Both question and answer come right away at the beginning of this novel -What is the measure of love? We come to appreciate both love and the one we love when it is gone. And the best way to exorcise these demons is to write about it -in detailed, microscopic thoroughness about the story, the outcome, the turmoil and the redemption. Actually the book leaves an open ending so you could pick a side or choose a battle: give the love story a second chance or help the two protagonists come to terms with themselves and move on.
As she once confessed, Jeanette Winterson is in love with language above all. The story, the plot, the narrative are merely a pretext to play with words and ignite a striking imagery of the feelings, emotions, thoughts and gestures. I believe she is more infatuated with words and their mechanics rather than a person, with the way words shine upon the loved one and spins around the story to become an immortal one. This woman is drunk on love as it paints itself in and out of the words. Her character falls in love with a married woman, Louise, breaks the heart of another, then leaves the red-haired spouse because she has cancer and Elgin, her husband, seems to hold the right key and answers to curing her. So far, this sounds terribly romantic but we often end up doing the wrong things in the name of love. Louise is left heart-broken once the main character flees the grounds and exiles herself into a place of coldness. In the middle of nowhere, she bleeds love through her pores and turns her heart inside out in search for answers and a solution to put Louise out of her mind. The agonizing process is beautifully worded, brushing an aching painting of love lost and the way we torture ourselves in the name of love. It turns Louise and the love affair into a unique thing, a passion that makes the narrator recollect past affairs only to point at the greatness of this one and to aggrandize both suffering and romance.
The most interesting and devastating part of the book is when she dismantles Louise into body parts and organs, singing them all and stating her love for each little inch of this woman. It is passionate, sexual, frenetic, almost making your mouth water at the richness of the depiction. It keeps the reader wondering whether such detail is specific to women writers or whether men have the patience to observe such intricate pattern in love and the person next to them. It brings into my mind Orhan Pamuk's novel The Museum of innocence where the writer mourns lost love and spends the rest of his life gathering proofs of his unique love and chasing the woman he loved, yet never managed to keep, all over the world. Still Pamuk does not analyze and split hairs in four, rather has a more evocative, nostalgic approach to his suffering. Men seem to be more inclined to quantify the meaning of love in parts and bits, measuring it against very palpable proofs, whereas women dwelve on the things left hanging, the unspoken, the uttered questions, the impossible answers, the touches, the geography of the loved body and the smell of familiar territory.
This book is also about jealousy and cruelty, rejection and despise. Love is easily turned into a multitude of other feelings, embracing the shades of other stances. In every great or minor affair, feelings reach a peak then slowly descend into a linear status quo or degenerate into other negative emotions. Elgin goes from comfort love to an acute sense of possession and then to malice; whether his new relationship is meant to bring him acceptance of the previous and a new start remains a mystery. On the other hand, our narrator climbs the peaks of insanity and despair only to come back a wounded, broken being. Louise returns and time takes a halt. The story that was, closes its circle and we are left to choose a new beginning or a lesson learnt at the expense of some broken hearts. It is up to us to decide. As in love, choice stands written in our bodies. Anatomically speaking, we are bound to live past the skin!