The Book that Won’t Leave my Heart Alone

the blue bath

Now that I’m back in Spain and not solo parenting like I had been there for a while, I’ve been doing a lot more reading. My goal is always to read about 5 books a month, but I haven’t had a month this year where I’ve achieved that.  Last week I did finish two, though. One of which, Aleph by Paulo Coehlo, was a huge disappointment and made me want to gouge my eyes out. It was more than redeemed, however, by the beauty of The Blue Bath by Mary Waters-Sayer.

First, I’m not going to get into why I thought Aleph was pedantic, predictable, and a complete waste of time.  A guy has a midlife crisis and veils it in a bunch of self help spiritual bullshit. It’s like he hit one super good one in the Alchemist, and has been rehashing the exact same tale since then, with slight variations.

That’s why The Blue Bath was so different for me. It still involved a love story between people who really shouldn’t be trying to be together. Kat is happily married to an entrepreneur in London, with a gorgeous son, Will. While her husband is away on a trip to Hong Kong, Kat hears that her ex boyfriend Daniel, an artist with whom she shared a passionate love affair 20 years earlier during a student year in Paris, is having an exhibition.

She goes to the show, and is shocked to realize that all the paintings are of her. He’s basically been painting her for the past 20 years. Time stands still as she sees these portraits of herself, unchanging over the decades, and she is suddenly catapulted back to this great love. Of course he sees her there, she runs away, they meet up later, and a passionate and intense affair starts up while Will is staying with his grandparents in the country.

I’m not going to give away the ending, which is as intense as the story itself, but I will say that this book is sticking with me. Like a bad 80’s pop song, I just can’t get this thing out of my head.

It’s not because I so identified with the characters, though I think that anyone who has been lucky enough to have had a great passionate love early in life will recognize the feelings she described. I think what must make it so intense is that first experience of truly being seen and known, not just for what you are, or what you believe yourself to be, but what and who you aspire to be. When you’re 21, and someone sees in you all the possibility of your life, it’s intoxicating. 

It’s not because I thought the plot was really great – I kept shaking my head at them and willing them to make different choices. Though I will say, I used precious Alone Time when the house was empty, time in which I normally blast my music and sing embarrassing music at the top of my lungs, and do all the stuff I can’t do when other people are in the house with me, to finish the book, just because I needed to know how it was resolved.

No, the reason this book is sticking with me is because of the writing. Every once in a great while I find an author who’s words are like expensive chocolate. I don’t want to devour them, rather I want to read them slowly, taking in each word that has been perfectly placed exactly in that right space – how could a thought be expressed in any other way? – and when I get to the end, I’m simultaneously heartbroken that it’s over, but so grateful for the experience. Kathleen Tessaro is one of those writers. Haruki Murakami, though he writes very different books, is another. Now I’ve found a third.

Here’s Kat, the heroine, thinking about this great short lived love affair with Daniel:

“There weren’t even the usual artifacts of a love affair to trigger her recollection. She had no photos of him. No leters. No gifts or souvenirs. Just his drawing in the back of the book. Unsigned. Undated. Scant and accidental evidence of a significant passion. 

Because of the lack of any real relics – with the exception of the drawing – she relied solely on memory to take her back to that time. She indulged in it very sparingly, though, aware of the delicate nature of memories and how every time we take them off the shelf to examine them, we change them. We take something away with us or we add a little of whatever is on our hands or in our heart at that moment.”

Then we have this little nugget when she first sees the paintings:

“While immediately familiar, the face in the painting was not quite the same face she saw in the mirror, or in photographs. Nor somehow did she believe that it was the face that others saw. Yet the feeling of recognition was overwhelming. The only way she could think to describe it was that girl he captured on canvas looked the way she felt. And that sense of shared truth was more seductive than being admired or even being loved. And unlike love, which often engendered a broader affinity for others, its sharp edge severed all other connections, leaving only the two of them.”

Finally, this:

“She pored over their time together. Trying to fix the fragments in her mind. She was the sole witness. Only she could see it now. Of course, there was another absence. No one saw her the way that he had. Without him, she disappeared. She began deliberately walking by the Greek embassy in the mornings when she knew the guard would be there, just to see him avoid her gaze and look away from her. To reassure herself that it had been real. That it had happened. That she had not dreamt it.

I loved this book. It is sticking with me, and not just because it takes me back to the first love that took my breath away, but because it is such a beautiful expression of what that love can be, and how it can shape who we are. It’s a beautiful meditation and description on who we become with a love like that, and I’m so glad to have had it in my life for the past week, and I suspect it will become a dear friend.

**Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for allowing me to read this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.**