Book review: A Love Story for Bewildered Girls by Emma Morgan

(cover image courtesy Penguin Australia)

To hear Disney, Hallmark or a thousand other purveyors of romantic dreamscapes tell it, all we want it to fall headlong into someone’s arms, surrender ourselves to them and live, fairytale-like, happily ever after.

It’s a captivating idea, that love could be that all-consuming and satisfying, that everything we’ve ever wanted lies just beyond reach in a person we have just met but who could be the answer to all our lovelorn prayers.

But as Grace, Annie and Violet discover in Emma Morgan’s debut novel A Love Story for Bewildered Girls, love isn’t quite that simple.

It likely hasn’t ever conformed to the swoon-and-fall dynamic but we like to keep thinking it does, and so when psychotherapist Grace who, Morgan rather poetically says has “been waiting for love for a long time while pretending not to wait at all”, meets gardener Samantha aka Sam at a party and glamorous lawyer Annie falls for the dashing Laurence at the same event, it seems that fate has conspired to Disney Princess them both.

For a while, that’s exactly how it feels too, and Morgan beautifully evokes that sense of gloriously-delicious, enticing promise that comes with new love, that sense that here is the rest of life in the form of the person of your dreams, and it is good, very good, indeed.

“As lives went it seemed to be flowing along nicely. But, as it turned out, all the time she had been waiting in secret for something or someone to hit her so hard to run out of breath, like the way a wave in a rough sea bowls you over, slams you into the sand, and nearly drowns you.” (P. 6)

We know, if we have ever fallen in love and most of us have to some extent or another, that it can’t possibly last, and deep down that is true of Grace and Annie who are wrestling with their internal demons of doubt and uncertainty, but oh the intoxicating hope that this is it, that life has re-oriented itself and we are saved from bland disappointment and a vague feeling that we peaked somewhere back in kindergarten.

In the middle of all this new love newly-found, sits Violet, Annie’s housemate who works as a New Age shop and isn’t entirely certain what she wants to do with her life.

She loves art, although that isn’t entirely on her radar and it takes much of the novel to become a thing, and she is imprisoned all too often in her bed by “the fear”, an enervating proclivity to believe, somewhere deep down that life outside the walls of her room in Annie’s immaculately-appointed house is far to threatening an undertaking to even contemplate.

Ostensibly a flaky but endearing study in contrasts to hyper-aware Annie and exhausted by waiting and hoping Grace, Violet is, in many ways, the most grounded of the lot of them and it is the way she responds to falling love, with a woman no less among years of dating feckless, exploitative men, that is the most mature and life-affirming of all.

Emma Morgan (image courtesy Penguin)

A Love Story for Bewildered Girls real charm lies not in the way it evokes the giddy hope-springs-eternal vibe of new love, although it does that very, very well with real, wonderful, fully-formed characters you fall in love in your own way, but in its willingness to call bullshit on many of our assumptions of how that love will change the course of our lives.

It is supposed to be life-changingly good, an antidote to life’s lonely toxicity, and for a time it is all that and much more, but as Annie, Grace and Violet, discover, life’s real saviour comes with discovering who you really are and what it is you really want out of life.

Like most people, asking these three remarkably real, flawed but likeable women what that might entail at the start of the novel is fraught with assumptions, romantic notions and self-perceptions that don’t quite match with reality, or sell it significantly short if nothing else.

But by the end, in ways big and small, transformative and “oh, yeah”, Annie, Grace and Violet have a pretty good handle on what will make life better than it was before.

Thankfully, it doesn’t lie at the end of some Tony Robbins-esque, road to Damascus moment, replete with corny mantras of self-actualisation and fulfillment.

“‘Then this is my advice to you, Violet, and you should listen … You need to find something good. Something you like and think is important … What is that? In all your life, what is beautiful?’

‘I … I don’t know.’

‘Then find your beautiful thing,’ said her father, with his hand on her hand. ‘And hold on to it tight.'” (PP. 225-226)

Where it does lie is for you to discover in Moran’s lyrically-evocative, sweet and funny, real and heartbreaking novel which dazzles with its beautiful use of language, sense of assurance of how love and live really play out, with the good and the bad, and a lovely grasp on what really matters in life.

The route to those epiphanies, if you can even call them epiphanies, although in a grounded way that’s exactly what they are, is a thorough delight, every step of the way.

Annie, Grace and dear sweet Violet are delightful and they are all of us in some way or another, all fumbling their ways to happily ever afters which it will please you no end to know, end up looking nothing like what they had imagined.

In its own, quietly-unassuming way, A Love Story for Bewildered Girls is a pretty revolutionary piece of writing, daring to call out many of our assumptions and reassuring notions of love and life, while celebrating all the things we know to be good such as family, enduring friendship and the finding and expression of what we love being and doing the most, and reminding us that perhaps the unexpected and the unknown, those challenges to our accepted way of things, though painful at times, may not be so bad after all.

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