The Geometry of Love
By Jessica Levine
SheWrites Press: April 8, 2014
286 pages, $16.95
Jessica Levine’s debut novel, The Geometry of Love, asks whether a woman with a fiercely creative spirit can ever be content without being married to her muse. It is an astute psychological study of a young woman named Julia Field, an aspiring poet 10 years out of college and 10 years into a relationship with her brilliant British boyfriend, Ben. Julia has put her creative impulses and career on the back burner to follow Ben, who is now on the tenure track at Princeton. Although she is very much a Manhattan girl who thrives on the city’s energy as a source of stimulation and happiness, she has moved to a house in the New Jersey countryside not far from the university, where she is employed as the math department secretary. A chance meeting with Ben’s college roommate, classical pianist and composer Michael, stirs up long-dormant desires, and conflicts and quandaries ensue.
Levine has written an intensely focused novel about one woman in her early 30s who is trying to sort out her life. She is preoccupied with several questions. How did she end up in this place? (Shades of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.”) Did she make the right decisions along the way? Has she compromised too much? Is she truly satisfied with her long-running relationship with Ben, who is by all accounts (including hers) a devoted, charming, attractive, and economically stable guy with a bright future? What happened to her creative impulse and her desire to be a poet? Is anyone to blame, or is that just how life works? Will cautious Ben propose to her now that he is on the verge of obtaining tenure? Does Michael have a place in her (or their) life anymore? Is it time for Julia to think of herself for once? She has the opportunity to take over her father’s successful financial advising business but that would necessitate living in Manhattan; can she and Ben live apart during the week and alternate weekends between her apartment and their house near Princeton? Would Ben be willing to live in the city and take the train to work? How can they make it all fit together?
From the description above, one could well view the plot as nothing more than a soap opera for smart people, a look into the lives of privileged people struggling to cope with “first world problems.” The Geometry of Love is generally successful in achieving its goals of closely examining the nature of relationships, love, desire, and creativity, but it’s also not surprising that readers seem to have fallen into two camps, love it or hate it.
To some, Julia is immature, unrealistic, impractical, self-indulgent, and neurotic. She is, perish the thought, less than likable. To others, she is just a perfectly normal person, full of complexities, contradictions, and confusion, and thus eminently sympathetic.
I lean strongly toward the latter position, due largely to the strength of Levine’s writing and her deep understanding of what makes these characters tick. I found Julia, Ben, and Michael, and a cast of intriguing supporting characters, to be alternately sympathetic and annoying, and on some occasions even infuriating – just like most of the people in the real world. I found myself immersed in Julia’s world, wondering what would happen next, what the main characters would do, and how what eventually becomes a very messy situation would sort itself out.
Julia and Ben have what appears to be a strong and loving relationship that has stood the test of time. Everyone believes they belong together. On paper, Julia should be fulfilled and content. But recently she has grown increasingly restless, and the meeting with bearded, bohemian Michael has led her to question her life with renewed intensity. She feels she has reached the fork in the road where she must make a commitment to her future; the rest of her life lies ahead, but what kind of future does she want? Her relationship with Ben is comfortable, but it often lacks the spark of truly happy couples who like as well as love each other. It’s clear that Eros plays a key role in creative inspiration for Julia, and that is missing in her otherwise “ideal” life.
“[Ben] saw a relationship as a kind of cathedral under endless construction,” notes Julia. “But I saw it – now – as a living organism with its own peculiar cycles of growth and aging. Woody Allen’s words in Annie Hall came back to me: A relationship is like a shark; it needs to keep moving or it dies.”
Julia soon becomes torn between her intense feelings for Michael – who seems to be her muse – and her devotion to Ben. She is caught in the age-old conundrum. Should she choose passion and poetry or “the good life” of an Ivy League professor’s wife, which would still allow her considerable freedom? Should she follow her heart or her mind? Can either one be trusted? The plot is rich and complicated and develops in a realistic manner until the home stretch, which feels rushed and slightly contrived.
But even when the characters make questionable decisions, acting (or failing to act) implausibly, they don’t necessarily seem unrealistic because people in this type of situation often behave erratically. They can be desperate, deluded, destructive – and full of rationalizations that are convincing only to themselves. The destruction left in their wake by lovers inhabiting their own insular world is very real, and some of it is given short shrift here. There is a lot of thinking and talking about the consequences of various courses of action, but the realistic ramifications are not explored as fully as I would have liked (and as Levine did so well in the first three-quarters of the book). If The Geometry of Love were an actual geometry problem, Levine’s solution would be correct, but in showing her work, one can see that she has omitted a step or two.
Despite these relatively minor drawbacks, The Geometry of Love is an involving read that poses many questions sure to generate lots of discussion; it would make an excellent choice for a book club. Levine deserves particular credit for writing realistic sex scenes between mature, passionate people, and her exploration of female desire is especially impressive. These scenes are central to understanding the characters involved in this love triangle, and we learn a great deal about them through Levine’s skilled handling of this sensitive material.