British novelist Amanda Coe’s The Love She Left Behind is a tart family drama that examines how a selfish act of adultery mars the lives of adult children a generation after its occurrence. In this, her second novel, Coe demonstrates a keen eye for the intricate dynamics of family life and an even sharper ear for the language we use both to conceal and to wound.
Thirty years after what began as a “big love story” in the late 1970s, Patrick Conway’s marriage has ended with the death of his wife, Sara. The playwright, author of a controversial drama about Britain’s Falklands War but unproductive thereafter, consoles himself with alcohol and cigarettes in his crumbling Cornwall homestead. Sara’s children, Nigel, a London lawyer, and Louise, a struggling mother to a sullen teenage daughter, bear the scars of their mother’s choice to abandon them for a life with Patrick. In Nigel’s case it’s a lifelong battle with gastrointestinal problems, while Louise seeks solace in a psychic’s advice.
Coe flashes back to Nigel and Louise’s lives as teenagers, as they did their best to cope with Sara’s departure. An ill-matched pair, their differences are played out in their disagreement over what will become of Patrick’s house after his death. Whatever chance they had for a normal relationship, Coe suggests, was lost when their mother chose Patrick over them.
Family life is complicated by the presence of Mia, a graduate student who’s writing her thesis on Patrick’s work. Whether her involvement with a man who’s old enough to be her grandfather will develop into something more adds intrigue to the novel’s plot.
“What happens in the heart simply happens,” wrote poet Ted Hughes, whose observation provides one of the epigraphs for The Love She Left Behind. Whether or not that offhanded explanation for infidelity suffices to ease the pain of children who survive divorce, Coe coolly reminds us that it is a fact of life.