Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Love She Left Behind.
Falling in love is like a song on the radio. Such is the belief of many a young woman looking for an escape from the detritus of daily life, romance apparently an answer that makes sense. Perhaps that is what Sara believes when she meets playwright Patrick Conway. The mother of two, Nigel and Louise, Sara is swept off her feet by the writer who has taken a fancy to an inconveniently married shop girl, his interest most passionate in the late
'70s through 1983, when she agrees to leave her marriage, embarking on a future with Patrick in Cornwall, England. Nigel
is dispatched to a boy’s school, Louise sent to live with Aunt B. Muse to the author of a famous play, Sara’s infrequent visits to her children are dominated by the man who patiently seduced her to another life.
Thirty-five years later, now-adult Nigel is informed of his mother’s untimely death from cancer, the service in a matter of days. As a lawyer, it seems reasonable for Nigel to handle the details. Hiring a limo, he picks up Louise, who has brought along her unhappy thirteen-year-old daughter, Holly, then Patrick, who was not aware of his wife’s illness until she died. The four endure the ride to the cremation service together, Louise fussing over a carsick daughter, Patrick attempting to smoke despite restrictions, Nigel wondering how they will manage to survive the ceremony. At this point, the nervous, allergy-suffering Nigel is relieved he has left Sophie and their two sons at home. Afterward, the mourners repair to the home Patrick shared with their mother, shocked to find it filthy and in embarrassing disrepair, filled with ancient books, magazines, accumulated dust and long-ignored rooms.
As post-death events evolve with the clashing personalities of an acerbic, alcoholic writer and his step-children and their families, the scenes are much like an English version of Tracy Letts’s
"August: Osage County." The separate agendas and obvious dysfunction increase conflict as days go by, Louise entrenched, at least temporarily, to “sort things out” in the house before leaving. With the unblinking stoicism of the stubborn, Louise shuts her ears to Patrick’s outrage at this intrusion, tiptoeing around his verbal tirades, providing him with plenty to drink as he retires to his office daily “to write.” Resentful that she has not had an opportunity to tell her mother goodbye, Louise is a woman comfortable with chaos and tragedy, Holly frantically texting on her phone while her mother sorts and cleans.
Such is the scene Coe paints of the clumsy grief in a broken family, a complete lack of human connection, sympathy or mutual concern. Though certainly not as vile as the obvious disharmony of Letts’s play, Coe couches the inability to communicate in the ongoing behaviors of her unhappy characters. Patrick becomes the victim of a terrible fate, shouting and complaining, his heart broken and his home infiltrated by strangers. Like Louise, albeit organized and conscientious, Nigel prefers to avoid confrontation, worried about leaving Patrick alone with Louise to tend to his own business. When he returns, there is yet another person in Patrick’s house, an attractive young woman who claims she has come to interview the famous writer. Though she fails ever to clarify her qualifications, Mia serves as a counterpoint: young enough to view family dynamics from an outsider’s perception, hot enough to draw male interest, and selfish enough to create more drama.
Is this a comedy of manners or a tragedy? Hard to say, as is Coe’s intent in writing this inelegant “ship of fools,” none of whom
are particularly sympathetic, all of whom are spectacularly human. (Not hard to imagine one’s own family caught up in the hamster wheel of chaos, with no end in sight.) In the end, the mixture of personalities, expectations and demands creates a house in flux--actually on the verge of collapse--without obvious solution and no answers to the quest of two grown children to finally understand their distant mother’s motivations. Sara leaves family and husband with too little, too late, even Louise’s telephone psychic unable to fill in this blank. Coe understands this territory, does it justice, and leaves us to find our own way home