A Publishers Weekly Pick of the Week and a New York Post Required Reading Pick
It all starts when four unsuspecting women, on a singles’ bike trip through Normandy, discover a mysterious red book about love. But did they discover it—or did the book bring them together? Somehow the possibly magical Love Book will insinuate itself into Emily’s, Beatrice’s, Max’s, and Cathy’s lives, which so far haven’t turned out exactly the way society, their families, or they themselves have planned. Along the way, they’ll be nudged, cajoled, inspired—perhaps even “guided”—in spite of themselves to discover love, fulfillment, and the true nature of being a soul mate.
“The Love Book should come with a warning: Do not begin unless you can afford to finish it—today. I could not, and did not, put it down. A contemporary Jane Austen, Nina Solomon has written a smart and funny book about what it’s like to be a woman, no longer young but not yet old and still single, looking for love in all the wrong places, only to find life. I laughed out loud so often I was downright downcast when I reached the last page and had to give up the good company of these wonderful characters.” —Beverly Donofrio, author of Astonished: A Story of Healing and Finding Grace
“Happy endings abound in this novel about the power of love and friendship.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A compelling mix of story lines . . . Plenty of good banter and characterization.” —Publishers Weekly
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About the Author
Kaylie Jones (editor) is the award-winning author of five novels and a memoir. She teaches writing at two MFA programs and lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
THE FOUR FURIES
IT WAS DOOMED FROM THE START. One after another, the cycling singles who had oh so bravely embarked on the Tour de Flaubert bike trip through the cow dung — laden back roads of Normandy had wilted faster than rose petals in a hopeful lover's hand. Chugging over hill and dale on khaki one-speeds probably left over from D-day was no picnic, especially at the mercy of red-faced farmers in their royal bleus de travail, pickled in calvados, careening down the middle of the road. The coup de grÃ¢ce was simple arithmetic: nine frisky women divided by one gay man does not equal romance.
The flytrap excuse for a tour began in the quaint port of Honfleur and ended in "Yonville" at the fictional home of Emma Bovary, that femme fatale par excellence and her hapless cocu of a husband, Charles. The attrition had occurred with neither fanfare nor regret. First to go was a self-described former beauty queen who, after failing to seduce the almost always AWOL tour guide, found solace in the arms of a pudgy but well-heeled bon vivant in Deauville. The next was called home allegedly to tend to her corgi, whose spastic colon was wreaking havoc at the kennel. Then there were the annoying Canadian sisters who, unhappy with the accommodations, called their travel agent, obtained a full refund, and repositioned themselves on a first-class trip down the Nile at the height of terrorist season. A nondescript woman (Qui? Qui?) disappeared at some point, but had she left, had they lost her, had she even been there in the first place? Orlando, a bear of a man with a penchant for too-tight bike shorts, had fallen head over heels with the patron of a "clothing-optional" B & B and moved into his cozy manse near the cliffs at Etretat. The last to go was a mousy Englishwoman who finally lifted her nose out of her overly thumbed copy of Madame Bovary and realized she was surrounded by a gaggle of high-pitched cluckers, lovelorn sad sacks with excess luggage no amount of pedaling or therapy could burn off. There was no love lost when she bid them a quick adieu and warbled away in an Austin-Healey to meet her sister back home in the Lake District.
By the time they arrived at Emma Bovary's home, a petit bourgeois affair with severe shutters and a pitched shingled roof, only three little Lonely Hearts remained, all Americans — or four, if they counted Madame Bovary herself, that cloaked figure who seemed to shadow them in her Hirondelle.
There was Emily, a single mother and divorcée from Manhattan, the Upper West Side to be precise, the "shtetl" of overly opinionated upper-middle-class artsy Jewish intellectuals, not to be confused with the "snooty" and provincial Upper East Side. (Like Flaubert, she had a love-hate relationship with the hamlet she called home.) Her dark Mediterranean looks made her feel self- conscious around blond, blue-eyed Midwesterners. She checked her phone for messages umpteen times a day. She hadn't received a single SMS from her ex-husband, Charles, since she'd gotten there. Was he really so small that he couldn't send her a simple Zach is fine, or an All good here? A Zach misses you would have been way too much to hope for. At this point she'd even have settled for a Zach mugged a third grader and skinned his knee. She tried to focus on the notes she was jotting down in her Moleskine: Soldier on, girl, work will set you free.
Then there was Maxine, a twentyish personal trainer who ran five miles every morning before they set out each day, and kept her blond hair buzzed danger short on one side and butch on the other. Her only care seemed to be her determination to prevent her body fat from exceeding 12 percent. Whatever Max felt about the tour or France or life or love, and the world, she kept it to herself. The others agreed she must have wound up with them by mistake, though none of them knew for sure. In fact, the trip had fallen in her lap. One of her clients had won it in a silent auction for the benefit of an anthroposophist commune in the Hudson River Valley, and given it to Max.
And last but not least, Cathy, a perky special ed teacher who came prepared for everything short of Armageddon ... endless rolls of aloe- scented toilet paper, Band-Aids, EpiPens, hand sanitizer, iodine pills for purifying water, pills for constipation, pills for Giardia, pills for you name it, and probably some gold coins, escape maps, and a forged ID. What really set her apart was her different pair of floral stirrup pants for every day of the week.
In the early days of the Tour de Flaubert, before the weak were weeded out, as they rode up chalky hills and coasted through the cool air of the gold-speckled beech forests, the cathedral-tall canopy of branches shading them from the sun, they'd seen occasional flashes of a fiery redhead. She was elegant in her tweed skirt, zipping along on a blue lady's bicycle and slaloming between the bouses (the ubiquitous piles of dried cow dung) that decorated Picardy. No one knew quite what to make of her, though the best guess was that she was either Countess Aurelia of The Madwoman of Chaillot or an Avon Lady.
* * *
One day, during a downpour so torrential it seemed as if the rain might dissolve their bodies into the Normandy soil, Emily, Cathy, and Max found themselves stranded from the rest of the group. Soaked to the bone and famished, they made inquiries at an auberge but the innkeeper spoke no English and merely shrugged off their excusez-mois and s'il vous plaîts and sent them pedaling back out into the deluge. They could barely wheel their bikes through the soggy salad of a road without slipping and falling every few minutes.
Shipwrecked and downcast, they stumbled upon an old chalk grotto and took refuge from the storm. Cathy set up an LED lantern, rummaged through her backpack for her official Girl Scout compass in a green Bakelite case to determine their coordinates. But what good was a compass without a map? (The supposedly waterproof Michelin Guide had long ago disintegrated in the rain.) She spritzed them with hand sanitizer and told them what to do in case they encountered any cave-dwelling snakes.
Despite Cathy's admonitions, Max convinced them to venture further into the cave. Neither Cathy nor Emily had any desire to be left alone in the dark. With only the flickering lantern to guide them, they discovered a gothic archway carved into the chalk, and countless crumbling sculptures depicting heroines of the ages, from Joan of Arc to the female cyborg in Ghost in the Shell. The walls were covered in graffiti, a lot of it in neon reflective paint. The mud-splattered ground was littered with little green beer bottles. Further in, a big pink blob revealed itself to the light. It turned out to be an army tank, repainted in pink camouflage, the gothic crosses replaced with hot-pink hearts. Behind the tank was a circular crab apple press, jury-rigged to the tank's engine. There was also a tarnished copper alembic, which they would later discover was an illegal still.
Stacked up on the far wall were hundreds, if not thousands of dusty bottles of apple cider. Max popped the first cork by holding the bottleneck between her thighs. Several others exploded spontaneously. The cider was light, dry, and refreshing, and before long the women, excluding Max, who did not drink, were feeling very festive, especially Cathy, who said they didn't sell this kind of cider at the Tice's Corner farm stand. They were even inspired to play a drinking game, a hybrid of Truth or Dare and Fuzzy Duck, which prompted some deep truths about human nature and personal revelations, only to be forgotten in the morning.
Emily jotted down some notes: Allecto, the angry one; Megaera, the jealous one; Tisiphone, the avenger of murder. The three Furies. She'd helped her son Zach study for a test on Greek mythology last year. The reference had seemed fitting at the time; they were in a sort of underworld, although she couldn't quite pin down who was who, or make heads or tails of her handwriting when she tried to decipher it later.
This wasn't the first time they had been separated from the group. Their tour guide, with his gold signet Cracker Jack ring and endless and inextinguishable font of Madame Bovaria didn't consider small details, like whether everyone on the tour was accounted for, to be on his cahier des charges.
They had sung quite a way down from "Ninty-nine problems and you're hearing them all" when they first became aware of stamping feet and then shouting. The footsteps were coming closer. They shushed each other, extinguished the lantern. Without so much as a bonjour, two imperious Frenchmen in long white aprons marched them up several flights of stairs, finally emerging into the quaint old kitchen of an auberge where pots simmered and pans sizzled. The gendarmes were about to be called in to decide the fate of the three cider pilferers, when the mysterious redhead of the blue bike appeared from the salle à manger.
"Excusez-moi," she said with her Midwestern accent, "I'm Beatrice, allow me." Napkin still in hand, she quieted down the hosts making assurances that the cost of the applejack would be reimbursed; and, despite the lack of passports and cartes d'identité, clean rooms, hot baths, and a Norman feast were quickly arranged. The only thing she did not provide was a squad of French lovers, although Max had no trouble conjuring one later on her own.
The aubergiste couldn't have become friendlier. "Trouvez-moi une table pour ces mal baisées d'américaines," he ordered the garçon, who seated them at a cramped table near the kitchen. The soupe à l'oignon gratinée, so thick it was easier to eat with a fork than a spoon, was washed down with a trou normand (a spoonful of homemade apple sherbet floating in calvados), a blanquette de veau, another trou normand, followed by the plateau de fromages, another trou normand, then, palates sufficiently cleansed, a molten tarte Tatin ...
"Calories never tasted so good," declared Max, very likely calculating how many miles she'd have to run to get back to ground zero.
Their savior, Beatrice, had replaced her usual biking tartan with a linen dress the color of buttercups and a strand of amber beads. Luckily, Cathy had several days' worth of one-size-fits-all outfits in her emergency backpack. She had changed into her favorite fuchsia stirrup pants, the ones she usually wore on Saturdays, and an oversized white T- shirt. Emily was in Cathy's cornflower-blue Monday pair, and Max was barely dressed, in a sports bra and men's boxers with the waistband rolled down, exposing her hipbones. No sunflower Sunday stirrup pants for her.
Dinner cleared away, Beatrice ordered café calvas, in what turned out to be the first of many nightcaps.
"So, enjoying the calvados?" she asked the women. "You've certainly earned it. I've seen you pedaling along each and every byway."
"Yes, I think we've crossed paths a few times," Emily said.
"Calvados?" Cathy asked. "I thought it was apple cider."
Beatrice laughed. "It doesn't mean save our souls for nothing. There's magic in those apples. Do you want to know how calvados got its name?" Emily's pen was poised to take notes. Beatrice patted her hand. "Don't think you're going to find this on Wikipedia."
Calvados, Beatrice told them, was named for the Spanish sailors who washed up on the shore after their ship the San Salvador sank on the rocks off Arromanches. The only thing they had to eat was an exotic variety of bittersweet Iberian apples. Marineros and apple seeds took root and spawned the famous crab apple orchards that are the pride of Normandy and the source of the world's finest ciders and apple brandy.
Beatrice took a sip of her drink. "Et voilà!"
After the first dessert course was cleared, the conversation, as it had been wont to do on the Tour de Flaubert, turned to men, to the delight of everyone except Emily who was too absorbed in her thoughts and writing them down to pay complete attention to the overall soap opera.
Her mind was elsewhere, cycling, actually "recycling," a thought that made her smile, through quaint towns with timber-framed houses and down quiet country lanes. On the Tour de Flaubert everything was Madame Bovary. Even the street signs. They stopped for a nibble at Bar Bovary and bought trinkets at Le Grenier Bovary. In the automaton museum, five hundred remote-controlled mannequins reenacted scenes from Madame Bovary: Emma and Charles dancing on their wedding day; Emma in a cab with Léon, impulsively ripping off her chemise; Charles sawing off Hippolyte's leg; Emma fainting in the kitchen when she receives the basket of apricots from Rodolphe with a Dear Jane letter tucked inside.
Their tour guide had delighted in frightening them with ghost stories at every opportunity. At Mortemer Abbey, he recounted the legend of the White Lady and her feline goblin companion that "knows naught of no." Cathy didn't get a wink of sleep that night and was dressed and ready to go at the crack of dawn.
They visited the grave of Delphine Delamare, Flaubert's model for Emma Bovary, and rode up a hilltop where Emma and Rodolphe had ridden on horseback. After a while it became hard to discern truth from fiction-- — for instance, which, if either, of the two stuffed parrots was the actual one that had sat on Flaubert's writing table? The only place reality was not in question was in Flaubert's library, now housed in the town hall. Surrounded by his books — Cervantes, Shakespeare, Voltaire — still in the original bookcases, everything was black and white.
"Ah, l'amour l'amour, toujours l'amour," Beatrice sighed. "My days of love are over. Now I take French lessons."
"What about Albert?" Cathy asked. "You just said he was the love of your life."
Beatrice had brought her level of inebriation to cruising altitude and hadn't even remembered mentioning Albert. "I guess you could say that, but he was also a heck of a lot of trouble. French isn't all that much easier, but at least it doesn't get cancer and die or leave its socks on the floor. Or have a wife."
She summoned the garçon and her glass was swiftly replenished. Emily had diluted her drink with water and was pretending to take tiny sips of the now milky opalescent liquid. Max asked for another Perrier. Cathy was still working on her herbal tea. Was Beatrice the only one drinking? She'd always considered it a badge of honor that she could drink most of her male colleagues under the table.
"Wait, Albert was married?" Cathy asked.
"Naturally. It was the perfect arrangement," Beatrice said. "We had a grand adventure."
"No regrets?" Emily asked, finally emerging from her fog.
Beatrice gave a throaty laugh. "Non. Rien de rien. Je ne regrette rien."
Emily refused to drop it. "How did you deal with the guilt?"
Beatrice pushed her glasses onto her forehead. "Guilt? That's quaint. Are you suggesting that I infringed the law?"
"No, but there's always collateral damage."
Beatrice lost a bit of her color, and took a moment to look at the bibelots adorning the bare and hand-hewn rafters. "Oh, I get it now," she said. "You cheated and left your husband, thinking the grass is always greener."
"My husband was the one who left," Emily clarified.
"Okay, whatever you say, Emma."
Emily avoided the other woman's gaze, her eyes filling with tears. The others exchanged glances. Max gently maneuvered Emily's snifter to the other side of the table.
"Cry if it makes you feel better," Beatrice said. "But when you're finished, do something about it. Toughen up, babe. People today have such thin skins. They make much too much out of anything. You think wallowing in so-called guilt and self-pity will make things right? What a waste of time — unless you're a glutton for punishment. Albert and I didn't hurt anyone. So what if he was married. So what if he had a few girlfriends on the side. Good for him. Stick your nose in your own business."
Cathy gasped. "He had other women besides you? Not counting his wife, I mean?"
"De temps en temps, oui!"
"And you tolerated that?"
Beatrice laughed. "Why would I begrudge him his liberties, when I was taking mine?" The reaction didn't surprise her. Her espousal of free love, in the Victoria Woodhull sense, had never been met with acceptance, though for the life of her she couldn't imagine why anyone would want the government interfering in her personal life.
"Weren't you afraid that one day he wouldn't come back?" Cathy asked.
"And be with a man who felt obligated to me? That's the beauty of being free that you don't understand, that obviously terrifies you."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Love Book"
Copyright © 2015 Nina Solomon.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
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