You Are the Love of My Life is an unusual book: fiction that takes as its subject a neighborhood and the relationships among the families nested there. It is full of sweetness but also barbs, which is exactly the way it should be. Author Susan Shreve, whom I know, has an amazing knack for close observation—her memoir Warm Springs, about being treated for polio at the place where FDR was also treated, is full of the details of childhood illness and of first love. If you haven’t discovered Shreve before, and you like the novels of writers like Sue Miller and Anne Tyler, you should try her now.
Shreve’s new novel is set in motion by the arrival of Lucy Painter to a house on Wichita Avenue in Washington, D.C. It is a house that she owns, but that is one of Lucy’s many secrets. She is a creature of self-creation: Painter is the name her mother conjured after Lucy’s father committed suicide when she was young. Because of her secrets, she has always held herself apart. But on Wichita Avenue, that pose comes apart. Other families on the block are a tight knit bunch, and her daughter Maggie wants to wrap herself in their closeness. She is especially drawn to the mother at the center of the action, Zee Mallory. I loved the portrayal of Zee, who keeps her chickens close with doughnuts and coffee in the morning to comfort and control them. I know people just like her, a mix of bossy and benevolent. Zee, of course, has secrets of her own. Shreve expertly unwinds her story alongside Lucy’s, and as the drama builds, the book becomes a serious page-turner. It’s plot driven in the best way: You want to know what happens to these characters because they’ve gotten inside your skin. The familiarity of it all—we are talking about a group of middle class people you could meet at your next school picnic—is enormously satisfying. My hope about the debate over whether books about family life by women get dismissed as domestic and interior, where as books by men are lavishly praised (see Franzenfreude), is that titles like this one find their way into the hands of the readers who will appreciate them. This one is perfect book club fodder. Much Big Fiction is being published this fall, but You Are the Love of My Life may speak to you more.