Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love

Withholding information — and doling it out in small increments — is one of the ways novelists keep us turning pages. In some books, the characters know more than we do. In others, readers and characters are equally clueless, on a tandem road to discovery. And sometimes, as in Sarah Butler’s poignant first novel, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, we are in on a secret that at least one of the characters doesn’t know, and part of what drives the narrative is the question of if and when they’ll find out.

Butler’s book is a promising rather than dazzling debut, but it is a good choice for reading groups because it offers so much to talk about. Told from the alternating perspectives of an older homeless man and a young woman who’s adrift, it’s not as light as either its title or the top ten lists that precede each chapter suggest. In fact, Butler addresses serious issues about family and rootlessness, with a particular focus on fatherhood: what it means to be a father, have a father, lose a father, be hurt or disappointed by a father — and the paternal ache of being a stranger to one’s own child.

The young woman is a twenty-eight-year-old wanderer named Alice Tanner, who is summoned from her travels in Mongolia to her father’s deathbed in London by her two older sisters. With more than ten years between her and her siblings, Alice has always felt alienated from her family, especially after her impetuous mother died in a suspicious car accident when Alice was four. She’s never felt fully accepted by her father, a successful surgeon, and senses that he and her sisters either blame her for her mother’s death or are keeping something from her.

The tramp is a man in his late fifties named Daniel, homeless by choice and obsessed with finding the daughter he fathered with the one great love of his life. Julianne was a restless, impulsive, red-haired beauty for whom he provided a temporary escape from her stultifying life with her husband and two daughters. Daniel has never gotten over the relationship, which Julianne broke off when she discovered she was pregnant. His life has spiraled downhill since.

I’m not giving away anything that Butler doesn’t reveal in the very first chapters when I tell you that Daniel’s daughter is, of course, unhappy, unmoored, red-headed Alice. He learned her name when he happened upon her mother’s obituary years ago, and he learns of her current whereabouts when he sees Malcolm Tanner’s death notice.  

By revealing the connection between her two narrators right off the bat, Butler shifts our focus to the question of when and if the lady and the tramp will ever share a metaphorical bowl of spaghetti. Will Alice discover the roots of her rootlessness and learn that the man she’s mourning so conflictedly wasn’t her biological father after all? How will she react? Butler tantalizes us with questions and near misses – to the point of occasional impatience.

Meanwhile, Alice is preoccupied with readying the house she grew up in for market and missing her solid, loving Indian boyfriend. She broke up with him because he was unwilling to reveal their relationship to his parents, who are set on a traditional arranged marriage for their son.

Daniel’s interior monologue is a running apologia to the daughter he’s never met. He’s an artist manqué who experiences words as colors, a condition called synesthesia: He sees the name Alice as ice blue, Julianne as lipstick red, the s in “sorry” as olive green. Better at expressing himself through his coded art than verbally, he collects odds and ends off the street — scraps of papers, hair ties, bits of string — which he fashions into whimsical flowers and dangling installations that spell out a message of love and apology to his long-lost daughter. Heartrending? Yes. Yet all the color business is less fascinating than Butler might have wished.

In fact, none of Butler’s characters are particularly adept at expressing themselves directly. The book is filled with broken-off declarations and abortive conversations: “Alice, I don’t — ” her ex-boyfriend starts but never finishes. “Alice, do you think — ” her kinder elder sister starts to ask before stopping herself. “Alice…I wasn’t going to tell you this — ”  another says, before she cuts him off. At her father’s funeral, a friend of her mother’s “opens her mouth as if to say something else, but I turn and walk away from her.” On the list of ten things Alice plans to say to her dying father, “Please don’t — ” is number ten. In aggregate, all these disjunctions add up to a frustrating tease. The overall implication is that some things are better left unsaid.

About those lists, readers are likely to be divided in opinion. It’s a gimmicky device, yet they are surprisingly moving in their forthright distillation of profound feelings: “Ten ways other people might describe me”; “Ten inappropriate thoughts during my father’s funeral”; “Ten things I thought I’d do with my life”; “Ten times I’ve wanted to die.” Daniel’s list of ten things that frighten him, for example, starts with “1. Turning out like my father,” and ends with “9. Never finding you,” and “10. Finding you.”

I couldn’t help contrasting Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love with The Hours, one of my favorite books. Michael Cunningham’s brilliant homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway alternates between apparently unrelated stories set decades apart: a young mother and son baking a birthday cake for her husband, and a woman about to throw a party for an artist friend dying of AIDS. But while Butler has chosen to reveal the connection between her two narratives early on, Cunningham, by withholding the link between his characters until the very end of his book, creates a powerfully satisfying “aha” moment.

Although lacking in such surprise revelations, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love still has its satisfactions. These begin with Butler’s terrific first paragraph, which puts us on early notice both that Alice is an outsider even in her father’s home and that Butler really can write: “My father lives on his own in a haughty terraced house near Hampstead Heath. The houses round there are smug and fat, their tiled drives like long expensive tongues, their garden walls just high enough to stop people from seeing in. It’s all bay windows and heavy curtains, clematis and wisteria.”

Also worthy of note (and discussion) is Butler’s moving exploration of what her unwashed, ripe vagrant – a failure in society’s eyes — has gleaned about love and life, including the value not just of wandering but of learning to stand still. For another book that takes an oblique, unconventional bead on love, readers might want to check out Alain de Botton’s witty novel On Love, which uses numbered points to analyze the vagaries of romance. Both of these books reinforce the realization that any list of ten things I’ve learnt about love would need to include something about its myriad, unpredictable forms.