Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Love is a Rebellious Bird
by Elayne Klasson
She Writes Press
2019, 978-1-63152-604-6, US $16.95
The title of Elayne Klasson’s engaging debut novel comes from the opera, Carmen. Carmen sings that “Love is a rebellious bird that nobody can tame, and you can call him quite in vain if it suits him not to come. Love stays away…when least expected, there it is.” These lyrics sum up the relationship between Judith and Elliot, co-protagonists in this chronicle of the bond between them, which endures for over half a century.
Judith’s witty, perceptive voice immediately attracts the reader to this novel, which is presented in the second person, addressed to Elliot. Their story begins in the 1950s in a Chicago elementary school, where Judith, a new student, is appalled by a shocking act of cruelty by a teacher. Another fifth-grader, a handsome boy, comes in late from recess with his pant-leg torn and his leg bleeding, after a playground fight with another boy. The teacher tells Elliot that it is no wonder that his mother has landed in a mental hospital again, and that he would make anyone go crazy. As the boy flees the classroom, Judith’s heart goes out to him, and she falls in love with him.
For a year she loves him from afar. Then, in sixth grade, when boyfriend-girlfriend relationships are budding, she beats him in a reading competition and he notices her. He congratulates her, nicknames her “Rocket” because of her reading speed, and walks her home.
“For the rest of our lives,” Judith says, “our relationship was a cocktail mix of rivalry and loyalty, shaken with a strong dose of passion and resentment.”
A few years later when Elliot runs for the presidency of a youth organization, Judith volunteers as his campaign manager and spends some time at his home. His mother, though fragile, is warm and approving of Judith at a time when Judith’s mother is critical of her. While Elliot appreciates Judith’s help, it doesn’t make him love her. Later, when they are summer camp counsellors together, he cuts short his woodland trysts with her because he is primarily interested in impressing the administration.
When Elliot’s mother commits suicide, he needs to talk his way through his pain, and Judith happily becomes his listening ear. Alone together for hours in his room, they eventually act on their urges, but are interrupted at a critical juncture, when Elliot’s father brings in his clean laundry! Several other similar humorous incidents occur, as if Fate doesn’t want them to go all the way.
After high school, when Elliot goes to university in Rhode Island and Judith, for financial reasons, goes to university in Illinois, he changes their relationship from would-be lovers to friends, much to Judith’s disappointment. His letters are friendly and newsy, but not love letters. In the summer, an opportunity for intimacy is lost when he gives her LSD and she has a bad trip.
Why do we chose those who don’t love us back with the same intensity? Why can we not love those who are best for us? These are the central questions of Love is a Rebellious Bird. The author drops a few hints as to why Judith persists in this unequal love. An only child, she may be looking for the deep emotional connection that a sibling can provide. Her solitary situation may make her inclined to love those who are alone and vulnerable, as Elliot was in that fifth grade classroom. Also, since her father is the parent to whom she is closest, she may be hoping to find in a male her own age a similar understanding and appreciation of her essential self.
Judith’s caring nature, revealed in that fifth grade classroom, along with her experience in comforting Elliot, probably led to her social work career. When they reach their twenties, Elliot is no longer the adventurous one, and less in control of their relationship. Judith meets Seth and goes backpacking with him in Europe and Asia, while Elliot is studying law. When she and Seth return to American via New York to visit friends, she contacts Elliot. For once she has plenty of experiences to recount, while Elliot is bogged down, studying for the bar exam and unhappy in his recent marriage. In his apartment, when she finds that he has invited her over on the night his wife works late, she’s offended, and leaves early.
Their paths further diverge when Judith and Seth move to California. Busy with twins and an unfaithful husband, Judith thinks about Elliot, and is always hoping for one of his infrequent letters, always handwritten in blue ink. Seth forgets anniversaries but Elliot always sends a present on her birthday, which is February 14th.
Klasson’s novel has plenty of dramatic tension. Every time Judith and Elliot seem about to have a future as a couple, they are frustrated in yet another original way. A window of opportunity opens when a legal case requires Elliot, now divorced, to visit California every six weeks or so. Judith, a divorced busy single parent and social worker, lives for these “mini-honeymoons”. On one such visit, Elliot tells her he loves her. Unfortunately, he has been having casual sex with his paralegal, a single mother who is has just learned she has cancer. Elliot decides that marrying her is the decent thing to do, so again, Judith becomes merely the supportive friend.
Although both remarry and lose a spouse to cancer, the connection between Elliot and Judith continues, though eventually their reunions become group gatherings that disappoint her. We keep reading because the details of their separate lives are interesting and often funny, and because the author constantly surprises us.
In the last quarter of the novel, we are astonished when Judith, who is only seventy-one and in good physical and mental health, moves from her beautiful Oakland home to a retirement community. Her reasons soon unfold. But does this choice demonstrate that even in old age she can’t quit giving more than she gets?
Readers in the same age range as Judith will understand her decision. Judith recognizes that human connections that last a lifetime through are rare and precious. Even though they may be imperfect, they reinforce our sense of identity. Also, as one ages, one is less and less able to help others. By taking the initiative and making a difference in another person’s life, Judith affirms and continues her life’s work of caring.
It is hard to believe that Love is a Rebellious Bird is Elayne Klasson’s first novel. I hope for a second, a third, and more.
About the reviewer: In her recent novels, Grace in Love (2018) and Votes, Love and War (2019), Ruth Latta explores the quest for a soulmate and the pain of love in wartime. For more information, visit http://ruthlatta.blogspot.com