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The Book of Love


The Book of Love

Kelly Link, known as the “master of the short story” for bestselling works like GET IN TROUBLE and WHITE CAT, BLACK DOG, makes her novel debut with THE BOOK OF LOVE. Seven years in the making and at a whopping 640 pages, it is further proof that Link’s masterly control of magic and mayhem knows no bounds.

One year ago, young adults Laura, Daniel and Mo died, vanishing suddenly and without warning or explanation from their cozy seaside community aptly named Lovesend, Massachusetts. In the year since, their families have succumbed to grief, splintered into rage, and reformed in new configurations that willfully ignore the missing branches of their family trees. Susannah has struggled the most. She lost her sister, Laura; her occasional lover, Daniel; and her friend, Mo. Even more than her grief over her sister and friends, though, she senses that something else is missing: the truth. Although she dwells in Laura’s room, tends to their depressed mother, and has ceased causing the trouble of her youth, she can’t shake her lingering anger at her sister.

Then, just as suddenly as they disappeared, the three youths find themselves in their brightly lit high school music classroom. They are being observed by their teacher, Mr. Anabin, a harmless, meandering sort of man known more for his corny affirmational t-shirts than his teaching abilities. The room is a welcome reprieve from the colorless, joyless space they have occupied for the past year. But where was that, why did they end up there, how are they back, and who is the fourth person now accompanying them? After being magically manifested by Mr. Anabin, this stranger tells them that he cannot recall his name or think of any others. Casting a glance around the music room, they name him Bowie.

"Full of mysteries and magical contracts both ancient and new, and characters whose lives move with and against time, this spellbinding novel upends and reinvents what fantasy can do and what it can be."

But Bowie is not the last member to join their impromptu gathering. Just as they are getting their bearings and coming to terms with the world again, a great white dog enters the classroom before morphing into a human. The man is familiar and unfamiliar, known and unknown. He is the one who has watched over them for the last year, and he is not happy about their jailbreak.

Without any explanation, Mr. Anabin and the dog-man, who the young adults find out is called Bogomil, strike a bargain: Laura, Daniel, Mo and Bowie will perform tasks to demonstrate their control of magic, truth and love. When their scores have been tallied, two will return and two will remain. Their first assignment is twofold: the nearly insurmountable task of trying to remember how they died and performing a bit of magic. Neither god nor man, Mr. Anabin has magicked the world into fitting them in again, inserting memories of full scholarships to a prestigious program at a private conservatory in Ireland into the minds of their families and former classmates. Laura, Daniel and Mo will return home as if nothing has happened, and Bowie (whoever he is) will complete his tasks alone. If it sounds like Bowie has drawn the short straw, that is only because you don’t know what happened before Laura, Daniel and Mo disappeared.

One year ago, Laura and Susannah Hand and Daniel Knowe were members of a band cleverly named My Two Hands Both Knowe You. On the night of their disappearance, tension was brewing as they performed at a local watering hole. Susannah, always attuned to chaos, had kissed an audience member as part of their act. This individual was Laura’s longtime crush, and Susannah picked him with the intent of hurting her sister. Laura quickly kissed Daniel, Susannah’s on-again, off-again lover, in retaliation. It’s an interesting dilemma, certainly worthy of a soap opera or teenage romance. But is it enough to have landed Laura, Daniel and poor Mo, who had no romantic entanglements with any of the band members, in the afterlife, and now in this liminal space contained by bargains and contracts? No, but it’s a start.

What Laura, Daniel, Mo, Bowie and even Susannah don’t know is that a sort of war has been brewing for centuries. Three-hundred years ago, a betrayal unbalanced the cosmos and heavens and set their fates into motion, long before they were even conceived or thought of. Alternating between the perspectives of our doomed protagonists and the supporting cast --- high priests, goddesses, lovers, classmates, and even bartenders and waitresses --- Link unfolds a narrative as eternal and timeless as a fairy tale, and as gripping and resonant as a current event. While the main conflict is the teens’ deaths and their fight to return to mortality, Link dives deep into each of their lives to explore queer love, racism, blended families, sibling rivalry and so much more. There are many love stories here, and they span the breadth between lucky and unlucky, doomed and vindicated, but not all of them are romantic or even full of love.

Anyone who has ever read a short story by Kelly Link knows that she is extremely talented. The recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant, she wields the title of “genius” well, and this ambitious undertaking is no exception. THE BOOK OF LOVE is indeed a tome, yet her writing remains true to form: beautiful and transcendent, dreamlike and magical…and rooted in universal, crystalline truths of fact and feeling. Written as a series of “books” --- the chapters are focused on single characters --- it reads like a fairy tale and a play, with the “books” moving against and in accordance to the others, allowing readers to really sink into each character the way you might get to know a new friend or lover.

In composition and style, this is an enchanting and moving novel, though I’ll be the first to admit that Link’s attention to detail --- particularly the lives of her supporting characters --- can be unwieldy at best and totally distracting at worst. It’s a testament to her control of her magic and her ability to contort and manipulate common words into magical configurations and spells that I still could not put the book down. But that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t have been tighter (and certainly easier to hold) at a smaller page count.

Full of mysteries and magical contracts both ancient and new, and characters whose lives move with and against time, this spellbinding novel upends and reinvents what fantasy can do and what it can be. But I cannot wait to see what Link does when she is more comfortable in this longer format and better able to restrain her narrative so that it matches her perfect, transcendent prose.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on February 17, 2024

The Book of Love
by Kelly Link