Ideal Love by Alice Burnett

Review published on August 17, 2017.

Gilles Rees and his wife, Venus, have a serious argument when he arrives home just before midnight. She threatens take their young daughter to spend the coming weekend with her mother, giving themselves some time apart to reflect on their relationship. When she wakes up the next morning she regrets her threat and, as Gilles has already left for work (feeling equally repentant but reluctant to wake her), she leaves a message for him on his phone so that he will see it when he gets off the tube. However, Giles never does see it because, aged just thirty-five, he dies of a heart attack on his way to work. Venus feels devastated by his sudden death, as well as feeling guilt and regret that their final words had been such angry ones. However, when she discovers that the genetic condition which caused his death was treatable, and that both his mother and he had known about it, she faces a whole range of powerful emotions. Why hadn’t he sought treatment and taken better care of himself? Why had he not told her? Did he not love her enough to save himself for her and his daughter? Did he not care that their daughter might inherit the same condition?

She still loves and misses him, but she also hates him for not being honest with her. For a long time she feels unable to let go of the past: how can she when there is so much about it that she cannot resolve? Eventually she meets gentle, sensitive Alex and is powerfully attracted to him and, even though still haunted by her ambivalent feelings for Gilles, their relationship gradually develops. However, unbeknown to her, Alex has a link to Gilles so what effect will this have on their chances of creating a future together?

At the heart of this beautifully written, thought-provoking novel are two love stories which are skilfully interwoven as they are gradually revealed through the eyes of each of the three main characters. This sensitive exploration of the nature of love and loss revolves around Venus’s relationships with each of the men, but it also tells their background stories. The intertwining of the stories, through dreams, music, memories, as well as past and present conversations, is done in an impressively assured way and I very quickly found myself entranced by the story-telling.

This is a complex, reflective story about the nature of all-consuming love, and of all-consuming loss, as well as about how such love can sometimes turn to hate, with the potential to be destructive. I thought that the author captured in a very moving way the emotional, sensual and sexual intimacy of love, encompassing the whole range of emotions which accompany trusting another person with your innermost feelings. Her descriptions of the vulnerabilities of her characters were quite heart-breaking at times and there were several occasions when I felt moved to tears because I felt so caught up in the struggles they faced as they moved between hope, joy, sadness, despair – and back again. This is not a novel which can be skimmed through at speed; you need to immerse yourself in it, to allow yourself to become caught up in the tumultuous nature of the characters’ experiences and emotions, and to reflect on what it is to be human.

It is hard to believe that this is Alice Burnett’s debut novel because the coherence of her story-telling is so assured. Her writing style is eloquent, often poetic and her ear for dialogue is impressive. I enjoyed her philosophical references (Descartes features throughout!) and I loved the fact that she introduced each of her chapters with a song title that has a relevance to the story – several days after finishing the book some of these songs are still going around in my head! I think that this is a reflection of the nature of this impressive novel – it is likely to remain in my memory for a long time to come.

Linda Hepworth 5/4

Ideal Love by Alice Burnett
Legend Press 9781787199897 pbk Aug 2017

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