Love May Fail by Matthew Quick
Portia Kane hides in her closet to catch her pornographer husband in flagrante delicto with full intention of murdering him and his new girlfriend. She catches them but does not shoot them. Leaving him and her ritzy, sordid, life in Florida, she returns to South Jersey and takes up residence with her mother, an agoraphobic hoarder of everything, especially Diet Coke with Lime. Mom, whose mental health is impaired, has deduced through careful observation that 9:43 p.m. on Tuesday is the best time to shop because there are fewer cars in the Acme parking lot.
Meeting Danielle, a former high school classmate, at the local diner, Portia learns that Mr. Vernon, her favorite English teacher, has left teaching. Five years earlier one of his students viciously attacked him with an aluminum baseball bat nearly killing him. Mr. Vernon has retired and become a recluse. Portia quickly embarks on a quest to save Mr. Vernon and somehow get him back into the classroom. It seems such a transparent idea: save Mr. Vernon and save herself. In less capable hands, this may have been a simple-minded tearjerker. That is not the case here.
Love May Fail is told from four points of view. Portia and Mr. Vernon form the backbone on which the tale is hung. Sister Maeve Smith, who in her previous life gave birth to Mr. Vernon, is estranged from him now and writes beautiful, compelling letters that he lets sit in the mailbox. Chuck Bass is another classmate of Portia’s. He is in love with her, but appears to have no chance for he is a recovering addict with few prospects. The manner in which Quick melds these people and their stories into a coherent whole that makes for one of the most satisfying reads of the year.
Nathan Vernon, the pivotal character in this wonderful novel, is portrayed as a superb teacher who must have been modelled on Matthew Quick’s favorite teachers, and Quick, during his brief career as a teacher, must have shared some of the same qualities that Vernon exhibits. Other aspects of this novel, which cannot be cited as they will reveal too much of the resolution, lead one to conclude this is a roman a clef. Perhaps Quick experienced the suffocating culture that Vernon did before the attack. The culture, as so vividly described, often forces the nonconformist, yet effective, teacher to become the peg that fills the mold. “When you are beaten almost to death for caring about young people, it takes a rather hefty toll,” Vernon says. The “beating,” in his case, refers to the daily efforts of other teachers and administrators to force him to change his style, and the physical beating that was the last straw.
Quick’s writing is superb. His description of Portia’s memory of her first day in Vernon’s class is straightforward yet evokes many layers of meaning. We learn in just a few paragraphs what he meant to Portia and what good teachers mean to their students, especially those for whom life at home can be disastrous. In another passage we learn that Vernon’s dog, Albert Camus, is a toy poodle with a graying afro and beard. Portia thinks of Bob Ross, the late PBS painter and the image is perfect. A passage central to the resolution of the novel speaks to the relationship among agents, editors, publishers, and authors and reads as if taken straight from real life. Perhaps elements come from Quick’s own literary experiences.
Matthew Quick is best known as the author of The Good Luck of Right Now and The Silver Linings Playbook, which was made into an Oscar-winning film. A former teacher, he lives on the Outer Banks of North Carolina (called the “goodliest soile under the cope of heaven” according to Ralph Lane in 1585) with his wife Alicia Bessette, a novelist and self-taught pianist.