In a 2017 interview with The Brooklyn Rail, Sarah Gerard was asked a question about what she was reading. “I’m interested right now in reading a lot about love. Love, desire, sex. […] I’m thinking a lot about sex and love from a political standpoint too,” she said. “I’m also looking very skeptically at our heteronormative values in love and commitment. I’m trying to understand a definition of it, and to see what else there is.”
In her new novel, True Love, Gerard continues to suss out this question of what love is, what it means, and how it functions—at times—as a weapon, as a cage. True Love often shows us what love is not, but what it is often mistaken to be. How many of us don’t have a definition of love? How many would define love the way Justice Potter Steward defined obscenity: I know it when I see it. bell hooks echoes Erich Fromm’s definition of love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Love is a verb.
The protagonist—and unreliable narrator—of True Love is Nina. She is back home in the Florida Gulf Coast after dropping out of college in New York, and spending a stint in rehab: “[A]ny numbing or mood-altering agent would do. Weed, wine, sex, starvation.” While at college, she stole pills from her suitemate and slept with her boyfriend. “I especially liked men who already had girlfriends. The hope was always that they’d leave their girlfriends for me; [that] would have been the ultimate victory, proof of my irresistibility, but they never did.”
Nina is a mess, and she’s selfish, and she’s codependent—and she knows it: “My monogamous relationships all overlap. I don’t know how it happens.” She is sleeping with Brian, her editor at the paper where she freelances, while she’s dating Seth,a pretentious artist who can’t finish anything and who mansplains everything to her. Nina and Seth move to New York after she is accepted to an MFA program. It doesn’t take long before she is sleeping with Aaron. Together they start writing an autobiographical film script, True Love. Everybody in this book only cares about themselves.
Much of criticism is responding to other criticism and saying, in a respectful manner, you got that wrong. It would be lazy to call this novel, or Nina, narcissistic—that term leveled in this way shows a crude understanding of the actual diagnosis. Gerard knows that a large part of identity is performance. Nina’s actions, behaviors, language, decisions are at once because of who she is and also serve to define and redefine her evolving self. True Love isn’t suffering under the weight of its own, nor anybody else’s gaze.
There is a reason that all the men seem similar or like cardboard—this book is not about them. They don’t really matter. They are there to function as sounding boards for Nina. The men in this novel are artists, aspiring filmmakers, magazine editors. None of them see Nina as anything other than some Freudian mix of sex and mother. None of them see Nina. She isn’t an artist, a writer—not to them. Even when she and Aaron are working on the script, his individual projects always take precedence over their collaboration, they even take precedence over her individual projects. These men and the “love” they profess function to keep Nina stuck, to keep locked away.
During one of her therapy sessions, Nina notices a print of John William Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott. And as she discusses her current situation, thinks about the poem, the story, the tragic ending of the Lady breaking her curse and floating off to her death, she notes “it’s tragic the way she kills herself for the possibility of one true experience. A moment of ecstasy.” The parallel is clear in that Nina, like the Lady, feels trapped, beholden to a curse that keeps her looking through mirrors and weaving unable to see the real, forced to reproduce simulacra. And Nina, trapped by these men, the men who tell her which films to watch, which books to read, what music to listen to—she is seeing, living, a version of a life, but not hers. Like the Lady in the tower, she knows this, and is looking for a way to break free.
I tend to bristle at any suggestion that the Lady was chasing after Lancelot in Tennyson’s poem. I understand the themes of sexual liberation and empowerment (themes that are also present in True Love), but any suggestion, that Lancelot “freed” her…as if a woman needs a man to show her how to become empowered. The Lady understands she is going to die, but to call what she’s doing living would be a bastardization of the word. “I am half-sick of shadows,” the Lady of Shalott says. It’s a wonderful metaphor. She, like Nina, is tired of living half a life, tired of being half awake.
When the Lady breaks free, it’s because she’s tired and ready to live on her own terms, even if that’s for a few moments—a few moments out in the real world, her lived experience of reality—is worth it as opposed to staring at shadows.
At the end of True Love, Gerard resists giving us a Lancelot moment with Nina—no knight in shining armor shakes her, Nina doesn’t run off to another relationship. We never see Nina get free; but there is hope of her doing so—or at least a moment in which I choose to see hope. The last scene of the novel is simple and devastating. It leaves Nina in a liminal space, and how we read, what we choose to imagine happens next, will say a lot about what we think love is, and what it isn’t.
By Sarah Gerard
Published July 7, 2020