Monday, April 25, 2016

Lies And Other Acts Of Love by Kristy Woodson Harvey

My momma always told me that honesty was the most important thing in life. But I’ve never understood why people are so hell-bent on honesty. It’s not the truth that sets you free. The truth is the thing that destroys lives, that shatters the mirror. The truth is selfish and shameful, and better kept to oneself. In fact, I’m quite sure that the only thing that paper-clips any of our lives together are the white lies. They are the defibrillators that bring us back when we were on the brink of succumbing to the light. 
So begins Lynn White’s (known by all as Lovey) discourse on marriage and families. Kristy Woodson Harvey’s little novel Lies and Other Acts of Love is a light-hearted but serious look at love and relationships, and the role that honesty and what she calls white lies both hold together and shatter families.

This is not a great book; there is an economic snobbery about it that offended me some throughout, and yet I found myself entertained and sometimes deeply moved by the relationships described in what appears to be a rather intimately autobiographical novel. There are two narrators: the matriarch of the family, Lynn (Lovey) who has five daughters, and Annabelle, a granddaughter who is as stiff and unforgiving as her grandmother, Lovey, is fluid and compassionate and forgiving.

Like so many modern novels, this one flips back and forth both between narrators and between epochs. Lovey tells her story of how she came to love and marry Dan (aka Daddy D) in the 1940s, and Annabelle speaking in the present, describes her deteriorating marriage to a musician, Ben, and her attempts to unravel family secrets that threaten to explode her rosy view of what she sees as the perfect marriage and family of her grandmother, Lovey and Daddy D.

In the present, with all their daughters raised and most of them married, Lovey’s beloved Dan is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and she is doing her best to care for him at home. In one of his rare moments of lucidity in the middle of the night, Dan wakes to ask Lovey, “Can I get you anything?” And when she replies, “Not a thing, sweetheart. Are you all right?” His reply, “As long as you’re here, I’m perfect.”

The description of the love between Dan and Lynn (Lovey) is, I think, the high-point of this novel; Lovey is a wise and caring person who treats her daughters with great respect, encouraging them to live their own lives as they see fit and to trust their instincts; she  does not insist on always getting at the truth, realizing that there are times when attention and caring are more important than the truth.

Annabelle, on the other hand, is rigid and uncompromising in her pursuit of truth, although in the end, with the help of her grandmother and an Episcopal priest she begins to work for, she begins to see that some things (for example, keeping families together) may be more important than omissions and white lies. Through questioning and snooping, Annabelle gets closer and closer to revealing a truth about the distant past that could shatter the lives of those in her close-knit family.

This little element of mystery in the book makes it more enticing as a story, as well as raising questions about the relative importance of truth compared to loyalty and family solidarity.

While there are parts of the book that are soap-opera sentimental, and some religious overtones that this reader found to be detracting from the quality of the story as a whole, the insights into what makes relationships good ones and on just how deceit can quickly destroy a relationship are worth the sentimentality and the not so subtle evangelical elements.

Lovey notes that while the death of her 89 year old husband is not tragic, it is devastating, and as she says, “It is, most of all, a death of the self.” Just so, the partner who is left is no longer who s/he was in the partnership, and yet there is no new, whole person to replace the self that is lost.

Another theme that is taken up in the book, and I think dealt with quite skillfully is the need for friendships outside of marriage.
You should never worry about moving to a new town with your husband, according to Lovey, because, in reality, your husband is the only friend you need. That was a lovely sentiment, but, as I was learning, maybe not a totally true one. I loved Ben madly, but I needed friends.
I think many relationships cave in on themselves precisely because there is too much weight put on them and not enough importance attached to friendships aside from the marriage. Annabelle certainly comes to realize this, but as is so often the case, she does not really see or act on the need for friends until her marriage is crumbling, which makes it all the harder to seek out support and counsel from others. Fortunately she does have her wise old grandmother, Lovey. Although she almost loses her, too, by being too insistent on the perfection she wants, by keeping Lovely (and her grandfather) on pedestals that cannot be maintained.

I had read a dozen or so war novels and psychological thrillers before stumbling on this little book which is both light-hearted and deceptively deep. I was ready for it, and found it delightful. I have been talking about Kristy Woodson Harvey’s 2016 novel, Lies and Other Acts of Love.

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