Phantom love syndrome

LOVE INVENTS US by Amy Bloom Picador pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
AMY BLOOM makes great claims for the "great and incalculable grace of love", both in her novel's title and its title-quote from Hannah Arendt, who defines love as that which says " `I want you to be' without being able to give any particular reason for such supreme and unsurpassable affirmation." But Love Invents Us, like Amy Bloom's brilliantly excruciating stories in her last book, Come to Me, are all about love's awfulness, its oppressiveness and exploitation, its capacity to hurt. Love invents us? Love destroys us, more like.

Yet Bloom just about makes good her hopeful title without betraying her dysfunctional characters into redemptive mawkishness. She does it with an interesting mixture of raw realism and wry style that isn't quite sentimental, but is poignant and funny, and that makes her worth watching.

Come To Me "did" madness, bereavement, incest, incongruous desires, psychotherapy, terminal illnesses and accidental deaths in a vigorous, jaunty, curious spirit that made the stories alluring rather than repellent. One firm-minded analyst says there of a vanished wife: "She has a narcissistic personality disorder. She simply could not mother. People cannot do what they are not equipped to do." But, luckily, Bloom (herself a psychotherapist) is not so prescriptive as this in her fiction, which is full of people doing what they are not equipped to do.

Elizabeth, who part-narrates Love Invents Us (which moves between "I" and "she") has a difficult time being a daughter, a lover, a woman, or even a person. But she ends up making some sort of part-acceptable narrative out of her life, possibly by giving love rather than looking for it. We first see her (as in one of the Come To Me stories) at 15, a neglected Jewish daughter of high-achieving parents, modelling fur coats in her underwear for the elderly Mr Klein, shoplifting, stealing from the half- blind black lady she looks after (an excellent character), knuckling under to the school bullies and flirting with the English teacher. All because (a bit pat, this) she is searching for attachment and consolation.

These 1970s Long Island schoolgirl scenes, nicely sharp with local detail, shift to a more painful, disturbing register when the teacher, Max, develops a Humbertian sexual obsession with the girl. (We get his feelings, unpleasantly well done, as much as hers.) Elizabeth's later story (a passionate affair with the school's black baseball champ, their enforced separation, her parents' divorce, her mother's death) are all overshadowed by this first emotional exploitation, which seems to stop her from ever getting a life.

"Elizabeth knew that the bad things that had happened to her were no worse than other people's bad things; they were pretty small potatoes, in fact, compared to terminal cancer, death by famine, incest, quadriplegic paralysis. Nevertheless, whatever effort life required ... Elizabeth didn't have it. She was ... not an affront to society. She paid her bills. She didn't smell or piss on other people's lawns. She suffered from the opposite of `phantom limb' syndrome; something essential appeared to be present, but it was not."

When Max is dying, she goes back to nurse him, and finds she has in some way always loved him. This is not a punitive or even a moral narrative, but one which fixes on love's peculiar and perverse unaccountability. In doing so, the novel is too anxious to see Elizabeth's story through, over too many years, when what it really does best is the teenage emotional landscape and the contained, unsequential encounters using up energy "in some small airless place". Bloom's stories work better than this novel: she should keep company with Alice Munro and Flannery O'Connor, and make stories her forte. But for all its stretches and bumps, Love Invents Us stays in the mind. This is a very talented, very upsetting writer.