Pearl is a single mother who absolutely adores her young son, Leonard. She has done her best to construct a loving, if unconventional, family around him. One morning she drops Leonard off with Mitch, her next-door neighbor, and never returns. Mitch is unanimously left to pick up the pieces and muddle through, becoming ever more attached to the child
Born of a calamitous past,
Leonard is a child of chaos and murder. When Pearl was thirteen and living in Los Angeles, a white cop picked her up at a bus stop and seduced her after ostensibly offering to give her a lift home. But Pearl confuses his kindly but casual intentions with love and the encounter turns deadly.
Upon discovering he has his own family, she shoots him with his own gun right between the eyes, "where he stood with no pants on." The damage is done, the legacy of that fateful night ceaselessly etched in time. Almost at once, Pearl knows she is pregnant with his child, "I had that baby in me, just of that night, and I knew it."
Time passes, Pearl moves on and Mitch – who makes a lucrative living as a website developer - is left to feed and clothe Leonard and pay for an emergency eye operation to prevent the boy from going blind. Even when Mitch is forced to give Leonard up and he is fostered out to a kindly – but poorer couple – Leonard still views Mitch as his chief unofficial guardian, his dependable mentor and best friend.
Both Mitch and Leonard end up needing each other in special ways. For Leonard, certain things he remembers are permanently engraved in his psyche. He knows that Pearl will always be a part of him, and she constantly comes to him in all kinds of ways, through candle flames, rain and little birds. But as Leonard grows older, Mitch notices he dances weirdly close to the edge of danger – real physical danger. At eighteen he embarks on a kind of spiritual quest. Continually haunted by Pearl's memory, he has a giant tattoo of a cross put on his back and constructs a homemade hang glider to fly off a local cliff, hoping he can transcend the earthbound and connect with his mother.
Meanwhile, Mitch is embroiled in an affair with an older woman, the wife of the
mayor, and spends much of his adult life playing second fiddle to her whims. The relationship with the unobtainable Barb sends a shudder of betrayal below the outwardly easy pursuit of sexual pleasure. Mayor Stoller treats Mitch like his own son, welcoming him into his home and even obtaining profitable Internet contracts for him.
The years pass, Mitch and Leonard grow older, yet they have no idea what has become of Pearl and whether she
is even alive. Both manage to maintain a stoic and united front, becoming ever closer, bound by love, calmly enduring an increasing sense of imminent catastrophe.
Author Catherine Ryan Hyde spins a familial tale of love as a ticking time bomb, in all its various forms and machinations. As the story switches backwards and forwards through the decades, recounting the lives of these three central protagonists, you really get the feeling that these rather lonely and damaged people are just so desperately trying to connect. Pearl and Leonard are perpetually coupled, entwined almost spiritually and his eventual unscrambling of the mystery of her disappearance provides one of the most affecting passages of the novel. Mitch's affair with Barbara is his own unraveling - he has trouble shifting gears, perhaps because he is somewhat set in his ways, but also because age has steadily tempered him.
Love in the Present Tense is all about people who must learn to pull through, become accustomed and even make peace with their irreversible past, and where love, family and commitment arrives in some of the most unexpected places. The novel is just as much about forgiveness as it is the transcendent nature of love. In one instance, Leonard calls this love "forever love," and he's probably right, because when you love somebody so much, no matter what happens, the capacity to love will never ever cease.