Title: Love, in Theory
Author: E.J. Levy
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
Other Reviews for This Author: None
Short story collections are some of the best parts of reading. The short story is naturally a format that some authors use to the best of their abilities. It's also a great way to get a sampling of what an author can do - what quirks they have in writing, their stylistic and thematic range. An entire collection from one author is a bit trickier, however, because each story must be able to stand on its own - yet, at the same time, the stories must form a cohesive collection. Think of it like a fashion designer's major runway debut. Each outfit must stand out and be an individual artistic enterprise, yet they all must appear to belong together, to belong in the same closet. Love, in Theory hits some of these parts well, but still delves all-too-often into the common tropes of romance found in literary fiction.
There are some stories that do really well within this collection. 'Small Bright Thing' features an Asian protagonist that must deal with her recently-broken relationship and her mother's newly formed one. There is literary heartbreak and sadness here, but there is also a focus on a non-romantic love dynamic between the protagonist and her mother, as well as her mother's fetish for Persian rugs. 'Theory of Transportation' is narrated by a woman who's relationship is collapsing before her as one of her best friends is dying. Said best friend may be leaving the world physically, but his partner stands by him almost twenty-four-seven, keeping their relationship alive. 'Theory of Dramatic Action' involves a woman who may or may not be in love with her lesbian dominatrix friend from New York City, and how she gets involved with a professor from one of her college courses in the process of her self-discovery.
In stories like these, Levy hits home. There are moments of romance and happiness, but also ones of confusion, sadness, betrayal. She hits on the worst emotions found in love, but also the best ones. There is a story-driven balance of the image of love, and Levy's stories feel the fullest when they involve this balance. Too often, literary definitions of love focus on the tragedy more than the joy - which is impractical and depressing more than it is realistic. These stories are my favorites partially because they don't go so deeply into that theme, but also because they feel complete and offer great imagery, great description. Levy is at her best with these stories and shows that, when she's on top of things, she can be very impressive.
The rest of the stories in the collection vary. There are some stories that are more experimental and strange rather than romance-focused: 'The Three Christs of Moose Lake, Minnesota' and 'Theory of Enlightenment' exploring religion and the love of spirituality more than romance. The rest of the collection sticks with more tried-and-true themes of romantic entanglements, infidelity, and romances that don't work out. Not everything about these stories is focused on love and relationships, but the general feeling of the rest of the stories of the collection is consistent: love is complicated and rarely ever ends well.
That, more than anything, was my struggle with this collection. Levy has a lot of small quirks in these short stories that prove to get a bit disjointed, a bit ho-hum after a while. Levy's stories in this collection frequently reference religions like Buddhism, and they most often feature a college professor as a character - or, alternatively, they feature a character taking college classes. The collegiate theme in particular feels old, and it makes the stories feel limited in scope because of how often that particular plot detail appears. Those little references feel too monotonous to really be of any unique value to the stories, and, after a while, you just don't care about that part of the story anymore. This collegiate theme doesn't necessarily effect the frustratingly common view of literary love and romance. Regardless of the story, the love doesn't end well. None of these stories touched on a romance that was happy and stayed happy, or a romance that went from being unhappy to being happy. Happiness felt like an illusion in this literary world, and that viewpoint in literary fiction is depressingly commonplace.
Love, as a theory, sounded like a springboard for something more. Levy had ten stories in this collection - ten opportunities to write a character that would have a successful relationship or talk about the joys of love, yet each story felt like it got bogged down by the depression, the jaded nature of its romance. Some stories were genuinely enjoyable with the depiction, but when ten of them are compiled into one collection, the charm is lost. The theories, themes, and insights start getting old. Nothing about it feels revolutionary.
Levy's writing is great, though. The literary qualities are in what Levy perceives, not a prose style that is so detailed, so purple that it ruins the reading experience. Levy's writing stands out as being quality, and it explains why she has won the Flannery O'Connor short story award. Reading the collection thus doesn't feel unsatisfactory - after all, the stories are self-contained and do touch on things that make the reader think. Each story also feels like a test for the author, which makes the reader anticipate what's coming next. However, after a few stories, the collection feels dull. Nothing about it has me wishing that Levy would write a novel or put out another collection. While the collection didn't promise love as a prevailing success - Love, in Theory pretty much implies that love is complicated - it doesn't touch on the complex nature fully, rather presenting a viewpoint that is tunneled.
I will say that the inclusion of many bisexual, lesbian, and transgender characters within the short stories is a plus. Levy's romantic tragedies are equal-opportunity, so the characters feel diverse and normal; never token characters.
It's hard to tell if I would read another collection by E.J. Levy. Her talent is present in this collection's writing, and her stories and their exploration of love and religion have the ability to hit high marks. So many of the stories in this collection were just okay, though, and the themes didn't feel as explored as they should have been. Levy is a talent, but the talent needs to grow more and show the light along with the darkness. She's worth keeping an eye on if you enjoy literary short stories, but it's hard to say if the themes of Love, in Theory will ever be advanced.
Cover: This cover is extraordinary - simple, clean, detailed.
Rating: 3.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Tish at TLC Book Tours and U. of Georgia Press!)