Hysterical Love by Lorraine Devon Wilke
A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree
When I first picked up Lorraine Devon Wilke’s Hysterical Love, it was with anticipation, a muted sort of joy, not unlike that of a child anticipating a delicious treat or new toy. I had previously read and thoroughly enjoyed Devon Wilke’s debut novel After the Sucker Punch and was very ready to dive into this one.
Dan McDowell opens the novel, telling his readers he is “flummoxed” by relationships—not that this is so odd, but he was sure by now, at age 33, he’d be a bit past that phase. His bewildered recounting of what had just happened to him gave not only a promising opening to what looked to be a great yarn, but was also, well, so on target. It read, as I delivered the opening paragraphs aloud—reading aloud being a frequent habit—in a very male manner. It sounded like a man would say this, as opposed to the way a female author might write what she wants a male character to be expressing.
In this case, Dan is still a little confused as to how he ends up camped out in his neighbor’s spare bedroom, when just an hour or so before he and his longtime girlfriend had been setting a wedding date and Jane became Dan’s fiancée, at least for that hour. The long and the short is this: Jane muses aloud on the passage of time, she can’t believe it’s been three years of exclusivity, and…a split-second eye avert on Dan’s part and it’s all over. “I am the only person you’ve been with since we met, right?”
Something else about that male thing: Devon Wilke has got it down. Having read her before, I knew she was adept at writing a protagonist who is fast on her feet, articulate and can be sharp—the unifying trait being she wraps all points together and responds in full and succinctly. But that is a female character. How would the skills of her creator be utilized to mold a male type who didn’t merely change costumes for a different book?
The answers came as I continued to read—and laugh. As Dan relates his tale to us, his speech reveals who he is: “[S]omehow, despite amazingly good behavior on everyone’s parts, and often against the nature of all parties involved, someone in the room pulls the pin.” Like Tess’s, his remarks are witty, but closer to the nature of male metaphorical speech and the types of symbolism men tend to engage.
In Hysterical Love, Devon Wilke
has once more created a cast
of characters we want to know.
As Dan continues his narrative, his own commentary within the script, his hindsight enables him to recognize what he’s done wrong, and trigger phrases that just don’t go down well with the opposite sex: “Technically,” “What’s the big deal?” and a hilarious transition phrase that cues us into the impending shit storm: “The temperature drop is like the girl’s room in The Exorcist.”
As it turns out, Dan had been with his previous girlfriend after he’d met (and slept with) Jane, his defense being that he and Jane hadn’t verbally or officially committed to an exclusive relationship. From Jane’s point of view, just having slept together constitutes the commitment, and she isn’t having any of his excuses.
At this point I was no longer the least bit curious about a female author writing from a first- person male protagonist perspective. It was Dan speaking.
Not long after, Dan’s sister Lucy and he have a series of conversations pertaining to their father, who has recently fallen ill, and the concept of whether Jane truly is Dan’s “soul mate.” Lucy reveals the existence of a short story their father had written before their parents’ marriage, about a woman he’d had an impassioned affair with, a revelation startling Dan enough to spark questions such as, “Do you suppose there’s a genetic component to being crappy with relationships?”
The sarcastic question is two-pronged. The father he knows is impatient, unsentimental and underwhelmed with just about everything, “all of which combine to make his previous self impossible to reconcile with who he is now.”
But Dan also, following Lucy’s train of thought within her ongoing advice to him, begins to contemplate the idea that this woman, “Barbara from Oakland,” might really have been the one his father was meant for. Could that explain the deterioration of his father’s previous creativity and passion, and poor relationship with the family he does have? Moreover, what might this bode for Dan and Jane? Was their disastrous argument meant to steer Dan to his true soul mate? In order to seek answers, Dan concludes he must find Barbara. In so doing, he befriends Fiona, a waitress and herbal pharmacist who soon becomes partner in his “vision quest.”
Through this Dan continues to have contact with his daily life, such as phone conversations with his sister who is, unsurprisingly, angry with his disappearing act. The heated conversations are slightly reminiscent of those between After the Sucker Punch’s Tess and her own sister, and though Dan answers back in self-defense, he carries a greater restraint; he holds back more often, perhaps having quickly absorbed a lesson learned from his unthought out answers during the engagement-ending skirmish with Jane. In his subsequent reflections he assesses himself in a straight forward, honest manner. His commentary is pithy and on-target, and he doesn’t discount what others say to or about him. In Dan McDowell, Devon Wilke has created a character eager to grow and learn, but one nevertheless subject to the shifting of mood or whim. He is well balanced, but as in need of growth as any of the rest of us.
Devon Wilke is also an astute observer of human behavior, and there were frequent bouts of laughter on my part or murmured “Mmm hmm” upon recognition of the comically familiar. At one point Dan bemoans his own supposed blandness during a photography gig as his clients engage in what most of us either are guilty of or have run up against ourselves:
“On this particular day I’d come from a job … shooting women in pantsuits and men in navy blazers who chattered nonstop in that weird business school jargon that makes my teeth grind: ‘adoptive processes,’ ‘aggressive mediocrity,’ ‘burning platforms,’ and so on. My simple statements like, ‘Please stand near the window,’ sounded witless by comparison.”
There also are moments when characters’ great sense of humor cuts in unexpectedly and belly laughter in the midst of a serious discussion ensues—and not just because of what was said but also who says it. During a passage of necessary berating by Bob, gay owner of the spare room and longtime friend, Dan experiences an aha moment.
“Do not start with this time/space crap. You’re not twelve, buddy, and you’ve only got me [covering him at work] for two more days. So go find her, ask your questions, and git on home. Simple.”
Suddenly it all burst from me like a tumultuous dam of repressed … tumult. “I met this girl, Bob, this warm, gorgeous, generous girl, who gave me tea and herbs and let me tell her the whole story without one snide comment. She had a computer that saved my life, she helped me find the gazebo, her house is full of dried flowers and herbs, and her butch roommate is apparently a masseuse nonpareil. I think she might be my soul mate.” Deep breath.
“The butch roommate?”
“No, fool, Fiona.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a straight person use the word ‘nonpareil’ before.”
“Fiona said it and trust me, she’s a very straight person.”
“I mean … Fiona. Even her name is special. Have you ever heard a more poetic name?”
“I’m not going to mention that you now sound even gayer than your last statement, but let’s get real: there are plenty of Fionas out there since Shrek, my friend.”
It is in ways such as this that the author makes writing about emotion, or the path to various realizations, seem so easy. Her prose fits so well amongst its own various parts, as well as with what readers know as reality, and her dialogue wastes not a single word. Smooth and accessible, it all nevertheless delves deep into the human psyche to mine the best pieces of the self to face the circumstances placed before her protagonist, even as he necessarily stumbles in the process.
I also must say, I really do appreciate Devon Wilke’s treatment of her characters, in particular Dan, who could easily have been written as either a jerk or a male with unrealistically feminine character traits, two stereotypes that in today’s world are leaned on heavily enough it damages relations. I don’t know for sure, but my guess would be that most men in reality are like Dan, somewhere in between, and although they may not always be understood by their partners, their perspectives matter.
“Jane, it may be clumsy, the way I’m putting all this, but it’s what I’m actually going through, what I’m feeling, and I don’t know how else to say it.”
Although Jane snidely responds with, “Oh what you’re feeling, what you’re going through[,]” she, too, by virtue of her dialogue and circumstance, is required to face the caricatures many women unwittingly promote by latching on to the idea that men remain unaffected by events. She is like any other individual who has her lesser moments, but she is a thoughtful, caring person as well. Devon Wilke gives her voice and Jane uses it to show a balance that exists within ourselves, when we have the wherewithal and courage to reveal it, as well as within others with whom we share the world.
In Hysterical Love, Devon Wilke has once more created a cast of characters we want to know, in a compelling exploration of life and love, what it means to be part of something greater, such as a family or romantic relationship, and considers exactly how effective it is to philosophize on any given level, especially where human emotion is concerned. None of these characters know their future, and one of the best parts of reading the novel is that neither do we. Unlike many books in which easy predictions prove correct, this tale is not so easy to foretell. I loved the suspense created when I wondered how far Dan and Fiona’s friendship might go. Do they start something and then he realizes he has to return to Jane? Or do they recognize what they have and start a new life together? Will his father recover? Do his parents’ and family’s relationship take a turn toward a new road? Articulated or not, these are questions that arise and the reality is, as in life, it all could go either way, and making one’s way into and through adulthood is part of the process. It enables us to recognize the privilege of sharing Dan’s story all the way through before learning the outcome.
As literary/realistic fiction, Hysterical Love will also delight readers of such genres as romance, romantic comedy, or fiction and non-fiction dealing with questions of love, family, fate and interpersonal relationships. A deliciously fair sized novel, it is a joy to read and impossible to lay down.
About the author…
Author, photographer, singer/songwriter Lorraine Devon Wilke brings the sum total of her creative experience to all her work, including her compelling contemporary fiction. Pulling from every chapter of her eclectic background, she creates characters and plots that are both unique and recognizable, with dialogue that jumps off the page. Additionally, her book covers are designed with her own photography, and her debut novel, After the Sucker Punch, includes a free download of one of her recorded songs.
A longtime contributor to The Huffington Post, the trademark “sass and sensibility” she puts into her journalistic essays also infuses her fiction. Using wit and candor to explore provocative themes of family, faith, love, or tragedy, her stories always embrace an elemental mix of heart and soul.
Currently working on her third novel, both After the Sucker Punch and Hysterical Love are available in print and ebook via Amazon. Her extensive photography collection can be viewed and purchased at Fine Art America; she entertains readers with cultural commentary and updates her creative adventures at her blog, Rock+Paper+Music. On the music front, she continues to write and record whenever she can, and has recently been cast in new rock musical set to debut in San Diego, California, in early 2017.
See my review for After the Sucker Punch here.
The blogger was provided with a free copy of Hysterical Love in exchange for an honest review.
Images courtesy Lorraine Devon Wilke.