Not that a writer who's already been a finalist for the National Book Award and this paper's First Fiction award can be anybody's little secret, but I have a proprietary feeling about Amy Bloom. Somehow, she is mine. Perhaps everyone who read her first book, "Come to Me," before it won all those awards feels the same way. When you discover a writer before the rest of the world does, you become a sort of honorary relative, noting reports of their accomplishments in the papers and champing at the bit when you hear they have something new on the way.
"Did you hear Amy Bloom's got a novel coming out?" I blurted eagerly to friends.
"Who's Amy Bloom?" they often said.
More people should know who Bloom is and, with "Love Invents Us," more will. It is a quiet book, so un-showoffy and matter-of-fact in its depiction of unconventional romantic liaisons that you almost don't notice how brave it is. Yet through her cast of endearing misfits and in her dependably firm and juicy prose, Bloom takes on a highly charged subject: the way love both transcends and fails to transcend differences in race and age.
The novel begins with an enchantingly bizarre scene in which our heroine, Elizabeth Taube, reports that she was "not surprised" to find herself in the back of Furs by Klein, "wearing only my undershirt and panties, surrounded by sable. 'Sable is right for you, Lizbet,' Mr. Klein said, draping a shawl-collared jacket over me. 'Perfect for your skin and your eyes. A million times a day the boys must tell you. Such skin.' "
Reading these lines, I had a sense of deja vu. Could there be two writers doing Jewish furrier pedophiles? I wondered. Of course not. A trip to the bookshelf confirmed that the chapter was a slightly different version of "Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines," a story from Bloom's first collection. (This is how you know a writer belongs to you, when you don't even have to look at the copyright page to name the places where parts of the work have previously appeared.)
What was so interesting about the story--and what made the character and situation it proposed worthy of book-length exploration--is that it depicted the "perverted" relationship between the elderly voyeur and the lonely little girl as sweet rather than psycho, weird but undeniably nourishing. In both versions, when Klein thinks better of the liaison and informs his young friend that he can't see her anymore, she promptly refocuses her affection on Mr. Canetti, the piano teacher.
And what happens after that is the subject of this book, which is divided into three parts. The first, written in Elizabeth's first-person voice, tells us about her parent's divorce, her shoplifting problem and two further unusual relationships, one with the elderly black Mrs. Hill, for whom she cleans and cooks on Saturday, the other with the junior high school English teacher, Max Stone, whose interest in Elizabeth is quite a bit less wholesome than Mr. Klein's. These two adults show more interest in Elizabeth than do her parents or any of her peers, and she responds to their variously needy loves with loyalty unto death. And then she falls in love herself, with black high school basketball star Huddie Lester. Big hot crazy teenage love that the world, it turns out, will not allow.
The second part of the novel is written in third person, following each of the characters through a series of terrible losses. Huddie and Elizabeth are torn from each other; Mrs. Hill passes away; Max's loss of Elizabeth is followed by an even more devastating tragedy, then alcoholism, then cancer, which brings Elizabeth back to him after he can hardly love her anymore. Even Huddie and Elizabeth can't do much for each other when their paths cross a second time, and it seems the characters are helpless against the assaults of destiny.
But it's not over. In Part III, Elizabeth speaks from a distance of several more years to let us know how things are turning out: not perfectly, but hopefully, with the broken threads of the past swept into the weave of the present and the suggestion, if not the assurance, of a happy ending.
Bloom, a psychotherapist, has interesting insights into how people change and don't change and why things go the way they do, and she is truly an excellent writer. To test my theory that there is a line worth quoting on almost every page of this book, I just opened at random two times and found these:
Elizabeth, watching television with Mrs. Hill: " . . . every once in a while she'd point out some handsome white guy on the soaps and say, 'Now that's a nice young man'--as if the next step were for me to call CBS."
Elizabeth, worrying how her home will look to a visitor: "I wanted safety and quiet and books and have them, but now it feels less like simplicity or even the successful marshaling of extremely limited resources, and more like the road show of 'Grapes of Wrath.' "
On these and all the other pages of "Love Invents Us," Bloom is unpretentious, lyrical and funny--so just remember: She was mine first.