Reviewed by Ruth Latta
by Lorraine Devon Wilke
2015, ISBN 1506176941
California writer Lorraine Devon Wilke presents her new novel, Hysterical Love, from a man’s point of view. Men have been writing from women’s points of view for centuries, not always effectively or convincingly. Entering the heart and mind of a character from a group to which one does not belong is always a challenge and Wilke deserves praise for daring to do it.
For the most part, Dan McDowell, the narrator/protagonist, sounds authentic, though he tends to discuss his emotions a great deal with his gay friend, Bob, and to several women who are happy to listen and provide insight. His age, thirty-three, explains in part why he takes the journey of self-discovery recounted in Hysterical Love:
Something bizarre happens to a man at thirty-three,” he writes, “some particular strain of dread and confusion. Not the whininess of say, twenty-four, or the doom and gloom of forty, but something completely endemic to thirty plus three years… Maybe because Belushi, Alexander the Great, a few rock stars, even Jesus Christ himself, succumbed at that age.
Dan and his fiancee, Jane, an accountant, have been living together for three years in a Los Angeles suburb and are planning their wedding. A moment of truth between them starts Dan on his quest. When Jane asks Dan if he can live up to the vows of exclusivity and fidelity which they will soon exchange, he inadvertently reveals that he had sex a couple of times with his ex-girlfriend, Marci, early on in his relationship with Jane. Shocked, Jane says she can no longer trust him, and kicks him out of the house.
Dan takes refuge with Bob, who lives nearby, and discusses his situation with his sister, Lucy. He is startled by her suggestion that he and Jane were never “soulmates”, a term which has become a cliche, but which is treated in this novel as an important concept.
Lucy reveals that their seventy-two year old father, Jim, had a “soulmate” before he met their mother. In an old accordion file that their mother was throwing out, she found an ancient story he wrote about his romance in the summer of 1965 with one Barbara of Oakland, California. At summer’s end, as he prepared to leave for his first teaching position, he and Barbara shared a dream of marriage and children. In the following months, though, the passion in her letters faded and their correspondence dwindled. Finally, in a phone call, Jim learned that she had married someone else. He concluded that the future he’d imagined with her was “the fantasy of a man whose experience was …limited at that point in his life.”
When Jim is felled by a stroke, he whispers from his hospital bed some incoherent words that sound like “Find Barbara.” Dan, who has always felt inferior to his father, feels compelled to find this mysterious woman, convinced that an understanding of his dad’s first romance will enlighten him about love. Dan doesn’t know Barbara’s last name or address; all he has to go on are some photos of the exterior of her house and her neighbourhood.
Before leaving for Oakland, he tells Jane that if they’d been true soulmates she would never have reacted as she did about Marci. “I’m not convinced we’re in synch…or that there isn’t somebody else out there – for both of us – who’d be a better fit, more authentically the person we’re meant to be with,” he tells her. Is Dan saying that there’s a lover out there whom the two of them can share? Probably not, but tortured syntax, as well as psychobabble, mars the hip, frank style of the writing. Dan is also repetitive; he conveys an idea in one sentence, then rephrases it in the next.
Although we are told that there is no “Hollywood ending where everything gets neatly tied up with a ribbon,” two of the plot threads have predictable outcomes. In Oakland, when Dan meets the beautiful Fiona, proprietor of “Fiona’s Fine Herbs and Curios”, who urges him to explore his artistic side and seems to be his soulmate, we know there will be a catch. We sense, too, that the quest for Barbara will be disappointing – though it brings Dan closer to his dad.
The most interesting part of the novel is Dan’s belated assessment of his career. As a student he wanted to become a great photographer like Ansel Adams. After graduation, he and his classmate, Bob, took any jobs they could get and lived like paupers. For a while they enjoyed success, Bob in fine arts photography and Dan in portraiture. During the time frame of the novel, though, changes in the industry have forced them into wedding and school photography. Thanks to technological developments, “[t]he greater photo-crazed public now considers anyone with an iPhone, an Instagram account and a web page to be an artist, and not a lot is being paid for it.” Dan’s analysis of his employment prospects not only ring true for his field, but applies as well to writers. To this reader, Dan’s economic concerns are more compelling than his romantic ones.
Ruth Latta’s novel, Most of All, is available on Amazon Kindle. For more information about her books, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com