Weddings, like Christmas Day, bring out the ‘best’ in families, right?
Heather Taylor Johnson’s debut novel, Pursuing Love and Death, is the story of one family, brought together as they prepare for the wedding of daughter, Luna. Amongst the cast is Luna’s father, Graham, who is struggling to write his own obituary; mother, Velma, who is experiencing a mid-life crisis (and trying to manage a lover seventeen years her junior); and brother Ginsberg, who’s openly gay but is married to a woman named Kate.
“It was good to be on holiday before the holiday began. To have one day to themselves before the shit hit the wedding-white fan. Ginsberg predicted insanity. Someone in the family would lose their mind and for all he knew it might be him.”
There’s a lot to like in Pursuing Love and Death, notably some quite lovely sentences. For example –
“As she blew smoke in perfect lines above them, she was superb. She was an ageing actress at twenty-one.”
“Velma loved the drama and the strife. She savoured hot tears and words and actions one could never, ever retract.”
There’s also some terrific, meaty themes about motherhood, relationships with parents, and family alliances. Unfortunately, in exploring these themes and explaining the characters’ present-day issues, some of Johnson’s characters got a little bogged down in overly complex back-stories. These could have been done away with, particularly when Mark, Luna’s fiance, summed it all up so nicely –
“My family doesn’t have – how should I put this? – issues. Your family is all urban sophistication and cultural aesthetics. Your mum comes from old money. You were brought up with literature and classical music. Your dinners didn’t have to involve meat and you didn’t even eat them until after eight.”
My favourite character was Velma, who reveals herself as somewhat of a villain by emotionally meddling in everyone’s lives. But she is an honest character and for that reason, you forgive a little –
“…it was not that she didn’t love her children or love the idea of being a wife and a mother, it’s that she could not do the selfless bit. Her imagined life of childbearing never eliminated the passion, the poetry, the symphonies, the travelling – she had imagined she could have every little bit of life that her mother had forsaken to raise her.”
There are some exceptionally good scenes in this book, the highlight being a delightfully introspective moment between the characters of Luna and Kate toward the end of the novel. Pondering what makes for a good marriage and the influence of our own parents’ marriage, Luna asks
“What about soulmates and completing one another? Shouldn’t I be feeling that?”
To which Kate answers –
“Would it make anything less complicated?…..I think that sort of intensity causes more problems than it solves. Think of your parents.”
3/5 Although I really wanted to yell “Pull yourself together!” to a few of the characters, all in all a nicely executed story.
Graham, his kitchen yoga and stuffed zucchini are worth a mention. I like this recipe from Zoom Yummy (because cheese…).