The Romantic

by Barbara Gowdy
371 pages,
ISBN: 0002005050

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Love Unto Sickness ¨ Subverting Romance
by Linda Morra

Barbara Gowdy is apparently captivated by humans who fall, literally and metaphorically, as demonstrated in the opening sequences of two previous books: in "Resurrection" of Fallen Angels (1989), Jim's wife loses her balance on the roof of their house and plummets to her death, prefiguring at least one other fatality and resonating figuratively throughout the work; and in Mister Sandman (1995), Joan Canary tumbles "head-first onto the floor" at her birth, causing brain damage that (paradoxically) engenders extraordinary intelligence and talent. In her new novel, The Romantic, Gowdy initially seems to be exploring the psychological effects of falling in love. As Louise Kirk, the protagonist of the novel, repeatedly declares about herself, "I am sick with love."
Barbara Gowdy
Barbara Gowdy

There are a number of other fascinating links between this novel and Gowdy's other works of fiction: among these, Louise's name and character, which is reminiscent of the outrageously cynical and willful Lou from Fallen Angels; her (and her former employer's) preoccupation with encyclopedias, which recalls Al Yonker's similar interest in Mister Sandman; the lack of a strong maternal presence and the mysterious history of Louise's mother, who, in this capacity, is reminiscent of the mother figure in Fallen Angels; and generally, the pervasive image of, or belief in, the presence of angels. Also somewhat characteristically, Gowdy begins this novel with the culmination of narrative events on the first page¨the self-destructive death of Abel Richter, Louise's love object. Only a skilled writer is able to disclose the book's concluding events and yet continue to maintain a reader's interest: Gowdy excels not only at telling what happens, but also how and why it does so.
Fortunately, this strength¨the ability to tell a good story¨counterbalances the relentless almost cloying narrative voice of Louise. Uncharacteristically written from the first-person perspective, that is, entirely from Louise's point of view, the novel might have been better with third-person narrator, which would have provided at least this reader with a little more distance. Instead, one is obliged to spend time with a woman who is by turns cynical and plaintive, and, moreover, consistently obsessive about her relationship with Abel. If, at moments, she believes that she is "looking through [Abel's] eyes" out at the world, she is also demonstrating what the world is like for a young woman who desperately wants to be loved. This all-consuming desire is partly the result of being abandoned by her mother at a young age, who, even as her daughter grows, never makes an attempt to become acquainted with her. Louise's purposeful efforts, as a child, to memorize jokes to please her mother sets the novel's pattern: for the duration of the novel, she takes on a variety of roles, almost invariably assuming them because she hopes she will persuade someone to love her. In particular, she plays the "orphan" for Mrs. Greta Richter, Abel's mother, even following her to the church where Louise believes she will be singing in a choir so that she might display the physical manifestations of her utter destitution¨she wears clothes she has deliberately ruined¨and earn Mrs. Richter's sympathy and affection.
One thus appreciates why, in her search for a maternal presence, she eventually transfers her affections from Mrs. Richter to her son, Abel, to whom Louise declares, "You can't love me enough. I'm a bottomless pit." For Louise, it is not beauty that is in the eye of the beholder, it is almost her very existence: without Abel's affection, "everything turned drab" and she "had nothing." An intriguing inversion of the courtly love tradition, with a woman, instead of an aristocratic, courtly male professing adoration, Louise describes the various ways and reasons why she loves Abel as she narrates the trials she experiences to gain his favour. To this end, she takes it upon herself to feign interest in whatever he takes an interest, travels to Vancouver when she discovers she is pregnant with their child, and endures an abortion on her own. As evidence of her loyalty and fidelity to Abel, she even hurls a rock at and wounds Jerry Kochonowski, one of Abel's detractors and tormentors. Like most courtly lovers, she suffers when her emotional overtures are unrequited or not reciprocated in the way she would like. Conversely, Abel is the passive recipient of Louise's adoration and attentions and, in the process, is exalted beyond realistic proportions and human possibility, even when he is seemingly disloyal. He is obliged to assume responsibility for her emotions, to "take [her] love with [him]" when he dies, until he insists, "I'm not taking anything. I'm travelling light."
Louise's tendencies gesture toward the irony governing the book: her sense of love is neither ennobling nor "the grand passion" one might expect of a romantic tale. Gowdy is thus subverting the conventions and stereotypical notions associated with that tradition. Those led by the book's title to believe that it will render the good feeling of a contemporary popular romance ought to look elsewhere¨instead, one might be prepared for the moping, hand-wringing, woe-begotten cries of a woman who is also immature, narcissistic, and selfish. Louise not only fails to recognize those persons who offer her genuine love and affection, she treats them in the most appallingly callous manner: she does not grasp how she might injure her father, whom she plans to leave (much like her mother) so that she might be "adopted" by Mrs. Richter, and instead envisions him in "the role of the friendly neighbour who is welcome to drop by"; she is dismissive of her high school friend, Alice Keystone, who is most supportive when Louise is in dire need; and she shows little appreciation for Troy Warren, the real lover of the novel who, upon discovering Louise's infidelity, asserts, "[Y]ou are free. I release you."
Louise's narrow sense of vision allows her to see only Abel; she will only be satisfied with his love. Her attempts to read his gestures as conventionally "romantic" are almost pitiable, especially her interpretation of the poem he sends by Arthur Rimbaud, "The Romantic" (which Gowdy weaves in complex fashion throughout the novel). The poem's "unlucky star", which Abel re-writes as "the lucky star", is thus re-interpreted again by Louise to read as "his lucky star." That she refuses to construe his actions and responses in any other light, a tendency that does not alter until late adulthood, suggests how much time it takes for her to mature: too much.
The allusion to Abelard and Eloise, the two celebrated lovers who were obliged to forfeit sexual intimacy and carry (or restrict) their relationship to a spiritual plane, is thus also ironic¨the relationship between Abel and Louise is no grand passion. Instead, he is an alcoholic and failed artist (recalling, perhaps deliberately, Sinclair Ross's Philip Bentley in As for Me and My House¨there is even a Mrs. Bently in the novel). More like the biblical Abel, the child born to Adam and Eve who pleased God by his quiet obedience and deference, he apparently looks for the good in everything and everyone; and, by contrast, Louise, like Cain, allows him "to take the high road" of virtue while she wanders about and expresses all the rage and frustration¨emotional, sexual, and so forth¨that comes with having her attentions repeatedly rebuffed.
Yet there is a limit to how much one is willing to tolerate in a character like Louise (or, for that matter, in the courtly love poetry of such writers as Thomas Wyatt), notwithstanding the poignancy of her situation: as most have experienced at some point, she suffers from the desire to be loved by someone whom she adores. At a crucial moment in the book, her search for her mother¨whose name is, significantly, Grace¨instead of Abel, suggests that, at some level, she needs to be absolved of the responsibility of her mother's abandonment for which she feels (unreasonably) guilty. Louise, like Abel, needs to learn self-love, that she is "worthy of [her] own life." Until she does, she can only know "romance" and not genuine love. Perhaps that is Gowdy's point¨her novel is a critique of "romance", a narcisstic, obsessive pursuit that leads nowhere. ˛

Linda Morra is Postdoctoral Fellow affiliated with the University of British Columbia, where she is a teacher and researcher.

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