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.
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.