life and love itself.

It isn’t until a new client appears on the houseboat that Baptiste begins opening to love’s possibilities. The therapist finds himself attracted to the beguiling and mysterious Amandine Rousseau, who probes into his psyche when they meet and steals into his thoughts when they’re apart. The pas-de-deux between therapist and patient may seem inappropriate until the full story within the story becomes clear; the reader’s a-ha moment should also be a nod to the skill of the writer, who tenderly choreographs all the variations of love.

Despite its romantic title, Everything Love Is transcends a happily-ever-after story to become something wistful and ethereal and, in its early pages, somewhat confusing. The narrative switches between Baptiste’s perspective and that of an unidentified character who writes or speaks to Baptiste as a loving guide through the murky waters of memory. But the reader who accepts the opaque shifts in point-of-view and surrenders to the beauty of King’s prose and the delight she takes in her characters will be rewarded as the story knits itself into a solid exploration of the power of the human spirit.  

Less sure is the connection King draws between the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s and the recent riots in Toulouse. The contemporary unrest become a catalyst for change for Sophie, who realizes a greater calling and takes a job on the railway in order to strike when the time comes for civic revolution. It’s a loosely spun subplot that becomes a distraction to the greater story, which is a mystery littered with poignant, heartbreaking clues.

Claire King’s France is endearing and colorful and although entirely modern, enchants the reader with a mystical quality reminiscent of Joann Harris’ Chocolat. With elegant, lucid prose, she sets a tone that lifts the somber events into occasional whimsy. (Her characters’ quiet but affecting give-and-take brings to mind Colm Toibin’s thoughtful and melancholy souls.) And King does a masterful job of puzzling together how the past shapes our hearts and how memories shift as we learn to live with our present.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in January 2017.]

Julie Christine Johnson is author of the novels In Another Life and The Crows of Beara. She is also the author of numerous short stories. Julie currently resides in Port Townsend, WA, where she leads writing workshops, is a freelance fiction editor, and works as cellar master and sommelier at a nearby resort. 

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