Never Letting Go

The other day, Mister Litlove and I were having one of our well-informed, balanced and carefully considered conversations about gender.

Me: You know, this book I’m reading makes me think that women if left to themselves could sort out everything between them. Men just get in the way.

Him: Oh c’mon that’s not true. Studies show that women work well one-to-one but behave appallingly in team situations. You know how a bit of competition will make them attack and undermine each other. That’s why there are no women’s armies. Can you imagine? Nothing but dissent and squabbling and no discipline at all.

Me: Yes but a women’s army would never actually invade another country because there’d always be too many people saying ‘We should think about this from their point of view.’ Men have no trouble invading countries because they just want what they want.

Him: And there are plenty of men who are quite happy to be told what they think. Hence they marry or join the army.

Me: Ha!

So I’ll bet you’re wondering which book provoked this profound philosophical discussion, eh? Well it was one of those books that you pick up, knowing nothing about, and then find to be surprisingly intriguing and different. It’s called The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty and is marketed as chick-lit in the UK, which is a misnomer to my mind as it managed the unusual feat of being both extremely funny and yet quite poignantly serious at the same time. At its heart is a moving and astute exploration of how the ghosts of relationships past haunt us all, even to the point of interfering with our current relationships and our self-esteem. When taken to excess, this trait becomes infected and psychotic, but like all mental imbalances, it begins with feelings that are perfectly common.

Ellen is a hypnotherapist in her mid-thirties, a woman who loves her work and believes in it, despite the amount of grief she has to put up with from sceptical family and friends. But she has a good life, living in a house by the ocean that she inherited from her grandmother and helping her clients overcome their issues and their phobias. Plus, she’s just met a man, Patrick, who might turn out to be significant in her life. When the novel opens, they are in the earliest stages of their relationship, but before they can move forward, Patrick has a startling confession to make. He has a stalker from a previous relationship, Saskia, who follows him everywhere he goes. She is, in fact, in the same restaurant watching on as he makes this confession. As a professional therapist, Ellen finds herself less alarmed by this prospect than perhaps she ought to be. Instead, she realises that she is just deeply curious about what motivates Saskia. Little does she know that she has more opportunity to figure it out than she thinks, as Saskia has been coming to see her regularly under an assumed name for hypnotherapy.

Liane Moriarty takes the brave decision to channel her narrative through the perspectives of both Ellen and Saskia, and to provide her readers with a deeply compassionate view of the stalker’s sickness. She makes us fully aware through Patrick how exhausting and distressing it is to be on the receiving end of an ex-lover’s obsession, but she also shows how frozen grief and impossible mourning combine to create the stalker, a woman who feels she will be entirely obliterated if she is written out of her beloved’s life. As the relationship between Patrick and Ellen progresses, with Ellen falling pregnant and the couple deciding to marry, Saskia’s emotions ricochet between a desperate longing to have her life back, and an inability to accept being replaced. She will have to hit rock bottom before there is any possibility of meaningful change.

Ellen has problems of her own, too. Patrick was married before to his childhood sweetheart, Colleen, whose early death has frozen her in youthful perfection, and he has a son, Jack. Ellen’s calm and well-regulated existence is overturned with the arrival of a stepson and a truckload of pregnancy hormones, not to mention a bad case of the Rebecca-syndrome as Colleen’s memory starts to dog experiences that ought to be unique to her new relationship. As things start to unravel, Ellen cannot help but have sympathy for Saskia, as she knows just what it is to suffer from the presence of a powerful rival. Actually what I really loved about this book is the portrait of Ellen, whose therapeutic know-how has up until now given her a lovely sense of gentle superiority to life’s ordinary troubles, succumbing to the madness of precisely those ordinary troubles. It’s so beautifully done, and, alas, it sort of reminded me of myself. I like to think I have the cognitive capacity to transcend, and repeatedly end up kicking, screaming and whining in times of crisis. It felt quite funny, in fact, when I am normally reading a book with my scalpel handy, to have it read me so astutely instead.

There is something altogether good-natured about this novel, so tenderly amused by the absurdities of our relationships and utterly brilliant about the little struggles for power, the games of vulnerability and defensiveness that characterise them. Moriarty is wonderful on families and friends, hilariously accurate about their little ways, and in this novel they provide a sort of cushion of entertainment onto which the harder truths fall. So, this is ultimately a story about love in all its forms, and one that is easy to read and amusing, but it has much to say, with compassion, about the darker, more torturous recesses of love, too. That probably makes it a woman’s book in the various senses of the phrase, bearing in mind the searing insights Mister Litlove and I had, as the stalker is not seen as a hostile invading force, but someone whose point of view we can and should consider. But never say that a funny book can’t be a profound one. This is very much an intelligent comfort read.

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26 thoughts on “Never Letting Go

  1. Thanks for another fine review, one which leaves me adding yet another book to my want-find-list. Mr. Litlov needs to read Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North to learn about what an women’s army is like.

  2. I love the conversations you and Mr. Litlove have and in this case, the resulting “searing insights!” When men write stories about women stalkers they end up like the movie Fatal Attraction. When women write stories about women stalkers there seems to be a bit more understanding and sympathy regarding the whole stalking thing. It is an interesting contrast.

    • That’s it! It’s the Fatal Attraction Mindset, which I’m sure is a subset of the common male belief that Women with Emotions are Dangerous. Honestly! Both husband and son have told me before that they find me scary if I have an emotion. And I’m like, oh come on, I’m on the fluffy end of the scale here! If I had my way, emotion would be a subject in school…. I’m sure that’s another conversation to have with the menfolk at some point! ;)

    • Most of the time we say things like, ‘have you put the bins out?’ and ‘we need more milk’. But occasionally we rise about the domestic! ;) I’d love to know what you think of this book if you get hold of it.

  3. I loved this line: “It felt quite funny, in fact, when I am normally reading a book with my scalpel handy, to have it read me so astutely instead.” Your review makes me interested in this book – especially because it uses different voices, different points-of-view. By the way, I am realizing recently that when I have strong feelings about what a character in a novel SHOULD do, if I turn that advice to myself, I find out what I should be doing!!! It sounds like this book, for some reason, was resonating loudly within you. Thanks for the funny vision of your conversation with Mr. Litlove.

    • Beth, I love it when an author inhabits a point of view that normally illicits a very stock, conventional, negative response, and shows how much more there is to it in the light of compassion and understanding. I appreciate that very much. It’s very interesting what you say about projections in reading; I think that sometimes, when we react badly to a character, it’s because they are NOT doing something that we force ourselves to do out of a hard-won sense of what is right and wrong. I do think that the identifications we make and don’t make are a source of great fascination!

  4. I’m very keen on reading this. I wonder if I will like it as much as you. I had to go to court with a stalker, so empathy for stalkers is not something I will ever offer. Never. There is no excuse for it. No amount of grief, loss whatever makes it OK to traumatize other people. Still I’m curious to see how she writes about the topic. And I suppose, given the stalker is a woman, it might be more obsessive than obsessive and dangerous like what I went through.
    In any case, thanks for a great review and for introducing the book.

    • Hmm, well I’m not absolutely sure that this is really the book for you, although the stalker in this novel is not at all aggressive or dangerous, just very persistent. But even so, I would think that an experience like that would be highly influential on anything you read on the same subject. And I’m so sorry you had to go through it – how horrible that must have been! Poor you! I do hope it’s very much in the past now.

  5. It’s a pity this is marketed as chicklit as that does turn some readers off, when this sounds like it’s so much more than your standard entertainment. I’ve never read a book that takes in the perspective of the stalker–but I like the idea since it’s so unusual. I always love how you get in underneath the surface of books and look at what’s really going on–very interesting as always. And you and Mr Litlove have the most interesting conversations–I think you both must have very good senses of humor indeed! :)

    • Lol! I can hear in my head Mister Litlove’s voice saying that to live with me he absolutely HAS to have a sense of humour! :) But I completely agree that it’s a shame so many books have to be shoehorned into the chick-lit category. I really wonder whether that label puts off more readers than it attracts these days! I did enjoy this – it was Clare Chambers-funny, and I know you’ll know what I mean by that!

      • Now that you compare her to Clare Chambers you’ve sold me! I saw this at the library when I was there last week. I had it in my hand and then thought of the towering pile I have at home already and decided to put it back. Now I wish I had followed my instincts and checked it out. I was surprised it was there since I was thinking it might not yet even be published here. Fingers crossed it will be there next time I drop by the library!

  6. Wow, this sounds like such a chicks’ book ;-) I’m off to read some good, emotionally sterile macho-lit now. Maybe something about killing lots of animals.

    Anyway, to be serious for a moment: just read another book blogger musing on gender http://wormhole.carnelianvalley.com/on-the-gender-of-authors-and-their-characters/. I do think there’s a difference, and have noticed that I read more books by male than female authors, but think it’s a shame when a book gets pigeon-holed unfairly. Most books can appeal to both genders.

    • Yes, interesting post. I think that like most things, there’s a sliding scale here. I know I read about 50/50 when it comes to gender, although it’ll swing back and forth a bit depending on the year. But I’m not sure I always like these restrictive marketing categories dominating the first impression of a book. I feel sure you would not be happy to have your own novels marketed as something only other men would enjoy. Well, unless you do go all Hemingway on us and take to writing about those animal killing sprees. ;)

      • It’s true – the marketing categories are deadening to a book, and often they inform the whole way it’s presented. I’ve sometimes avoided a book because of a cover that suggests it’s not really aimed at me, only to try it later and enjoy it. For my own book, the subject matter would suggest it’s for a target audience of young British men, but I’ve had people from all ages and genders and nationalities telling me they liked it (and probably quite a few young British men hated it too, though they were kind enough not to tell me!). The phrase “target demographic” sends chills down my spine!

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  8. I liked this review so very much that I bought the book, and am now about five chapters into it. It is such an elegantly easy read, the literary equivalent of a cup of really good tea and a nice piece of cake, right when your blood sugar has dropped to the point where you’re cranky, and you really need a break. I also quite like the color of the dustjacket, even though it does identify it beyond any hope of concealment as a girly book. But that’s all right; I like girly things sometimes.

    • David, you always have the perfect words of description, that’s a wonderful way to put it. And I think you must have the best bridge brain of any male I know. We girls welcome you into our group hug with outstretched arms!

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