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From Barnes & NobleBarnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Lovers pave the way with letters." Taking this cue from Ovid, Niall Williams fashions his rapturous debut novel as a modern Art Of Love, a prose examination of love and its endless set of variations. The ostensibly isolated yet mystically connected stories of two Irish families, each profoundly touched by God, establish the novel's framework, but it is Williams's fascination with the genesis of attraction and the overwhelming desire to love and to be loved that provides its profound emotional depth.
Nicholas Coughlan was 12 years old when God spoke to his father for the first time. "God didn't say much. He told my father to be a painter, and left it at that, returning to a seat amongst the angels and watching through the clouds over the grey city to see what would happen next." But even in Catholic Ireland, personal audiences with God are something of a rarity, and from the viewpoint of Nicholas's mother, certain to signify more of a burden than a blessing. Abandoning the care of his wife and child to providence, William Coughlan accepts his holy charge, quits his job in the civil service, and sets out for the rugged solitude of the coast to do God's will. He returns at summer's end with the first rough underpaintings of his "remembered vision of the glory of God," canvases that do nothing to allay his wife's worst fears. In the months that follow, while his father wrestles with doubt and his mother slips quietly into despair, Nicholas comes to view his family as "a sort of test unit for God...a kind of three-person Moses or Job or somebody, alittlehousehold upon which He had decided to lay the burdens of His presence...." William Coughlan persists in his attempts to capture the very essence of creation, despite personal tragedy and disappointments that would shake the faith of any other man. In time, he completes three canvases, then, to Nicholas's amazement, announces that his work is finished.
At the same time, on an island off the west coast, Isabel Gore and her musically gifted younger brother, Sean, have constructed an elaborate fantasy world for themselves. But their idyllic childhood is shattered when Sean is taken with a fit after a frenzy of music and dancing and is left a mute semi-invalid. Unable to bear the senselessness of the incident, Isabel secretly blames herself for her brother's fate, and "[o]n the isle of quietness, Isabel began to feel a prisoner of what she had done." During her years away at a mainland secondary school, this secret shame takes its toll; where once she had been the island's quickest student, the headmaster's daughter with a bright future, she now chafes at the nuns' authority and becomes distracted and morose. By the time of her chance meeting with a Galway ne'er-do-well by name of Peader O'Luing, her self-esteem has ebbed sufficiently that she accepts his clumsy neediness as love, convinced that she deserves no better. Reading between the lines of the letters Isabel sends home, her mother guesses at her daughter's predicament, but conceals her suspicions from her husband, fearing that they would "knock the last love out of him."
Without revealing too much of the plot, suffice to say that through a series of remarkable coincidences, or, as William Coughlan would have it, by divine will, the two stories begin to converge. But as compelling as the story is, as each thread inexorably shuttles its way through warp and woof to mesh with the others, it is each character's inner commentary on the rewards and disappointments of love that is this novel's master stroke. In these digressions we learn how Nicholas's mother, ardently courted by William Coughlan, "mistook the new delight of her effect on a man's heart for the ecstasy of being in love," and how William eventually won her with the white-hot intensity of his letters. Similarly pursued by Peader, Isabel succumbs to the romance of his longing, until the very idea of him begins "to take on the dimensions of love." Isabel's mother, Margaret, considering how love first fills the heart to bursting then bleeds back drop by drop with life's routines, marvels at how immense her love for her husband must have been to last so long. Even long-suffering Nicholas at last finds love, though he will have to overcome formidable opposition to achieve it: "Imagine that one of the aches of the world had been secretly mended, and music heralded the news, rising along allegro with notes like joy and laugher pealing as she opened the door. This is how I came to see Isabel Gore for the first time."
In a world littered with "literary romances," Niall Williams has written an original and visionary love story — one that never takes the easy way out, never sounds a false chord. Powerfully evocative and emotionally exhausting, Four Letters of Love is a truly unforgettable book.