Love Life by Zeruya Shalev

Love Life is a truly beautiful book: beautiful in its turn of phrase, in its intensity and beautiful in the way that people are beautiful – you stare and stare and then suddenly beauty breaks down into individual features and for one terrifying moment beauty is the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen and you can’t look away.

Ya’ara is a young married woman trying to find a place for herself in the world. She is trying to understand her past – what role her dead brother played, how her parents’ relationship turned sour, who her parents are. She is trying to understand her choices and her desires, which are so readily fettered to others’ expectations. She is unhappy in her married life. She is unprepared to work for her university career. She dislikes her parents and her friends. She wanders around hungry for something that will help her change and she finds it in her parents’ old friend, Aryeh. Despite the age difference, despite his painful indifference, she debases herself for him, throwing her life at his feet all in order to discover more about Aryeh and his past with her parents and his past with his dying wife, and his every passing thought and movement in the present. Their relationship is suffocating in a completely opposite way to that of her relationship with her husband and ultimately that is what saves her and leads her love life to force her into loving life. Of course, she is also saved by the pages of an old book.

This love of narrative and the hidden meanings in old stories – much of which I need more time to understand because they are Jewish legends surrounding the fall of the temple – is another reason I loved this book. Truth is hidden in the interpretation of the stories others tell and the stories we tell ourselves. It’s hard to resist quoting the book, so here’s one:
‘This was apparently the root of love, to want to tell someone about every trifle that happened to you, in the hope that on the tortuous path from your mouth to his ear, the story would achieve its meaning, its justification, as if it had all happened simply so that I could tell it to Aryeh when he came to me at night, and not only it but every little thing that had ever happened, that was happening, that would happen in the future, this was their whole point, to tell them to Aryeh, even if Aryeh wasn’t in the least interested.’ (p181-182)

Whilst the description of intelligent Ya’ara being buffeted by the whirlwind of her relations with Aryeh is often extremely unpleasant, it is usually when it strikes some chord of familiarity – ‘I wondered to myself if this was harassment or pleasure’ (p199). There are moments when the dreadful things we sometimes think appear in black and white, unerased from the narrative of her life and they are both pleasing and horrifying because the intensity of her voice is hard to breathe especially when it holds up the dark mirror of mania. Perhaps, what I’m really saying is that, unlike Intuition by Allegra Goodman, Love Life is my kind of book and has an unpalatable quality that fascinates me.

I loved Love Life and would read it again. This is a bestseller you should buy and treasure.

I’m relieved I’ve managed to make the Christmas blog. Next week I’m reading The Last World by Christoph Ransmayr in what will be probably be a cold and windy New Year in Brittany.