Love Begins in Winter appeared on my desk wrapped in silver paper this past Christmas. It wasn’t on my wish list, but I accepted it with all the love that was intended from someone who had a hunch about me and about this book. You might consider my review a belated thank you card for a favorite gift, or else a form of retroactive wishing for what I have already been given.
These are rare and wonderful stories, subtle in tone, ambitious in scope, and Romantic in vision. Each one performs a precise balancing act that spans multiple settings, voices, and perspectives, a feat rendered all the more impressive by a general lack of flash in the writing. Van Booy’s prose is direct and unadorned, as enjoyable to read as it is challenging in its depiction of conflicted emotions.
But perhaps my favorite thing about the writing here is the boldness of it. “Music is only a mystery to people who want it explained,” says Bruno Bonnet, the cellist who narrates the title story. “Music and love are the same.” Van Booy’s characters are prone to lofty speculations like this, and the success of these five stories lies in their ability to support their most challenging observations, persuading readers with precise, evocative detail.
In Love Begins in Winter, “Tiger, Tiger” best showcases the characteristic boldness in Van Booy’s writing. At first, the story appears to be a tale of parallel relationships, the narrator and her boyfriend considering a deeper commitment at the same moment that his parents’s relationship has come undone after decades of discontent. And it is partly about that, but the story takes a strange turn when the narrator discovers the lost writings of the family doctor, Dr. Blix Felixson.
Dr. Felixson’s musings, along with the narrator’s own experiences as a child and then as a pediatrician, transform “Tiger, Tiger” into a meditation not only on love but on innocence as well. The rest of the story is interspersed with excerpts from Dr. Felixson’s journals:
People’s expectations of coupling may be too grand, and thus disappointment, loneliness, and often pain are the inevitable adjuncts of something we thought would be the ultimate answer (an emotional cure-all) to our ongoing fears….
Humans must learn not to blame each other for being afraid, disappointed, or in pain. We perhaps might learn to view those we have special feelings toward as being our companions rather than our saviors, companions on the journey back to childhood….
Every adult yearns for some stranger, but it is really childhood we miss. We are yearning for that which has been stolen from us by what we have become….
These pronouncements could easily come across as a heavy-handed way of developing the themes of the story, all the more so for introducing a voice from outside of the narrator’s experience to deliver them. And perhaps they are heavy-handed, but the mysteries being addressed here–the nature of innocence, the purpose of love–are large enough, fundamental enough, to stand up to a little heavy-handedness.
This kind of directness requires courage in the face of abstraction and confidence in the power of the story itself to stand up under the gravity of its own grandest aspirations. In the end, the power of “Tiger, Tiger” is derived not only from the worldview of Dr. Felixson, but in seeing how the narrator interprets his wisdom and enacts it in her life, a life that may after all be very different from the examples that have been set for her.
Each of these stories is similarly built to bear up under weighty considerations: death, grief, love, loss, and time. They offer readers ambitious ideas about life and then send their characters around the world and into the past to find out what might be true for themselves.