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"Endless Love" by Scott Spencer

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In this 1979 novel, Scott Spencer brazenly presents the first-person chronicle of a tortured-in-love, obsessive young man. In portraying these adventures and misadventures, Mr. Spencer sets the bar improbably high for the type of destructive-behavior fiction he engages in – he proves the remarkable “Endless Love” is no fluke in “A Ship Made of Paper” (2003).

High-school senior David Axelrod loves Jade Butterfield literally to distraction. His passion – their passion – consumes them so completely that when Jade’s father Hugh decides David must not see anyone in the family for 30 days, he sets fire to the family’s home, with the idea that they will at least have to leave the house and be unable to avoid talking to David. This conflagration serves as the perfect metaphor for David’s passion: its speed and heat endanger the entire Butterfield family. It turns out that Jade’s mother Ann is aware of the extreme ardency between the two, and it excites her own nature to more passion than she’d ever known. The family generally knows about the two, however, and accept David, essentially adopting him into their family – for a time, at least.

David’s arson happens on an evening when the entire family, down to the barely-teenaged son Sammy, has dropped LSD for a family trip, and David must work at a Herculean level to rescue them. As punishment David is sent to a rather relaxed, permissive mental institution, where his only concerted effort is to deceive his psychiatrist into thinking he is changing, losing his obsession for Jade. Eventually David worms his way back into the family and resumes his life with Jade, only now he must hide a ghastly secret to do so. The reunion of David and Jade shows them at their passionate and destructive height.

The love-addled David addles the Butterfield family and while breaking parole, indirectly causes an accident that splinters it entirely. The passion the two young people have lights the entire narrative ablaze – and at the end David still, against all reason, keeps his passion for his long-gone lover. Scott Spencer succeeds brilliantly with this difficult task. In this timeless story of dangerous passion, David comes across as unquestioningly focused, blindly self-absorbed, and lucid in his madness. Mr. Spencer has a stunning gift for this theme, and retains an ardent admirer in this reviewer. Be prepared to be completely absorbed when you pick this up.

"So Many Ways to Begin" by Jon McGregor

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Author Jon McGregor establishes the unique and elegant framework of identifying his short chapters as numbered pieces in a museum exhibit. In this way, he unfolds the story of David and Eleanor, a loving married couple who abide each other through each partner’s lifelong frustrating or horrific issues with their respective mothers. The title, in fact, refers to the far-too-strong influence of random chance in changing people’s lives, of opening and closing paths that will or would have been followed for a lifetime.

David and Eleanor foil each other over this mother-issue: David desperately searches for a biological mother whom he only learns of at age 22; Eleanor shuns her mother and would shun the memory of the continuous physical and emotional abuse she inflicted if only she could. Mr. McGregor maintains a clean and thoughtful, a simple and effective prose throughout. He constantly poses other possibilities – alternate events – when recounting an important juncture in someone’s life, emphasizing life’s sometimes cruel chances.

David becomes a museum curator basically as an act of will; as a child he found and documented an endless catalog of scraps and trinkets from craters in bombed-out Postwar England. When a museum is established locally he earns his apprentice’s position, and his career is born. He meets Eleanor – the attraction is immediate and mutual – on a business trip to a museum in Aberdeen, Scotland. David and Eleanor have difficulties like all married couples: she tends to severe depression while he tries to channel his frustration over the surprise of his background. They stay true to each other, however, and the end consists of a quiet, gratifying celebration of their enduring love.

This author has impressive skills drawing realistic characters, certainly, but his skills hardly stop there. He has given this fine book a structure in which our two protagonists each struggle in their own private fight, but somehow manage to do it in tandem. They do battle on opposite sides of the deepest of familial issues, but have enough capacity for each other to somehow make the journey worthwhile. And this is what I find I’m taking away: the universal nature of every person’s internal struggle, which is put aside long enough to make a beautiful life-affirming relationship work, and make life worth living for the beloved partner. An excellent, thought-provoking, if a little somber, read.

"Expiration Date" by Sherril Jaffe

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“Expiration Date” explores the feelings and thoughts about death in every way imaginable. Flora has a dream – but it’s more than a dream, more than a premonition, it’s frighteningly real, the heavenly court that convenes and sets the date of her death. Flora, very happily married and with grown children, learns that she will not reach her 60th birthday, that her “expiration date” is the day before. Flora’s mother Muriel maintains a sound mind and a youthful body for someone quickly approaching 90. In contrast to Flora’s blissful marriage, Muriel is widowed during the novel’s events and starts relationships with a few different men as the plots progresses.

In fact, chapters alternate between Flora with her expiration date, and Muriel with her seemingly endless lease on life. Flora considers the implications and the exigencies: as the date approaches, she wonders, will this be the last time I walk with my mother, see the Golden Gate Bridge, make love with my husband? It turns out this is the thrust here, albeit one that grows slowly: Flora stresses, in an oddly calm and circumspect way, about her supposedly imminent death, while Muriel, the mother, compares her various men to her definitely-not-sainted late husband. The constant consideration of death’s many changes dominate this slender book, and they form its backbone, its major chord. This is a Jewish family, and Flora’s husband Jonah is a rabbi. He recounts many stories from the Talmud with regard to the coming of the Angel of Death; Flora considers whether she can trick him by always being on the move, or by changing her name, or by some other means.

For me, this book never tends toward a conclusion; the mother and daughter progress toward imagined ends or intermediate events, and events never gave me an inkling of what to expect. Author Sherril Jaffe keeps us guessing until the very last. This can be considered a virtue, certainly, but I doubt the author intended a thriller climax. She gives us instead a final open-ended thought that summons the Buddhist principles into which she immerses us as she wraps up. Her lesson: death isn’t the point, living each moment is the point. Long-lived Muriel’s story cautions instead of congratulates: carpe diem, rather than slave away in a secure but unloving marriage. Flora should be proud after all: she manages to live her life of love with a sense of wonder and gratitude for all that she has.

This story will clearly resonate with those who face the challenge of illness, or who have lost loved ones, and it includes well- and subtly-told lessons on the art not of dying but of living and loving life.