Contemporary novelists write better about relationships nettle-some, tortured, ambivalent than they do about romance. The deeply mysterious experience of falling for a stranger, suddenly and hard, tends to wither under the novelist's prolonged, conscientious scrutiny. Romantic love is ecstatic, fleeting, and all too easily debunked, which may explain why there are so many great love poems, and far fewer great love novels.
Margot Livesey's winning new book, Banishing Verona, captures the magic of an unlikely young romance by never subjecting it to too much analysis: Her love-struck protagonists meet just twice once, for the first time, as the narrative begins, and then again as it ends. Their togetherness occupies a fraction of the novel's 319 pages, yet their sweet, illogical passion permeates the entire meandering, richly peopled work.
Zeke, a mildly autistic Londoner, is painting a house whose owners are out of town when, one cold afternoon, a hugely pregnant woman appears at the door with two suitcases. Verona says she is the owners' niece and that they were expecting her, then walks in and makes herself at home. For the next day and a half, Zeke and Verona paint, share fried-egg sandwiches, talk, and, with little ado, make love. A decade older than he, about to have a baby, and no great beauty, Verona reminds Zeke of the bust of Beethoven on his father's piano. Not every man's cup of tea, but what woman is? Hollywood has it all wrong: Romance isn't always, or even often, about adorable people finding adorable people. When Verona abruptly decamps and his clients return home, Zeke discovers that they have no niece. With little to go on, he tries to track Verona down through London, and then, although he is terrified of flying, follows her to Boston. He is, to put it mildly, really ''into her.''
The feeling is reciprocated. Tough and smart, Verona turns out to be a single journalist with a messy personal life. Her charming, corrupt brother, Henry, owes money to the wrong people and his thuggish creditors have now come after Verona, which accounts for her lies and elusiveness. One of the beauties of the novel is Livesey's cast of wickedly good peripheral characters, all of them embroiled in funky personal dramas of their own: Henry can't help seducing and swindling everyone he meets, including his loyal sister; Zeke has a flirtatious, imperious mother who is thinking of leaving his father; on the plane to Boston, Zeke meets a heartsick lesbian nurse who tries to use a new vocabulary word every day; even Verona's dead grandfather makes a memorable cameo in a short, poignant diary he leaves behind. Page by page, Livesey chronicles Zeke and Verona's semi-comic daily lives, dominated by family duties, work obligations, neuroses, and unsatisfactory friendships that conspire to keep them apart. But their longing for each other, tender, mutual, and inexplicable, is this lovely book's powerful underlying chord.