Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Opposite of Love: a case study in "no two persons ever read the same book."

The Opposite of Love

As a writer, I thought I was pretty comfortable with the notion that every reader brings their own personality, and their own baggage, along with them to every reading experience. It makes sense--we're all different, so we will all absorb a creative experience like reading a book in different ways. We run every book we read through our own personal filter.

When an early draft of my book, The One That Got Away, was in its initial-feedback stage, mixed in among the helpful critiques I received was one that was such, in my view, a strong over-reaction to a very small element of the story that it seemed obvious the book had touched on one of that reader's personal sore spots. I mined the critique for what I found helpful, and shrugged off the hyperbole. It was a lesson in how sometimes reviews are much more about the reader than the book.

I had this experience again recently, from the other side of the coin. I had just finished Julie Buxbaum's The Opposite of Love, and as I often do with books I really respond to, I dipped into Amazon and Goodreads to see what other readers had to say. The type of comments I saw there:

"This is a refreshingly smart chick-lit novel."
"This is a novel about a young woman finding out who she is."
"This story is about a Manhattan attorney who breaks up with her boyfriend and then has to figure out what she wants from her life."

Which, yes. Absolutely. All of those things are true.

But what I didn't see as I skimmed the reviews, and I grew more and more surprised at its absence as I skimmed, was:

"This is a story about a young woman coping with the loss of her mother."

And then it hit me: that was my baggage. My sore spot. The reason that what stood out to me about the book was not the Manhattan-attorney part or the smart-chick-lit part or the self-discovery part was that all those parts got caught in my filter. What made it through the filter, what felt to me like the purest essence of the book, was the theme of loss. How it damages us, how it haunts us, how it hurts us, long after we think it should still be able to. How we try to protect ourselves from it.

What's fascinating to me is that both my take on the book, and the take of readers who focused on the storyline more than the theme, are accurate. All that stuff is there. But because, like the book's narrator Emily, I lost my mother young, I was quite literally sobbing with recognition at the specificity of the heartbreak that's there on the page. Like Emily's bitterness and frustration that, fifteen years after her mother's death, she feels as though her mother has been reduced to little more than a series of photographs and anecdotes that have gotten worn from re-use, because there are no new photos and no new memories, and countless tiny memories not strong enough to make an impression have simply faded away. I live with that exact pain, so to stumble across it in someone else's book was extraordinary. And to me, Buxbaum's exquisitely rendered portrayal of Emily's loss, and her obsessive need to imprint her living loved ones deeply onto her memory to prevent them from disappearing when they eventually leave her behind, was the heart and soul of this book.

Yet, many other people didn't feel that aspect as deeply. They've never experienced it, so they have no way to know how true it is. Maybe they skimmed over those passages, to find out what happened with Emily's job or her boyfriend. And that's valid, too. But if we accept the idea that fiction is at its best when it reveals the truth of life, then that is where this book shines so beautifully.


  1. Wonderful post! The Opposite of Love is one of my favourite books. I lost my mother when I was younger, so this is also my baggage and what stood out to me. It's so true. Our personal experiences do spill over into our reading experiences.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Annette, and thank you for reading. And I'm sorry that you, too, are able to understand this personally.