The first scene tells us so much.
In Linda Sienkiewicz’s novel, In the Context of Love, in the very first scene a woman and her two children visit the husband-father in prison. The encounter is shot through with awkwardness: bewildered children, humiliated wife, appalling institutional sterility. “The four of us sat at a metal table,” the narrator, Angelica Lowsley, observes, “falling into the same seating arrangement we used to take at the dinner table.” Gavin, the husband, tries to make small talk, tries to connect with his children, while Angelica tries to control her rage at her husband, at the situation, at what her life has become. This is a context of love. Rock bottom.
In the next scene Angelica begins the story of how her life fell apart. She flashes back to her teen years, a time of innocence with a mother who radiates tension, terrified of men and life; a harridan grandmother, and a father who loves his daughter and seems to accept, just barely, an imperfect situation. She says of her parents’ wedding photo, “The two of them don’t look particularly close, much less in love.” This also is a context of love.
The discovery of a family secret will blow this context to bits.
And Angelica’s coming of age story will proceed. More contexts of love. In the backseat of a car behind a dumpster, in a school storeroom: loss of innocence happens. Losses accumulate, add up to less and less. In a series of missteps and mistakes that lead from Joe, the idealized focus of her adolescent love and sexual passion, to Gavin, with whom she takes revenge on her mother and on herself, Angelica’s life unravels. Experience seems synonymous with loss.
Again, the first scene tell us so much. Sienkiewicz’s gift for descriptive detail is immediately on display. “The damage he’d caused was a clear and tangible as the waxed floor and steel bars.” Again and again, the reader will be delighted by flashes of light on the page, details that capture character, setting, and Angelica’s emotional landscape. In the tense moments after discovering the family secret, Angelica looks upon her grandmother, “her hands moving like small rodents in the pockets of her house dress.” Adding, “She knew everything.” The next morning Angelica awakens to a different world: “I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had opened my curtains to an ash-filled sky, charred houses, trees burned to stubs, the ground still smoking.” The psychological fallout of sudden knowledge is captured in this extraordinary passage, part of a dream sequence:
“I walk along a highway in the dark, picking up dead women lying on the side of the road and bagging them the way you’d bag soda pop cans…The grass turns turns dark and slick, and the stench of rot worsens. I stumble over something, a woman with thin skin, like film on scalded milk, and arms and legs as spindly a crib rails. I reach down and take her arm, and when her body turns, I see it’s my mother.”
Also in that first scene a reader will notice the recurring “you” in the story. At various points in the story Angelica reminds the reader of her first love. This story is for the reader, yes, but even more so, it is for him. “For whatever reason, I thought of you.” “That’s the part of the story you don’t know.” “I wanted someone to rattle me, inundate me, swallow me whole like Jonah. I wanted to forget you, and everything else that had gone wrong.” It’s a brilliant plot device, driving the reader forward. Will this Joe, this idealized character who should figure in the context of love, will he return? Will Angelica Lowsley rebound from rock bottom, from the low points in her life, and redeem herself? Can love itself be redeemed? There’s no setting this book aside until those questions have answers.