You Are the Love of My Life

  • Susan Richards Shreve
  • W.W. Norton
  • 298 pp.

Set in an upscale 1970s suburb of Washington, DC, this novel explores the clashes between secrets, deception and the human need for intimacy.

Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy

When you pick up a novel by Susan Richards Shreve you enter the author’s uniquely familiar world. You can expect it to be set in a residential neighborhood of Washington, D.C., with characters who are intelligent, independent and ever so slightly quirky. There will be secrets and lies, and often the story begins with an accident. Her latest novel, You Are the Love of My Life takes us into the fictional neighborhood of Witchita Hills in 1973, somewhere at the top of Connecticut Avenue.

The story opens with a prologue, when young Lucy Baldwin discovers the body of her father in the family house. We move from this scene to Chapter One, the first sentence of which reminded me of Jane Austen’s writing, for its sharp economy and detail: “The afternoon in February when Lucy Painter was moving from New York City to the house in Washington where her father had died threatened violent storms.” Immediately you are hooked, up to speed on important back story, and can hardly wait to find out what sort of violent emotional storms might be in store for the characters.

In 1973, Lucy is a children’s book writer and illustrator in love with her editor Reuben Frank, a married man and the secret father of her two children. She needs to save money, and what better way to do that than to move from New York City back to the Washington house haunted by her father’s ghost.

Since Lucy’s mother changed their name to Painter following her husband’s suicide, nobody knows it was Lucy’s father who died here. Guarding her secrets with half-truths, she must navigate a neighborhood with a “post-sixties smugness about it — citizens with genuine social conscience in a time of national security, openhearted citizens without judgments, an expectation that the families who lived there had a new moral superiority.” Neighbors leave their doors unlocked and sometimes show up in Lucy’s kitchen unannounced.

“Come over anytime and bring Maggie,” says her neighbor, Zee. “Use the phone. Have a cup of coffee. The door is always open.”

Lucy isn’t ready for these friendly strangers. “They’re just being nice, Mama. Don’t be ungrateful,” her daughter Maggie says. To which Lucy responds, “I am a little ungrateful.”

This line about being “a little ungrateful” was so charmingly unexpected it put me squarely in Lucy’s corner. Like other of Shreve’s protagonists, Lucy is old-fashioned, sexually naïve and eccentric, but she’s also independent, and wants to do things alone. You understand her need to lie, and forgive her for not putting her foot down with Reuben Frank.

But nobody is all one thing, and Lucy also longs for closeness. “She wanted to be close in a way that she felt to the strange little characters she wrote about in her books, to lie in bed after the children had gone to sleep, alone as she often was, and shuffle through the playing cards of people she could call in the morning or ask to come when Maggie had the flu. A best friend. Someone she could tell about her mother and father. About Reuben.” Instead she exists in a vacuum, and Reuben, who owns her secrets, is not just the love of her life but is himself her most closely guarded secret.

The notion that secrets and lies inhibit intimacy is explored with interesting and unpredictable results. At one point Lucy’s neighbor, August, tells her he was “thinking how difference creates a sense of shame and shame leads to deceit.”

Sometimes the novel takes up Zee’s point of view, or that of 11-year-old Maggie who at one point observes that her mother is “not equal to these women, could not compete in the arena of friendship like they did.”

There’s a lot of light and shade in this beautifully paced novel — and some moving observations. Take, for example, the following exchange between Lucy and her neighbor, August, when he asks if the father of her children matters to her:

“I was thinking recently that I loved my wife — I believe I loved my wife but she didn’t matter as much. … I suppose as much as she should have.” Disarmed by August’s curious honesty, Lucy replies:

“He matters. … More than he should.”

But the really disarming character — and hilariously so — is Gabriel Russ, August’s wacky brother. He also lies. He makes things up, embellishing them and then disclosing his falsehoods with such a lack of artifice that in a sense it foreshadows a shift in the emotional landscape of Witchita Hills.

Susan Shreve is a true craftsman. She packs psychological layers very tightly into one sentence, but then slows down to describe, for example, an incidental neighbor. In her details you get a full sense of the whole, demonstrated in the depiction of August’s next- door neighbor, Mrs. Greene, who is “older but very strong, her arms folded across her ample belly, her thick silver hair in a long braid, her face the color of butcher paper and crinkled, her black eyes set close to her nose.”

You Are the Love of My Life is a gem of a book. You will fall in love with these characters as they struggle to balance privacy with disclosure.

Amanda Holmes Duffy is a writer and teacher who lives in Falls Church, Va. Her story “Scorched” was published in the Spring 2012 issue of “Our Stories Literary Magazine.”

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