Love May Fail by Matthew Quick

A woman hiding in the bedroom closet, clutching a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a loaded gun in the other, peering through the louvre slats and waiting for her no-good husband to come staggering in with a teenage girl and his pants around his ankles.

Matthew Quick’s opening scene to Love May Fail is so clichéd that you almost feel embarrassed for him and it doesn’t seem to get any better when the heroine, the rather splendidly named Portia Kane, goes on to reminisce about the inspiring high school English teacher who made all the difference to her forlorn teenage life. Surely, not another story about a modern Mr Chips changing the lives of spoilt American adolescents.

Luckily, Quick is such a lively, inventive writer that this book rapidly sets off on a series of unexpected twists and turns that will keep you guessing, wishing and hoping until the very end. On the down side, the book doesn’t ultimately live up to its promise, largely due to a disappointingly silly ending which resolves very little but which the writer evidently hopes will have readers reaching for their tissues.

The story is told from the points of view of various characters, starting with Portia Kane. Despite her clichéd opening scene, Portia is an appealing character, full of sassy vigour. Having dumped her rich pornographer husband (we never quite understand why an intelligent, quick witted, feminist woman should have married him in the first place), Portia sets off home to Philadelphia, exiting with a chauffeur and her Louis Vuitton suitcases to fly back to the small row house in which she grew up.

During her flight she meets a nun who encourages her to drown her sorrows in vodka, despite the fact that she is thoroughly sozzled when she staggers onto the plane in the first place. This nun will go on to have some unexpected and extremely unconvincing plot involvement so keep an eye on her.

When Portia gets home, she finds things just as she left them, which is hardly surprising. Her mother is a simple-minded obsessive compulsive who also hoards things (although given that she is too terrified to leave her house most of the time it must be a challenge to find things to hoard). She adores Portia while Portia regards her poor Mum with a mixture of exasperation, guilt and clenched-teeth fondness.

Portia Kane is a smart mouthed feminist who is reviewing how her life has evolved. She is somewhat given to “flippant and obnoxious” comments (and swearing) but all with a heart of gold. Once she has dispatched her husband and trashed his cigar humidor, Portia wants to become a writer after all, declaring that too many women try to provide meaning to their lives just by having children.

While ordering waffles at the local diner, Portia hears that something terrible has happened to her former English teacher, Mr Vernon, the man who saw her through the traumas of adolescence and encouraged her dream of becoming a writer. Mr Vernon is one of those teachers who urges teenagers to be true to themselves and tells them repeatedly: “there’s still time, kids, to be free”. However, in a stunning twist, Mr Vernon’s unfortunate fate forces him, Portia and we, the readers, to contemplate the possible dark underbelly of his Dead Poets Society rhetoric.

Portia decides that her new quest in life is to save Mr Vernon. She sets about it somewhat slowly, however, perhaps because she is falling in love with Chuck, the local too-good-to-be-true bar tender and wannabe primary school teacher. And so the plot makes its meandering odyssey to Quick’s feel good finale. As a writer, he is not averse to doing drastic things to his characters, something that does keep you on the edge of your seat as you come to care more about them.

Another weakness of the book is that when the perspective shifts and we look at Portia from the outside, she does not always seem to be the same ballsy first person narrator we come to know in the early chapters. Mr Vernon is also not as successful, coming across as a whiner who talks a tad too much about existentialism when he is not about to choke on his own vomit. The character who gets far too little time is Portia’s mother, a comic creation of fascinating awfulness.

Love May Fail depicts all kinds of love from romance to family affection. It is also a book about writing and the creative life, both its privilege and its brutalities, for the writer and those around her. Given that quite a lot of the story centres on book reviews and the pain and damage they cause, we might assume that Quick may possibly have been burned over the years. Regrettably he never manages to show how the writer can live fully within a family and manage to survive the public pressure of publishing.

Matthew Quick is the author of six previous novels, including his first one Silver Linings Playbook that became a very successful film starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Previously an English and film studies teacher in a high school, Quick left teaching in 2004 to write full time. Quick is married to a novelist/pianist and has no kids. After his successful foray in Hollywood life, Love May Fail has clearly been written with a film treatment in mind, and it’s no surprise to find that a film production company is already developing it with Emma Stone starring as Portia.

On the whole, Love May Fail is a poignant dip into the lives of entertaining characters with a plot line that plays out in unexpected ways. It is a pity that Quick settles for such an abrupt finale. It is too self-consciously filmic and reads like he ran out of coffee or time or ideas and so decided to wrap things up. However, while it is not one of Quick’s best, this easy jaunty read would be an excellent choice for episodic bedside reading or that longish plane ride.

Image Attribution: audible