Monday, June 22, 2015

Review: 'Love May Fail' by Matthew Quick

*I received this book as an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

'Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail.' - Jailbird, Kurt Vonnegut

This is the first chance I’ve had to write this, even though I finished Matthew Quick’s ‘Love May Fail’ in a few days almost as soon as I received it through Netgalley.

I enjoy reading Quick’s work because he uses a unique blend of themes that really speak to me; whether it’s mental health, the role of parents and teachers, of love and relationships and pain and betrayal – he does it all in a very particular, quirky (Quick-y) style which blends the humorous and ironic (without belittling anything) with heartbreaking situations and broken, eccentric/flawed characters. 

Portia Kane is having a meltdown. After escaping her cheating husband and their posh Florida life, she finds herself transported back home and back to square one. In need of saving herself, she sets out to find and resurrect a beloved high-school English teacher who has retired after a violent incident in the classroom.

But she quickly learns that it's not a one-woman job. Luckily she meets a few people on her journey. Can Chuck, the handsome brother of Portia's old school friend, together with a sassy nun and a metal-head little boy, help Portia's chances in her bid for renewed hope in the human race? (from

Oddly I read the blurb of the book and it sounded like everything I’d normally avoid (cliché romantic comedy), even the title would usually turn me off, but I know better with Matthew Quick – I know that I’ll always find something of what I’m looking for in his books.

Love May Fail has Camus, Bon Jovi (‘Ah, bullshit. Eighties hair metal was fun. It’s still fun. God, I miss guitar solos. Where did those go? They were like the orgasm of the song. Why would you ever cut those out? What do teens even do in mirrors now if they can’t play air guitar?’) Dead Poet's Society and Ernest Hemingway references, which are enough to win me over any day and Quick has cited all these as influences in many interviews. The plot is contrived at points and heavily dependent on suspension of disbelief and coincidence but Quick’s writing is intelligent and inter-textual and taps into sides of humanity that don’t get explored enough. 

My favourite of his books remains Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock but Love May Fail is another, sometimes trying, but ultimately thought-provoking adult novel. There are times when Portia felt like a bit of a parody of herself, but switching between different character perspectives ultimately balanced out the different characters’ eccentricities and gave just enough of their inner-workings. As someone who grew up in the Gossip Girl generation, however, the name Chuck Bass always made me double take.

My favourite part was the story of Mr Vernon (and his dog, Albert Camus) and the impact he had on Portia. I was less interested in the love story, though Chuck, as a recovering addict and father-figure to his nephew, was a compelling character on his own.

Mr Vernon: ‘You gotta believe once in a while, kids. That’s what I’m trying to tell you here. The world will try to crush that belief out of you. It will try its damnedest. ‘If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.’ Does anyone know who wrote that?’

Portia: ‘Ernest Hemingway. It’s from A Farewell To Arms. We read it Sophomore year.

Mr Vernon attempts to make his students understand the cost of being strong, and tells them that one day they will all understand. He certainly experiences such a cost (this could be seen as paralleling the fate of Mr Keating in Dead Poet’s Society – perhaps this is one interpretation of what could have become of a man like Keating after), in a senseless, unprovoked attack by a student which leaves him broken and damaged for the rest of his life. It is this Mr Vernon that Portia has to try and restore. A depressed and suicidal alcoholic, who names his dog Albert Camus. In a darkly comic scene, the dog jumps to its death from his apartment window – what Mr Vernon interprets as an act of suicide. There is something of the Camus-ian anti-hero in Mr Vernon at this point, a quality of the Meursault – as he wonders ‘if it’s wrong to miss my dog much more than I miss my mother’ (he finds out his mother, who’s letters he has never opened, has died). Mr Vernon’s thinking is consumed by a grim strand of the Absurd (see in relation to Camus)  – a dark embrace of the futility and irrationality of his existence and a step away from society’s emotional standards and claims on him.

It is this that Portia must contend with, as if somehow saving Mr Vernon will save a whole group of students who have also made mistakes or had accidents and suffered.

Portia: ‘FUCK YOU, you have a responsibility to your students! FUCK YOU, you have a responsibility to yourself!’

Mr Vernon: ‘Why?’ I yell. ‘Why? If you can tell me, I’d be most grateful. I was just a high school English teacher. No one cared! No one at all! The world does not give a flying hoot about high school English teachers! Why do I have a responsibility to anyone? What responsibility do I have?’

Portia: ‘To be a good man! Because you changed the lives of many kids. Because we believed in you!’

Both are guilty of extremes of thinking – Portia is full of a romantic idealism – a belief that a kind of adoration or love between teacher and students will prevail, while Mr Vernon has fallen into apathy and Absurdism, believing only in love's failure.

I particularly like that Quick (a former teacher himself) acknowledges the role of a teacher who positively impacts their students – so many of his books make the case that such teachers can save lives, without even being aware – they change worlds and mould minds. They matter and often they can go their whole lives without realising just how much. Portia’s quest is an admirable one, to give this gift to the teacher who helped her. Too often in society, the voices of appreciation and the simple acts of gratitude are lost in the focus on the negative and the extreme or people simply forget to express positive feelings that seem small in the moment. The pivotal roles that teachers can play are expressed also in the personal lives of Leonard (in Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock) and Portia here. Both need the surrogate paternal figures, and what other source is it to come from – with varying degrees of absent parents and the majority of their formative years spent in school?

In a great interview with Mountain X (I will reference this a few times, all Quick quotes will be from here:–) Quick spoke about how he tried to channel his ‘inner Mr. Keating’, ‘with no real life experiences to back my claims’ and then left teaching ‘completely burned out and dangerously depressed’. He also speaks about the parts of the ‘teacher/student relationship’ that he finds fascinating:

‘It gets frozen in time. I eternally think of my former students as teenagers, even though some of them are in their thirties now. They have careers, houses and children of their own. And they think of me as a teacher even though I haven’t written a lesson plan or graded a test in more than a decade. I’ve given talks at the high school I attended as a teenager and I still can’t call my former teachers by their first names. I don’t think I ever will be able to do that.’

In the same interview, Quick alludes to a comment once made that his ‘characters take turns in rescuing each other.’ This certainly plays out in Love May Fail, as there seems to be a cycle of rescue attempts and fails and people trying to do their best in difficult situations – it is all emphasized by each switch in perspective.

In her attempted rescue of Mr Vernon, Portia wants to fulfil some of her childhood fantasies:

‘When I was in your class I used to pretend you were my father, because I never had one—and if I got to pick, I would have wanted a father exactly like you. I used to fantasize about you taking me places like the Mark Twain House and teaching me about great writers, the way other fathers might teach their sons about baseball players at the ballpark. And now we’ve been to the home of a famous writer together. It’s kind of like a childhood dream come true for me’

Even Chuck recognises the power of such a figure as a constant:

‘He’s been my one constant since I quit heroin, and a constant is a powerful thing’

It is ‘Romantic’, in a ‘wonderfully platonic way’, as Mr Vernon muses, ‘the former student returning after all these years to save the grizzled teacher who has suffered calamity and given up hope –it’s poetic, but it’s simply not real life’.

Instead, Portia and Chuck must find something of that inspirational time with the old Mr Vernon in each other, and their bond grows from the shared memory of those formative years and the teacher who inspired them. Their grand gestures for Mr Vernon fail to have the desired effect, and when he runs away in fear – both must face the question:

‘What do you do when the person you admire most literally turns his back on you?’

The answer is, muddle through, put your heart and soul into something worthwhile and hope it pays off in the end. For Portia, it is to write the novel she’s been meaning to, and to make it a tribute to the teacher who kept her going. This is where the title has such resonance – Quick has talked before about the influence of this quote (taken from the beginning of Vonnegut’s Jailbird: ‘Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail’), and Vonnegut in general, on him. For Quick, this quote embodies the notion that ‘small, simple things save us in the end’ (see Mountain X interview) – perhaps not the grand, memorable gestures but the quiet acts of gratitude and care – the smallest courtesies done with sincerity.

‘Some students beat the hell out of you with a baseball bat, and some students save you by writing novels. And we’ve got to thank our saviour no matter how many times we feel attacked and broken, because we damn well need them. So that’s what today is about. Thank you, Portia, for Love May Fail’

Love May Fail is heart-warming, moving, funny, dark and full of small, simple feats of impact and it resonates on an individual and human scale. 

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