Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Love She Left Behind.
Patrick, a once-popular playwright, has spent a considerable amount of time and energy shut off from the world at his home in Cornwall. The author of
"Bloody Empire," a sensational 1982 play about the Falklands War, Patrick has immersed himself in the loss of his wife, Sara, who recently died of stomach cancer. When his two step-children, Nigel and Louise, arrive at his ramshackle house, they see a man too distraught and unable to live on his own.
The house itself speaks of long long-term neglect, Louise and Nigel are faced with some hard decisions, unknowingly catapulting themselves into a series of situations that will unravel their mother’s past.
As the days after the funeral unfold, Louise and Nigel move into the family home, intruders into
Patrick's life. He is in denial and also angry at his situation, often giving his
step-children a look that gravitates between the violent and unfathomable. Louise, the mother of
two wayward teenagers, has been having a hard time financially even after spending a considerable amount of time and energy constructing a stable life for herself in Leeds. She’s also plagued by memories of her childhood: of the irritably enforced cleanliness and order, and the recollections of Patrick’s visits to see her with her Mum, visits that did most of the damage to their relationship.
Almost overnight, Nigel is thrust into the situation of family manager and caregiver. Uncomfortable in this ill-fitting new role, he’s tasked with assimilating the contents of the will. Soon before Sara’s death, the ownership of the rights to
"Bloody Empire" were transferred to her. As the squabbles of the estate play out, Louise is the first to become captive to her own insecurities, a predictable reaction to a youth long denied. She talks to a fortune teller, hoping to reconnect with Sara from beyond the grave (“a ridiculous communion with the spirit world that is Pandora’s box left temptingly open”). Nigel hatches a plan, advancing his sister a share of the equity in return for half the house so that it remains entirely his.
Patrick’s inevitable decline is central to the novel, as is Nigel and Louise’s struggle to come to some type of accommodation with a stepfather and a mother who are not the
people they believed they were. There are family secrets, of course, a fault line that develops along the aggravating supremacy of Sara and Patrick that once cleared the space for their marriage. Coe builds an intimate portrait of a mother and a married woman with two children, crucially provoked into abandoning them all by childless bachelor Patrick, who is eventually united with his new young muse by the promise of exploring “carnal delights.”
Woven into the fabric of Patrick’s life is Mia, the pretty young interloper. She’s a graduate student who has come to Cornwall to undertake an internship with the older writer. She becomes obsessed with Patrick’s house, hurriedly deciding to renovate the kitchen, stirred by all the potential amid the ruin. Mia wants desperately to be part of Patrick’s new family and had fully expected to meet Sara. While she’s virtually friendless and unable to forge a comfortable identity with Nigel and Louise, Mia’s blooming affair ends when the door metaphorically swings shut. The step-children, meanwhile, are drawn together and then pulled apart when they cannot communicate their needs to each other. Nigel steadily comes loose from his faltering moorings, fueled by his mother’s distance,
his own sense of displacement, and the memories of growing up under the umbrella of his stepfather’s fame.
Throughout the first part of the book, Coe builds the narrative, drawing us in slowly, revealing the affair with Patrick and Sara. In the form of flashback (Patrick’s hastily scribbled notes), we visit London, plunging into the twenty-something lives of Louise and Nigel. Here we first meet Sara’s exotic new boyfriend: (“the way he looks at me, always, touches me even.”). The pace can be, at times, meandering, but the focus appears to sharpen with Louise’s unearthing of a letter from her mother and also the discovery that Sara was in fact sleeping in a separate bed.
In this quietly liberating domestic drama, Coe develops her story through the internal ruminations of Mia, Nigel and Louise. There is little sense of urgency, and key aspects of the narrative--Sara’s dark secrets and Patrick’s inability to see Mia for who she really is--are left largely unresolved. Still, the novel is a compelling read, particularly relevant for its exploration of love and loss. Through her subtle drama, Coe shows us how lives are inexorably linked and even seemingly insignificant individual actions do not take place inside of a vacuum.