Off the Shelf: Different styles of love by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Sometimes when looking at a book featuring a love story, I end up debating to which genre it belongs. Would it be placed on the romance shelves of a bookstore or with works of literary fiction? The reason for my debate is that I like to judge a work by what the author is attempting to accomplish. I have nothing against either genre, but there is a difference between the two. For example, the romance genre tends to focus more on the plot, while serious fiction concentrates on the complex psychological and intellectual aspects of the relationship. However, the line between the genres is thin. Readers might question into which category Jane Austin would be placed if she were writing today. It’s pretty clear, though, that the two novels featured in this review – “Never Anyone But You” by Rupert Thomson (Other Press) and “Find Me” by André Aciman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – would most likely not appeal to readers of the romance or rom-con genres, even though the underlying theme of both is love and its aftermath.

The more ambitious of novel is “Never Anyone But You.” This work is based on the story of two real life women: half-Jewish Lucie Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, who reinvented themselves as Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. The two women met in 1909 when they were 14 and 17, and found themselves immediately attracted to each other. Their parents encouraged their friendship, although they were unaware of the sexual aspect of it. Their ability to hide their feelings became easier when Lucie’s divorced father married Suzanne’s widowed mother, allowing the two of them to claim to be sisters. That meant they could live together without raising suspicion about the true nature of their relationship.

As Claude and Marcel, the two moved to Paris to pursue artistic careers. Claude was a writer and photographer, while Marcel tried her hand as an illustrator and photographer. Neither was very successful, although they managed to take part in the artistic excitement of post-World War I Paris, including knowing those involved in the Surrealist movement. However, the women’s personal lives were sometimes rocky: Claude flirted with men and suicide. Her instability threatened their relationship, but, at least in the novel, Marcel’s only desire is to be with Claude.

The two left Paris to live on Jersey, an island in the English Channel, which was invaded by the Germans during World War II. That’s when the most unusual aspect of their lives occurs: these two seemingly innocuous women begin a campaign against the Nazis in order to denigrate and undermine their conquerors. Looking back, this accomplishment outshone any of their other artistic endeavors. This complex, absorbing novel portrays the joy and sorrows of a deep, enduring love.

While “Never Anyone But You” focuses on one romantic relationship, “Find Me” looks at three different ones. Although it contains some of the same characters found in Aciman’s “Call Me By Your Name,” the book does not feel like a sequel. The first book focused on Oliver and Elio’s love affair. This work opens years later and the first section concerns a whirlwind love affair that begins when Samuel, Elio’s father, travels to visit him in Rome. On the train Samuel meets Miranda, a photographer, and his life radically changes. The next section begins several years later when Elio is in Paris and has an affair of his own with an older man, Michel. This is followed by an unpleasant look at Oliver’s life as a professor in the United States before... well, saying more would spoil what little surprise the plot contains.

Aciman’s characters spend a great deal of time discussing their thoughts about love, but unfortunately, their actions were not as convincing. Samuel and Miranda’s romance struck me as particularly unbelievable. Elio’s affair had more depth, perhaps because he was more pessimistic about its outcome. The most interesting part of the plot occurred in that section when Elio and Michel tried to learn the truth about the mysterious relationship Michel’s father had with someone Jewish during World War II. Unfortunately, the result of that plot line leaves readers up in the air. Oliver’s portion of the book portrayed him as a dissatisfied person whose main desire in life is to manipulate other people’s feelings. The large leaps between characters and time periods made the work feel choppy since each part didn’t seem to build on the other. Instead, readers are left to fill in too many blanks, something that left me disappointed and unhappy. 

However, both “Never Anyone But You” and “Find Me” do offer interesting meditations about what it means to love someone. Readers may not agree with what the characters in each determine love means, but their different connections do show some of the many forms love can take.