'Tears' believes in love -- so very much

February 20, 2005|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

The Sea of Tears

By Nani Power. Counterpoint. 238 pages. $25.

Love: There, surely, is a cause we can all get behind. Nani Power's new novel, The Sea of Tears, is very pro-love. When she declares in the prologue, "all the great tales are about love. ... At the root of all evil is a heart denied love," Power's wide-eyed optimism about the human heart seems like it could be just the thing -- a refreshing antidote to the steady cultural diet we're fed of dysfunctional couples and terrible marriages. By the end of this squishy novel, however, you may find yourself craving more than a soupcon of sulfur, a la Cassavetes, perhaps, or Albee.

The three sets of cosmically destined lovers in The Sea of Tears are thrown into each other's paths at the fictional Hotel Royale in Washington, D.C., where some of them work and others are guests. They are odd couples made up of lonely parts. The men are far from home: Jedra, a handyman and Iraqi refugee; Khouri, a recently orphaned Iranian-American; and Daniel, in permanent residence in the hotel but imagining he is still in his native Brazil. The true loves these men find at the Royale are white, American women, all less lovingly fabricated than their male counterparts though each of them, too, has a painful past and a lonely present.

Power's previous novels, Crawling at Night and The Good Remains, were praised by critics and embraced by readers for their caustic and quirky visions, respectively. Her vision here falls, unexpectedly, somewhere between gospel and greeting card: "Don't lie to your lover. Make your lover a sacrament of all that is love and truth. When you wake in the morning, and you are lying next to the one who has held you all night, who has kissed you with open eyes, whose heart has opened unto you, this is truth." It's an actual angel that smugly prescribes love here -- just one of the frankly mystical elements that seems intended to bind these characters' stories into a shapely, organic whole. But the hand of fate makes exceedingly poor glue, and abstract passages like this one tend to float off into the ether, unmoored to the realities of human frailty and fickleness.

Power is a far better writer when she recognizes that love can fail as well as succeed. When one character is betrayed, she adds a panel to an imagined "quilt of a million painful encounters where men always moved on." At her very best, Power zeroes in on the tangible world: on the "lacy hover" of fruit flies over old bananas or the sea looking "like a soft lazy blanket tossed across the land."

Power did not set out to write a realist novel, and it may seem that I am critiquing this choice instead of the novel she did write. But realism remains a stubbornly dominant mode in American literature, and even the sort of magical realism that Power tries out in The Sea of Tears depends more on the efficacy of its realism than on the wonder of its magic. A surfeit of magic leaves this novel's "up with love" message with all the power and specificity of a bumper sticker. It has precious little to say to those of us who aren't about to find perfect love -- which just may mean all of us.

Laura Demanski is a writer living in Chicago.

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