What do we talk about when we talk about love? Lott’s novel attempts to answer this question in ways that delight, surprise, and fascinate. Love can enthrall and defeat us, and while we may constantly talk about it with our friends in cafes or with our lovers in the dark, there’s a sense that we never really learn about ourselves until we actually fall “in love.” In this inventive novel, Lott—one of America’s best contemporary writers—casts the most ordinary moments of love as quite extraordinary.
Unfolding her tale in the first person, the author conjures up a story with as much simplicity and depth as a magical spell. Lott relates the professional coming of age of Terry, a mid-thirties photographer who falls in love with older poet Rudolf Rhinehart, who has recently retired from writing. Terry is our eyes and our ears to an evocative universe, the fast-paced intellectual and artistic set of the East Village. Here her thoughts and observations come alive with the seductive rhythm of a fairy tale.
Simmering with frustration that almost sabotages her future as a photographer, Terry has been defined by her once-profound crush on Rhinehart and by the nonchalance and the quirky strength of her roommate, Hallie. She’s devastated when she reads an online obituary that Rhinehart has suddenly died. When she runs into him in Bloomingdale’s, appearing before her like an “otherworldly vision” (and very much alive), the encounter seems providential, tunneling Terry into her memories and to the force of the attraction that she had found so intense all those years ago.
What follows is a romantic and sexual journey that makes Terry redefine the perception of what beauty and desire are and how the senses can well overrule commonsense. At first, Terry revels in her newly discovered romance with Rhinehart. But this, like all other things, loses much of its novelty and fascination when she finds her photography career taking off courtesy of Rinehart’s wife, glamorous Laura, a well-connected denizen of Chelsea’s gallery set.
While Terry feels foolish to think that she can inspire Rhinehart to start writing poetry again, she does everything she can to encourage him on his project to retrace his Ukrainian mother’s letters despite a sinking feeling that the entire purpose of the trip to see these letters will end in failure. Meanwhile, she’s haunted by the notion that her photographic portfolio isn’t strong enough. She finds herself caught between the results of choices she didn’t even know she was making and her own hedonistic desire for fun and stability. What at first seems absorbing and coveted might just be the foolish desire of a headstrong girl.
Using Terry’s experiences to unfold richly ironic observations on contemporary hipster city life, Lott’s languid writing is packed with wonderful metaphors as well as some very sassy and neurotic characters running the gamut from paranoid Hallie, who worries that her Spanish boyfriend is having an affair, to a series of pretentious, gold-digging faux art and literature critics. There are secretive affairs that have sort of a subconscious mutual awareness among many of the characters. Terry’s timidity and her tangled thoughts become a refection of what a mess we can make of our lives, when begun with the purist motives of love and companionship.
In lesser hands, the two major plot twists toward the end of the novel might have come across as trite or overly melodramatic, yet in Lott’s capable hands they feel totally real. The reader is spurred on not to be disappointed once Terry anoints herself with the desire for a new existence. Against a backdrop of West Village’s yellow-walled bistros and cafés, Terry is quite typical of a women at this stage of life where like a beacon, Rhinehart’s older and wiser love holds out new promise for his muse’s elixir-like state of happiness.