A book review by Allie Smith
Ella Flynn has enough problems, but after an encounter the writer Hunter Alderman, her life gets even messier. Hunter’s a screenwriter who has produced a few high profile flops. He’s desperately looking for an idea to save his reputation and career. While traveling through southern coastal towns, Hunter’s been “interviewing” women in the hopes that someone will share a love story that’ll finally spark a creative impulse. Hunter spots the beautiful Ella at an outdoor café and approaches her under false pretenses – claiming he’s a writer working on a book about the history of small southern towns.
Ella has doesn’t have a great love story. She’s had her heart broken and is in no mood to make nice with a stranger. But with charm and persistence, Hunter manages to get Ella to open up. Or does she? Without meaning to, Ella spins a tale that’s so wild and far from the reality of her life that it’s preposterous. Every time she meets Hunter, she swears she’s going to come clean, but Ella cannot seem to stop telling lies. Complicating the situation is that she’s having fun with Hunter. She gets to be a different Ella, one who’s mysterious, confident, and adventurous. Hunter is so intrigued by her story that he decides to use it, unbeknownst to Ella. Remember, she believes he’s writing a history book. But she’s getting a taste of her own medicine, because not only is Hunter lying about his book, but also his name – and he’s about to sell her story to Hollywood!
I have a dozen authors whose work I read faithfully. It doesn’t even matter what the book is about, if they wrote, I’m going to read it. Henry is one of those authors. To the best of my recollection, all of Henry’s novels are set in the south – and the author is expert at setting the scene. The settings in her novels usually take on a life of their own. You can see it, smell it, feel it. Don’t believe me? Read this:
The restaurant grew busy around them. Every table was full. Couples holding hands and oblivious to the outside world; young moms in workout clothes with their babies in fancy strollers; a white-haired man alone with coffee and a newspaper. On the tables, small Mason jars were full of gerbera daisies, Queen Anne’s lace, poppies, and wildflowers. Blake absorbed the scene. It felt like a movie scene to him, something that needed to be saved. The air was almost liked washed linen blowing across his face. The sunlight flittered through the branches, moss and leaves, patterns created on faces and sidewalks. He sat still, and absorbed the moment.
Hunter and Ella are characters who are struggling with grief, infidelity, regrets, and the professional failures and frustrations that plague many of us in mid-life. And yet, there’s a resilience in both of them that hints at optimism. Both Hunter and Ella are wounded, some of it self-inflicted, but they’re still fighting to make their lives better. I also like the dynamic between them – Hunter became more humble and grounded, and Ella came alive. The dialogue between the two crackles and the added tension of lying fuels their chemistry, which I realize is a bit absurd. They’re both playing roles – roles they were clearly born to play. Through lying, they discover their true selves, and in doing so begin to recover from their wounds.
There are many interesting characters in this story, especially Ella’s friend Mimi. But for me, it was all about Ella and Hunter. As with other Henry novels, the characters have intriguing professions (he’s a screenwriter and she’s a wedding dress designer), which are fun to read about. The plot may seem convoluted at first, but it’s cleverly executed and seamless woven into the story. With the lies and character aliases, I hope I’ve justly described it without giving too much away. As the title of the book implies, this is a love story, but from the perspectives of people who have different beliefs about what love is. Is love an idea or something more substantial?
One of the reasons why I love to read this author’s work is that I feel like she gets me. Henry can take an abstract thought and succinctly described it and/or put into a character dialogue in a manner that causes me to gasp with clarity and say, “Yes!” Yes – I get it, I sometimes have those same thoughts!
“Listen Ella, I don’t know a lot, but I know this, everything changes and you can’t stop it. There is nothing, not one thing in the world, you can do to stop turning another day older every day. But there is a bonus, and it’s this: I’ve learned to live with my gap. I wouldn’t trade all those years of looking prettier for what I know how to do now.”
“The hole. You know. The thing no one talks about. The missing piece inside. The spot inside you’re always trying to fill. It has its purpose. It makes us search for love, for meaning, for something larger than ourselves. But the emptiness also makes us stuff silly things inside.”
Mimi washed her hand through the air. “I know it sounds nutty. I bet a smarter person could explain it better. A psychology book perhaps. I just call it a gap. Every time you try to put something in there, it just falls out the other open side. You can’t keep anything. Nothing stays. It’s all temporary. And when you realize that” –she took a breath as if she had been running while talking – “it’s all just a little bit better. You can enjoy everything in a different way.”
Seriously, how did she do that? Beautiful!
I really loved reading this book. Recently I’ve read a few really heavy and depressing novels, so escaping into the lives of Hunter and Ella was refreshing. This is not necessarily a light read, because there’s certainly some heavy stuff, but I had fun. It’s smartly written and caused me to contemplate the meaning of love and I think you will too.
Please sure to click here, to read my interview with Patti Callahan Henry.