Title: Whatever You Love
Author: Louise Doughty
Release date: March 2012 (paperback)
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Format: Paperback (ARC)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Whatever You Love, Louise Doughty’s sixth novel and a finalist for the Orange Prize, begins with every mother’s worst nightmare.
Laura Needham knows why the police officers are standing at her door, but her mind seizes up with shock regardless. For the first time, she had allowed her nine-year-old daughter, Betty, to walk home from school without her. Betty, the police now inform Laura, was killed in a hit-and-run accident.
As Laura later mourns beside her daughter’s lifeless body at the hospital, she clings to alternate scenarios in which Betty is alive:
I wonder how long I can keep this going, if it is possible to live with this alternate narrative for the rest of my life. I know—dear God, already I know—that this alternative is only mine as long as I am alone. Already, I am in love with alone.
Sequestered with her grief, Laura looks back on the last few years of her life, which, she slowly reveals, were less than serene. Laura and David Needham had been happy at first, and the birth of their daughter Betty had signified a high point in their relationship. As their marriage began to unravel, however, Laura had become pregnant with their second child, a boy. Rather than cement their crumbling relationship, Roos’s birth only served to drive a wedge between Laura and David. Soon thereafter, David’s unrelenting infidelity landed him with another woman, Chloe, who didn’t waste much time getting pregnant herself.
Laura was left alone, clinging to the remains of her once-happy life in a small, windswept English town by the sea. Her children—especially Betty, who reminded Laura of all of the joy her marriage had once held—were her only source of comfort.
Now, the loss of Betty seems to have driven Laura over the edge. Roos, her son, is all but forgotten. Laura rarely eats or sleeps, subsisting instead upon thoughts of revenge. She begins looking for her daughter’s accidental killer, and she vows: “I am going to find out what you love, then whatever it is, I am going to track it down and I am going to take it away from you.”
Laura’s thoughts are also clouded with bitterness toward Chloe, David’s new wife—who seems to have stepped into Laura’s shoes of dutiful wife and mother both naturally and happily. But Laura won’t relinquish those roles so easily.
Laura moves from grief-saturated remembrances of joyful times to paranoid thoughts of revenge against those who have stolen her happiness. The novel takes on a dreamlike quality, slowly building to a bizarre twist. It’s a story of a mother’s grief, but also her dreams of redemption. Laura seeks reassurance that she was a good wife and mother—and she will stop at nothing to get it.
Although she seems to find the redemption she seeks, the ending didn’t ring true for me. It felt too neat, too fantastical, and it made me wonder if Laura got her wish for an alternate reality—if she stepped far enough back into her mind to construct an entirely different outcome of her own story. However, taken at face value, the book’s ending was puzzling and unsatisfying.
Despite my confusion over the ending, I enjoyed Doughty’s writing. Her voice is strong, laced with nostalgia and a kind of dreaminess that makes reading the book feel like moving through clouds of thick cotton.
Throughout the story, Doughty draws clear parallels between pain and love. When Laura sees Betty in every child she encounters, Laura feels liberated from her grief in an unexpected way. “[Betty] must have loved me so much, to give me this gift—to sacrifice herself so that I don’t need to be frightened any more,” Laura marvels. Ultimately, she discovers that “love built on pain” is the only kind that endures, for “whatever we love can be taken away from us at any moment but the loss of what we love belongs to us forever.”
Don’t just take my word for it. Check out what other reviewers have said:
Lit and Life
Book Hooked Blog
A Bookish Way of Life
Life in Review
The Lost Entwife
Peeking Between the Pages
Walking With Nora
The House of the Seven Tails