:: Article

Adjacent to Love

By Sam Burt.

Isobel Wohl, Cold New Climate (Weatherglass Books, 2021)

The following review contains spoilers

An absence that makes itself felt throughout Isobel Wohl’s debut novel is Lydia’s friends. Where did they go? Were they ever there? Instead, we’re given ‘Liz’ who was, apparently, at one time ‘inseparable’ from Lydia but now acts like an asshole and says things like ‘boredom is the price of intimacy’. Her development throughout the novel can be visually represented by an ever-tightening asshole.

Seriously though, where are Lydia’s friends? Is Wohl saying a woman can stumble out of a relationship with an older man in her thirties and find that she was feeding off his friends the whole time, people she didn’t even like but used as a substitute for the friends she didn’t have but was planning to make when she became an adult herself, only to find that making friends was harder than she thought, and now she can’t seem to make any friends of her own because, you know, neoliberalism (no public space, only an amalgam of overheard private conversations) and a culture that only permits two visible demographics (young and free or old and settled; everyone else invisible)? I hope that’s one of the things she’s saying.

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Lydia and Tom have been married for nineteen years and the novel opens with them on a six-week break from each other, on Lydia’s request, so that she can return to the relationship ‘replenished and carefree and committed and affectionate’:

she told Tom she was still in love in the place sense but out of love in the shopkeeping sense, by which she meant that she was near love or around love or adjacent to love but had no love to give.

(Being ‘in love in the place sense’ begs a lot of questions. Maybe we should speak of being at love, in the sense that we’d say we’re ‘at work’ even on our lunch break. Or maybe we should take our lunch breaks more seriously.)

However, when Lydia returns to New York (she was in Athens), she finds that Tom has fallen in love with someone else during the six weeks. Conveniently, he implies that this was what she’d wanted all along, telling her (apparently without irony) that ‘you saved us…with your honesty.’ Their separation is far from amicable. When Lydia goes to a party to spy on Tom’s new woman, she mistakes the woman he’s with (Sandy) for his new lover (Diane), and, seeing Sandy’s engagement ring, jumps to the wrong conclusion. Cut to Lydia’s fumbling friendship-cum-relationship with Tom’s nineteen year-old son Caleb, who has his own history of mental health problems and substance misuse. The rest of the novel charts their erratic efforts to defy others’ judgement and have their love recognised, with much drama resulting from the tension between these objectives.

The novel climaxes with Tom’s accidental death in a fire, a tragedy which, for various reasons, Caleb feels responsible for. After this, he tells his psychiatrist, he will have to stay with Lydia if only to give his father’s death meaning (he died in pursuit of Caleb, who’d taken to the road with Lydia). At the same time, Lydia launches a doomed campaign to ingratiate herself and Caleb with Tom’s old friends — the same friends who’d dubbed her ‘Tom’s crisis’ when they’d started dating. What becomes clear is that Lydia craves their acceptance and approval, both of herself (as Tom’s ex) and of her ability to care for Caleb.

Wohl has said her characters’ actions result from their ‘shattered expectations.’ Lydia must navigate the roles of friend, lover and stepmother to Caleb. She never expected to linger in loco parentis but Tom’s death necessitates it. Yet the reassurance that she needs from Tom’s friends that she is a good stepmother to Caleb will never be given because she is also his lover. In their eyes, she’s gone straight from ‘some student’ hanging around Tom’s apartment to a perpetrator of incest and child abuse, with everything in between counting for nothing.

Lydia is more relatable than likeable, her actions often self-destructive or plain destructive. For instance, her decision to cheat on Caleb with the vulgar Tony Mulhouse or the way she responds to his repeated pleas to leave Sandy’s wedding, where Tom’s friends are making him anxious, by telling him he looks ‘so sexy.’ Sometimes she gives the impression of being someone who needs to remind themselves to consider others’ feelings. While hosting their first dinner party as a couple,

For the first time Lydia wondered what it was like for him to be there, in his dead father’s redecorated apartment, entertaining his father’s acquaintances.

We may be surprised that she took so long to consider it, but Caleb isn’t. He appreciates that Lydia’s inappropriate thoughts and statements come from ‘shattered expectations’, and perhaps also from her postponed youth. In these exposed moments, she’s ashamed to find that he pities her:

He was not disgusted with her, and he was not surprised. She wished he had been and saw that instead he pitied her.

Yet, arguably, she needs the kind of emotional distance that his pity implies in order to process the shame of being both lover and ‘one-time-stepmotherish-friend.’

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Author pic from the Weatherglass Books website.

Inevitably, Caleb triggers conflicting impulses in her: one the one hand, to make theirs a regularised pairing by soliciting the adults’ blessing (Tom’s friends), and on the other, to use the freedom afforded by their existing outside social conventions to transgress them and, perhaps, enjoy the youth she presumably compromised in dating Tom.

Both impulses, when acted on, meet with Caleb’s mute disapproval. After losing both his father and his former girlfriend, he seems content to let things be. Not being responsible for Lydia in the way that she is for him, he doesn’t share her anxiety about their status as a couple. As Lydia herself recognises, ‘he would read Reddit in the bedroom every evening for the foreseeable future.’

In a moment towards the end of the novel that encapsulates her frenzy and his passivity, Lydia receives a text from a guy asking her out for a drink, but before she responds, she, apropos of nothing, proposes to Caleb, who replies that it ‘sounds good’. She then texts to confirm the drink. When Caleb finds out she has slept with the guy, he tells her ‘it’s not a big thing’ and only asks that she let him know beforehand in future; an apparently simple request that proves sufficient to stop her sleeping with anyone else for the rest of her life (although we’re told that, as a result, ‘she grew angry’). Having to think about Caleb’s knowledge of her sexual act with another, while it’s taking place, is intolerable to her, which seems to suggest that she values such sexual encounters as much for giving her a social existence independent of her relationship — something she seems to have lacked in the past two decades — as she does for the sex itself.

In other words, casual and illicit sex is an imperfect substitute for friends. Perhaps if she explained it that way to Caleb, he might understand why she finds his request objectionable. However, that would require an articulation of her friendlessness (shameful for a woman in her late thirties) to him and to herself. At the same time, calling otherwise unsatisfactory sexual encounters by their proper name would destroy them as (even imagined) reliefs from loneliness.

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This, then, is a novel interested in the meaning(s) of fidelity and infidelity, as well as the conditions under which we can believe what we have might last. During her break in Athens, Lydia discusses a nearby wind farm with a local:

Lydia says that she does not think it ruins the view at all… If you are putting turbines on a hillside you are trying to secure a future, and the wind farm…makes her feel as if everything will, perhaps, be all right, because we will, perhaps, do something in time.

But in a proleptic coda, we learn that the ‘perhapses’ have won: not enough was done and now large parts of America are underwater. Food and medicine are in short supply. What seems to be implied in this gradual drawing of environmental issues towards the foreground, is that our attitudes towards the environment get filtered through the lens of what’s happening in our personal lives. While she’s pining for wind farms, Lydia still believes their six-week break is a timely intervention that will save her relationship with Tom. With him, there was a standard of love she felt herself failing to live up to, but which she wanted and hoped to approximate; with Caleb, by contrast, her relationship seems destined to remain static for as long as it lasts. She will always be in loco parentis and he will always make what seem like modest demands, so they will always stop short of a breaking point. Presumably for this very reason, the narrative skips the long duree of their marriage and we cut straight from their wedding to them in old age. One can easily imagine Lydia avoiding the subject of climate change during those years, since, unlike the climate itself, it never seems to change. And all the while, ‘it happened slowly, and then it happened all at once.’

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sam Burt is a writer/tutor and a student of creative writing at the University of Manchester. He has a particular interest in autofiction and fiction that explores the affects of internet dependence. His work has appeared in Ink, Sweat & Tears, Popshot Quarterly, the Guardian and London Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 9th, 2021.