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The Romantic    by Barbara Gowdy order for
by Barbara Gowdy
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Shannon Bigham

At first blush, Barbara Gowdy's The Romantic appears to be a book about blissful, carefree love. The cover shows an exquisite pink rose on a pretty, sky blue background. The title conjures up Cupid and his arrows. But while it is a story about love, the writing and the plot firmly set this book in the literary fiction genre - it is much more than your typical happily ever after romance.

Louise is a young girl when her mother abruptly leaves her husband and only daughter. She scratches out a note to say that 'Louise knows how to use the washing machine,' (which is not true) and leaves without bidding daughter or husband goodbye. Louise's mother heads off, presumably in search of greener pastures. Some family members assume that she has taken up with a 'fancy Dan', because she would not otherwise give up her 'meal ticket'. As always, life must go on and Louise and her father manage. When it becomes obvious that Louise's mother is not coming home, her father hires Mrs. Carver to cook and clean.

Lacking a mother, Louise wistfully watches the new neighbors across the street - the Richters are a German couple with an adopted son, Abel, close to her own age. Initially Abel is only of secondary interest to Louise, who sets her sights on Mrs. Richter with girlish hopes that she will gain a new surrogate mother. While Mrs. Richter is friendly enough, Louise slowly forges a friendship with Abel, who is not well liked at school. His adoptive status, mellow nature, and his German parents are not well accepted by his classmates in post-World War II Canada. Most of the children either ignore or bully him. Since Louise is a semi-outcast herself at school - especially after her mother 'ran off' - she and Abel spend a lot of time together.

Louise's friendship with Abel grows over the years and she slowly but surely falls in love with him. While Abel is a caring, gentle person, it is not clear whether he holds a special love for Louise or if she receives the same loving treatment that he holds for everyone and everything. Circumstances change and the Richters move away. Louise unexpectedly runs into Abel, years later. Her love has not wavered and a quick tryst festers into difficult circumstances and an unhealthy attachment. While Abel is not an evil person, the years have changed him and he is not a suitable partner for Louise. However, she cannot let go of Abel, no matter the cost.

While there are many novels about a woman loving the wrong man, this one is unique. Its prose is both lyrical and clear as a bell. The characters are so well developed that it feels like watching a movie in your mind's eye as you turn the pages. The book moves seamlessly back in forth in time, between Louise's childhood, her teen years, and the present. The novel is emotionally wrenching without being sappy or weepy. Instead, it is engrossing, reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's style. I highly recommend The Romantic to fans of literary fiction.

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