Book Review: ‘The Book of Love,’ by Kelly Link

Susanna and Laura Hand, the sisters, are in a band with Daniel Knowe, who’s been secretly dating Susanna but is opaquely detested by Mo Gorch, who is close friends with the girl Laura has a deep crush on — the girl Susanna kissed out of spite. They’ve all known one another since childhood, and they’re all on the cusp of adulthood. Tugging the story forward through these relationships are the questions of how Laura, Daniel and Mo died, why they came back, who or what slipped out of death alongside them, and what they all have to do to stay on this side of the grave.

It’s common to read a book with a strong sense of place and say that the setting is a character in the story. But in “The Book of Love,” it’s more correct to say that characters provide the story’s setting: Each “Book” is a dwelling place to experience a life, and taken together, the result is immense. As C.S. Lewis wrote of heaven and John Crowley wrote of fairyland, the further in you go, the bigger it gets — an experience that recalls the process of getting to know a person.

So much of Link’s work steps lightly, a tempering of the commonplace with vivid, delicate surprise. In a 2023 profile for Vulture, Link observed: “The novel hardens as you go on. … At a certain point the ambitions, even the shape, begin to feel inevitable. The short story stays fluid.” I kept waiting for the novel to harden as it went on, but it never did; every sentence remained a springboard for new sound, piano keys rising and falling in new variations. In one chapter, a man summons his lover by playing wrong notes in an old song; Link’s project here sometimes feels like that, resisting an expected shape by leaning out of resolving cadences and into bumps, splinters, question marks.

“Don’t be ashamed of the things that you unabashedly love in narrative,” Link said in a 2019 speech. “Investigate them with a loving heart.” Investigating romance novels, small towns, families, the friends and music you make in high school, fairy villains and fairy lovers, with fascinated tenderness and deep familiarity, “The Book of Love” does justice to its name. Its composition, its copiousness, suggests that love, in the end, contains all — that frustration, rage, vulnerability, loss and grief are love’s constituent parts, bound by and into it.

THE BOOK OF LOVE | By Kelly Link | Random House | 628 pp. | $31

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