Grey Areas and Bad Reviews

Like so many other things in life, Sarah Gerard’s novel, True Love is about grey areas.

I read this book for a Fiction Workshop last fall, and I loved it so much that I bought a copy of it, which I finished rereading today. While I wouldn’t say the book has a plot in the traditional sense, it is jam-packed with action as Nina, the narrator and main character, navigates her romantic, sexual, and creative life. One of the many elements I liked about the book is that Gerard does not waste time with flowery introductions, elaborate analogies, and other details that do not advance the story. The first page finds Nina sexting one of her partners (Brian) while talking on the phone to her friend who had her first child at age thirteen. (Odessa) Right away, we know a lot about Nina and her social circle, much more than readers could have gleaned from a description of, say, Nina’s appearance or what she eats for breakfast. The details Gerard includes always reveal something about the characters.

That’s not to say that descriptions of characters’ appearances are always unnecessary, or that elaborate, detailed descriptions have no place in literature; they absolutely do. In fact, in many other literary scenarios, details like the setting, the time period, or the values of a certain area have a huge impact on the writing style. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robison would not be the same at all without the pages and pages of description of Fingerbone and its lake. Nor would the short story “Sorry to Disturb,” by Hilary Mantel even work at all without being set in Saudi Arabia.

In writing and in life, having the proper tools and knowing when to use them is essential. What I love about Nina in True Love is that she is trying so hard to use the limited tools she has, and she fails so frequently. By the end of the novel, Nina has become enmeshed in at least four sexual relationships with at least as many men. She has taken up self-injury, drinking to excess, casual drug use, and is both abusive to and abused by her husband, Aaron. Odessa, her best and seemingly only friend, stops talking to her after a harsh confrontation in which Odessa accuses Nina of having a fundamental lack of empathy. Nina feels she has nowhere to turn, and the novel is largely a slog through increasingly bad and dangerous situations that are at least partly self-inflicted.

What makes the novel so compelling is that (at least, for me) I continue to root for Nina, I continue to hope that she will find happiness, in whatever form it may come to her. While she may not be the traditional “good guy,” that readers love, she is beautifully human in her erring, self-seeking, and bumbling ways. No matter how difficult her situations may be, she never gives up.

The sad reality of Nina’s plight is akin to many of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder. Although the novel’s exposition explains that Nina has had a stint in inpatient treatment, no mention of a diagnosis is ever made, save for “substance use disorder,” which Nina doesn’t identify with. Even though the term “borderline personality disorder,” never once appears in the novel, I am firmly convinced that had Nina gone to a psychologist, that would have been her diagnosis.

That Gerard even wrote this novel is a true example of bravery. Reviews were mixed and opinions varied when it comes to the novel’s vitality. Kirkus Reviews stated,

The problem, both for Nina and the novel, is that nothing she creates out of her experiences treads beyond the well-worn paths of her narcissism, rendering the narrative static and all the characters who are not Nina into indistinguishable props for the performance of her selfhood.

-Kirkus Reviews (2020)

I absolutely disagree that the narrative is static. Rather, Nina has to learn things the hard way. She goes through similar trials over and over because at the current stage of her development, she cannot yet see the patterns in which she has become enmeshed. She confuses oversharing with vulnerability, sex with love, and commitment with entrapment. In other words, she is human.

Recently, my therapist asked me what I think my “message,” is, which is to say, why do I write the things that I do. Aside from the restorative power of journaling and the healing energy of notes-app poetry, when I write things I want to share with the world, I write them because I know there are people out there who feel the same way I do, and they are convinced they’re alone. Just as Nina feels that she’s the only one whose life is so desperately out of control, I spent a very long time feeling sure no one else shared the same experiences, thoughts, and feelings that I had. I write because writing brings connection. I write because the only way out is through.

As the conversation progressed, we talked about the power of speaking one’s personal truth, areas that frequently exist in an in-between or state. Not liking myself has become a staple of my identity. It has become second nature to cut myself down when others build me up, to deny praises and hold onto criticisms. I feared self-confidence because I didn’t think I deserved to feel good about myself. When I ask myself why I’m so scared to be confident, I can’t find an answer.

Recently, after about six months of abstaining, I returned to AA meetings. I went to a handful of meetings last week, one of which convened on the beach. One individual shared that they were struggling with the symptoms of untreated bipolar disorder and were having suicidal thoughts. I rarely share at meetings; even when I was actively involved in a home group, I usually remained silent. This time, though, I chose to speak. In fact, I’ve spoken at every meeting I’ve attended this week.

My faith in a Higher Power is questionable. I do not believe in signs, predestiny, or divine intervention–certainly not in my day-to-day life. From my vantage point in my own life, there is no plot, no Freytag triangle, no beginning-middle-and-end pattern. Just as Nina goes through numerous challenges and setbacks that are simultaneously interconnected and random, I don’t think anyone can see the overarching “plot,” of their life–if there even is one at all. And just like in life, Nina doesn’t get closure, she doesn’t get a redemption arc or a knight in shining armour. The last page of the book has Nina receiving news that her former college classmate has passed away due to a heroin overdose, and sitting with Aaron, who delivers the novel’s last line of dialogue as they watch a woman toting laundry to the laundromat. That’s it. The end.

Needless to say, the first time I read the novel, I was pissed about the ending. I even scheduled a meeting with my professor to ask why she assigned such a book, why I’d been forced to trek through emotional hell with Nina for such an anticlimactic ending.

The importance of the novel, though, is that it stuck with me. Gerard was so talented at crafting a believable story about a narrator who made absolutely horrible life choices and had to suffer the consequences, without making her out to be a victim or a martyr to readers. I’m sure for numerous other readers this was a pointless, torturous novel, which is the beauty of writing: there’s something for everyone.

I never know when I am going to feel inspired, nor do I know when someone else may feel inspired because of me. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, a sort of self-help book for blocked and uninspired creative people, presents God as a “Universal Creator,” a sort of presence, force, or intelligence that runs through our lives like veins of creativity. Cameron basically asserts that the Great Creator’s will for artists, writers, and other creative people is simply for us to create to our highest level of ability. Perhaps God is not on my shoulder telling me what to have for breakfast or to pray for the driver who honked at me when I took too long at the stop sign, but instead is the guiding force that helps me choose kindness when it would be easier to do nothing.

Mishkan T’filah

When the individual at the meeting shared about their suicidal feelings, other participants seemed uneasy and uncomfortable. After the meeting was over, I approached the person and asked them if they were going to be okay. They assured me that they would be. I was stern with them. “Call your sponsor or your counselor before you do anything drastic, alright? Make a list, ‘Everybody Who Would Miss Me.’ Make another list, ‘Things That Make Me Happy.’ Do you have a pet? If I offed myself, my cat would never understand. I want to see you here–alive–next week.” Perhaps my words stuck with that person, or maybe they didn’t. I do know that it gave me peace of mind to have that conversation.

At its core, Nina’s story is a quest for unconditional love, and one of her few redeeming qualities is in the ways she never gives up. What I am finding is that when I can love myself unconditionally, regardless of my GPA, my job, or whether my writing sees the light of day, that sets a foundation for a better life. That doesn’t mean I am done doing emotional work or “working on myself,” in general. Self-love is a choice that has to be made and practiced continually. It allows me to be compassionate with myself, to admit it when I make a mistake without beating myself up for it. Unlike Nina, who can’t go two pages without creating new problems for herself and her cohort, I have found that stability is a valuable quality. Where I once saw only boredom and void, I am discovering potential in stillness, music in silence, and hope in blank pages.

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