Claire's Reviews > Where the God of Love Hangs Out

Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom
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's review
Aug 02, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: reviewed

In American culture, the various kinds of human love—romantic or familial for instance—come with socially acceptable norms and responsibilities. The ultimate customary expression of romantic love is marriage between two well-matched people. In a conventional demonstration of familial love, children are expected to care for their elderly parents. But what happens when two old friends who are married to other people realize that they are soul mates? Or when a daughter struggles with her sense of duty to care for her elderly father who verbally and emotionally abused her as a child?

In Where the Love of God Hangs Out (Random House, $15.00), Amy Bloom explores that darker, more complicated side of love. The short story collection features two sets of linked stories and four that stand on their own. Amy Bloom is at her best in the short story form, and this book showcases her considerable talents to reveal the highs and the lows, the joys and sorrows of human relationships.

The first four linked stories are about Clare and William, old friends who realize they’re willing to risk everything—including their marriages and the disapproval of their adult children—to be together. Even from the very first line of the first story as they watch CNN on the couch after their respective spouses have gone to bed early (“At two o’clock in the morning, no one is to blame”), their adulterous affair is presented in a compassionate light. Bloom explores mature love here—the type of love in the second half of life, when passion in marriage has faded, and companionate and deep connection becomes more powerful than finding a partner based on sexual attraction or societal status.

Bloom masterfully presents Clare and William as complex characters (she is described as having a “squinty, unyielding nature,” while he is a large English man with “beautiful manners”), and describes the affinity between them with sparkling passages. Even the act of sharing a peach becomes an example of the sensual, comfortable, and even pathetic nature of their relationship: “Claire twists the nectarine sharply, and it falls into halves, each one a brilliant, glazed yellow with a prickled hot-pink center. The pit falls into her lap. They eat their halves and watch each other eat, and they drip, just a little on the quilt.” When they give in to their feelings and divorce their spouses, the conclusion seems to be that perhaps love can conquer all—all misgivings, all sense of moral behavior, and even mortality (when William dies, Claire keeps a routine that makes his memory very much alive for her).

In the best of the stand alone stories, “Between Here and Here,” Bloom shows she can be funny when the subject matter is tough—a young boy reacts to his father’s emotional and verbal abuse by “[drawing] cartoon weather maps of my father’s feelings: dark clouds of I Hate You, giving way to the sleet of Who Are You, pierced by bolts of Black Rage.” In this story, when the young boy’s sister is with their father for the last days of his life many years later, Bloom examines if filial duty can overcome a strong sense of hate.

The second linked quartet of stories begin with a shocking premise and another mismatched couple: a white widow named Julia whose husband, a famous black jazz musician has just died, sleeps with her nineteen year old stepson the day after his father’s funeral. Soon after, Lionel, the stepson, moves to Paris, and Julia is wracked with guilt about the event, acknowledging to herself that she may have ruined his life. She hopes distance will be best for her son: “When I was a lifeguard at camp, they taught us how to save panicky swimmers. The swimmers don’t realize they have to let you save them, that their terror will drown you both, and so sometimes, they taught us, you have to knock the person out to bring him in to shore.” A combination of motherly love, romantic passion and tough love are at work in Julia’s response to her actions and subsequent behavior.

A peach also appears in the second set of stories, when Lionel teaches his brother how to please a woman: “Buster gave himself to the peach until there was nothing but exhausted peach skin and bits of yellow fruit clinging to his face.” But besides the similarity between the two sets of linked stories in that they are about unlikely couples and involve a peach, they differ in that the Julia and Lionel stories aren’t as focused as Clare and William’s and there are too many characters in the former (Lionel has a number of wives and girlfriends) to get a real sense of the motivations and fleshed out sense of those women.

That said, Bloom's background in social work and psychotherapy allows her to write with honest and fascinating insight into her characters thoughts and feelings. Her characters are flawed, yet they are sympathetic and likeable—and that combination makes each story captivating and engaging, without being overly sentimental or cliché. Like Jhumpa Lahiri, she is a master of the short story form—and just as Unaccustomed Earth was a masterful follow-up to The Namesake—Bloom’s Where the God of Love Hangs Out is a welcome return to short stories after Away, her novel.

As someone once said, “We do not choose love, love chooses us.” The stories in this collection depict the unlikely occasions where love can transform two—by society’s standards—oddly matched people.
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