Phantom love syndrome

LOVE INVENTS US by Amy Bloom Picador pounds 15.99

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea