Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love: A Novel
- By Sarah Butler
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Patricia Smith
- October 8, 2013
A multi-layered, poignant debut about fathers and daughters.
Let’s start with the first thing. I’m not a big fan of lists. One bellows from the blazing red cover of this otherwise crisp novel (is one to surmise that the list is the title?), and they spring up at predictable intervals from its pages, right at the opening of each chapter. From what I can tell, each wee inventory — numbered neatly from one to 10 — is meant to serve up additional insight into a character’s mindset, memory or motivation (“Ten Reasons to Hate My Father,” “Ten Things I Own,” “Ten Things I’d Rather Forget”). Perhaps the lists represent an attempt to organize increasingly discordant and anxiety-wrought events into a manageable mindset.
But as I grew progressively peeved by their presence, I couldn’t help thinking of them as teeny to-do lists for Butler, each one appropriately headed “Things I Probably Shouldn’t Forget to Incorporate into the Text of the Book So I Can Do Away with This List.”
This annoyance of a device aside, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love is a tender, multi-layered father/daughter duet. Any rootless, starkly sentimental daddy’s girl will instantly recognize the unrelenting, lifelong search for the comfort of father. And any man who has fathered a girl child will appreciate the frustration inherent in nailing down the shifting definition of “daughter.” The pulse of this book is the sweet, mercurial relationship between a quirky and emotionally unmoored young woman and the man who struggles feverishly to provide the root she craves.
Alice, the protagonist of Ten Things, is a restless traveler — a funky backpacker prone to frequent and far-flung sojourns — who comes home to London from Mongolia because the man she knows as her father is dying. She’s not quite sure why she felt so compelled to stay away until then, or what she’ll find when she returns. She comes home to a shattered long-time love affair with an Indian who refused to introduce her to his family of stiff traditionalists, a commanding sister who’s like a Stepford wife on uppers, and another sister blindly tangled in an affair with a man who just happens to have a wife. Their mother, who died when Alice was young, is a ghostly romantic figure whose death Alice feels somewhat responsible for. No one says more than they need to, and often less than that. The whole situation smells of ice and reticence.
Alice’s last-minute attempt to connect with her father Malcolm, a physician losing his body and spirit to cancer, is less than fulfilling. She was never as close to him as her sisters were. In name and action, he had been and was still her father, but it was as if she had been raised on the other side of a glass wall — everything looked correct, but at a distance she couldn’t overcome. It certainly doesn’t help that most of the stilted and vaguely charged conversations she managed with her sisters ended with them offering up some version of “Remember, he loved you too.”
Alice alternates chapters with Daniel, also restless and roving, a sweet old soul with a jumbled mind and a sui generis approach to translating what surrounds him. Traversing London’s bleak underbelly, he hoards buttons, wads of paper and other radiant throwaway, from which he crafts a tortured and gentle artwork. Soon it becomes evident that he’s a synesthete who sees colors as letters and words, and it’s impossible not to grieve with him as he trudges the city’s alleyways, leaving stark, beautiful and colorful missives for a lost daughter he’s not sure is still alive.
The desperation that fuels Daniel’s search for his daughter, as well as the bone-deep grief he suffered after her mother’s tragic death, are at the root of his tenuous clutch on sanity and present the distinct possibility that he will simply be swallowed by the city. Alice doggedly gathers the subtle and mystifying clues Daniel leaves for his daughter, clues that lead nowhere and everywhere at once.
Yep, it’s easy to see where this is going, but the intrigue is in how it gets there. Alice begins to realize that her feeling of isolation within the family may not be a mistake, and the well-meaning deceits of her father and sisters take on meaning. Daniel knows that his lost-ago daughter is not only alive, but achingly near. His vibrant collages, spelling out her way to him, become more urgent. But Butler never assures us she will tie up that neat little bow, never makes their eventual meeting a certainty. Their twisting, painful paths toward each other, as well as their hearts, are broken time and time again.
It’s hard to enter this story and not think how often our lives intersect — or almost intersect — with someone who holds the key to change in that life. With prose that is tender and engaging and a narrative that refuses to hold still, Sarah Butler shines a new light on that predictable and eternally complex bond between daughters and their fathers.
Patricia Smith’s six books of poetry include Blood Dazzler, a finalist for the National Book Award, and her latest, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, Tin House and in Best American Poetry, Best American Essays and Best American Mystery Stories. She a professor at the College of Staten Island and an instructor in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.