This whole post below the book cover image is mildly spoiler-y. So, briefly: Love Anthony concerns two unrelated women and their respective pursuits of personal fulfillment and happy family lives. One has a little boy with autism. There is pain, and some redemption. If those few lines appeal to you, consider reading the book before you read this review.
This is Lisa Genova’s most recent novel, and I have now run out. (Her earlier works are Left Neglected and Still Alice.) This is not my favorite of her novels – that would be Still Alice. But it might be the one I found most thought-provoking.
The story jumps back and forth between the lives of two women who are connected only tenuously for most of the book. First we meet Beth. She lives on Nantucket Island year-round, and has three young daughters and a husband named Jimmy, who we learn even before we meet him is having an affair. She tells him to leave, and he does. For the bulk of the book, one of the central conflicts of Beth’s life is her struggle to deal with his infidelity and decide the future of their marriage and family. And then we meet Olivia. She is newly living year-round on Nantucket, in the cottage that she, her husband David, and her son Anthony have for years used as a summer home or rented out to vacationers. Olivia has recently experienced a series of personal tragedies, and she’s struggling just to hold it together. First, her son has autism, and the knowledge that he would never do all the things she’d imagined him doing – making friends, playing sports, dating, working, moving out of the house – would never happen, is devastating. Next, her son dies. And then her marriage falls apart, in the stress of dealing with Anthony’s autism and Anthony’s death.
Both Beth and Olivia, then, are working to cope with the unfairnesses that life has thrown their way. And here’s a twist: Beth is a writer, something she’d almost forgotten in her years of marriage and motherhood; but when Jimmy leaves, she pulls out her writing materials and begins working on a novel. Olivia is a former editor of self-help books, now working as a photographer (taking beach portraits for all those vacationing families on Nantucket). When the two women meet and discover this synchronicity, Olivia reluctantly agrees to read Beth’s novel when it’s finished. Are you ready for the big play? Beth’s novel is about a little boy named Anthony who has autism.
Beth and Olivia were both well-developed characters with realistic lives and problems. Both experience quite a bit of personal growth. I struggled for a time mid-book, because I didn’t really like either character; Beth was too much a perfectionist, sort of bitchy in her desire for the perfect family portrait in matching outfits, unconcerned with her children’s lives as long as they match and are unstained. And Olivia couldn’t love her son as he was, couldn’t get past her desire for a “perfect” or “normal” child. I was exasperated with both of them. But then they both changed, grew, and if I have had strong feelings about these characters then maybe the author reached her goal. I think there’s been a longer arc in this story than in Genova’s past books, which I loved more unequivocally, but which got me less involved. By the end, both women have changed enough that I liked them better. But they changed by becoming more perfect, which I cannot entirely buy into, so I retain some hesitation.
The friendship Beth shares with a group of women on the island (Jill, Georgia, Courtney, and Petra) is another area where I’m ambivalent. These women are diverse and likeable; but they feel like types more than real people, at least when assembled as a group. And they’re so good! There’s no cattiness, no back-biting. It’s a tight-knit, loving, supportive group, and call me cynical, but *I* have certainly never had a group of girlfriends so awesome; it’s all I can do to find one at a time, at best. They are a lovely part of this story, if they can be believed; but I am not sure they can be believed.
My central concern, however, is in the unscientific nature of the melding and meshing of Beth and Olivia’s lives, and the novel that they share. Beth’s novel turns out to be about Olivia’s son Anthony; the character in the book not only shares Anthony’s name, but his whole world. There is a metaphysical or otherworldly subplot. Is the dead boy Anthony speaking through Beth? I lost my patience here. Lisa Genova writes about hard science, and reliably – she is a neuroscientist by training – and that’s one of my favorite things about her work. So, then, for her to shift into this realm of possibly communing with the dead was jarring for me, and not what I was looking for. I have nothing against a good ghost story, but her work feels to me like it’s aspiring to realism, and I was bothered by the supernatural element. It didn’t fit.
On balance, I really enjoyed Beth’s and Olivia’s stories. Moment to moment, I was totally caught up in their lives and rooting for them. I was fully engaged, and I take my hat off to Genova who took me from not really liking either of her protagonists, to sympathizing fully; there was real growth and development. But when I zoomed out a little, I was unconvinced by and frustrated with several elements of the plot, and the type-casting of certain characters. For my money, her earlier novels were far more persuasive and easier to love wholeheartedly. That said – I am anxious for more. Lisa! Get to work!
As a side note, I found it curious that one of our characters is a woman writing a novel about a boy with autism, because Lisa Genova is of course a real-life woman writing a novel about a boy with autism. I can’t help but wonder how much of that is autobiographical, and I love the journey that line of thinking can take me down. Additionally, Beth’s writing process was fascinating to me, and I expect anyone else who dreams of being an author will feel the same. (I suspect that many avid readers fall into this category.)
Debra Messing, who plays Grace on the tv show Will and Grace, reads this audiobook convincingly, with the shifts, sighs, and varying volumes that represent speech vs. thought; she communicates emotion; a fine job. I recommend the audio version.
Rating: 6 white rocks.
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