Most relationships unravel surreptitiously, snagging on small things and degrading by bits. A couple will start out moving toward the same goal but over time small annoyances intervene. Balled-up socks on the floor, dishes left to “soak” for days, a neglected goodbye kiss. This is the danger posed to most of our marriages. Not the gale force winds of adultery or violence, but the intolerable mosquito-whine of bad smells and chores left undone.
Jillian Medoff understands this. In a scene from her recent novel, I Couldn’t Love You More, two parents have a stand-off on the phone when a child gets sick at school. Both the father, Grant, and the stepmother, Eliot, have jobs and responsibilities and busy lives. But it is always she—Eliot—who ends up giving more. And Grant knows it. He calls to tell her their daughter, Gail, must be picked up. Then he waits, silent, until she caves and offers to put aside her work, drive the greater distance, and pick up the girl.
They’re both good people and they love each other, but like real people they also have defects. Grant’s a bit of a bully; he feels entitled to sit and drink beer (burping loudly) while Eliot rushes to make dinner. And Eliot? Well, she’s just TOO good, such a pushover she’s helping to support Grant’s artist ex-wife even while she sacrifices to raise their daughters: Grant’s two from his marriage to “the Sculptress” and Hailey, their joint biological child.
This novel has been described as “chick lit” by Goodreads and others, but I heartily disagree. As a genre, chick lit tends to avoid complexity—there are heroes and there are villains—but Medoff specializes in it. Take Eliot’s sister Sylvia, a complainer and a spotlight hog who becomes in odd moments a fine, self-effacing human being. And you believe in her, all sides of her. I know women who are exactly that erratic and surprising and difficult to pin down. Just when Sylvia has twanged your last nerve, you’ll find yourself admiring her. It’s how people are.
The long tail of Grant’s silent manipulations and lazy observations and crass moments is what makes up Medoff’s twisty plot. Slowly, passively, Eliot pulls away from him—her life partner—and strikes up a “harmless” flirtation with her first true love. Finn Montgomery (even his name sounds like a fantasy) arrived in town just as the domestic dullness was reaching its nadir. You understand, as a reader, why Eliot would begin meeting him at the library and calling him secretly at night. What you don’t expect is the horrible way their affair will end.
I love books about how people behave and the tenuous connections that influence a life. One random conversation or seemingly minor decision can echo for years. That’s exactly what this funny, smart and completely engrossing novel is about.
Full disclosure: I know Jillian Medoff, but only since the week I Couldn’t Love You More came out. I read her back in ’97 when her first novel, Hunger Point, was published. (I think she was about 14 …) I loved that book, too. But I didn’t put it together with the woman I met in May ’til I was halfway through ICLYM. There was something about the voice, and the sister relationships. I had this sudden flash of memory and immediately checked Google.
And what do you know? My new friend turned out to be an author I’d been admiring for years.