Twists and turns in the search for love

Review Novel


The Trial of True Love

William Nicholson

Nan Talese/Doubleday / 304 pages / $18.95


William Nicholson knows about ill-fated love stories. His play Shadowlands (later a film starring Anthony Hopkins) explored the tragic love story of British theologian C.S. Lewis and American poet Joy Gresham and detailed what creates a lasting love affair and marriage. Nicholson's latest novel, The Trial of True Love, poses broader questions about romantic relationships between men and women, pondering whether it's all about beauty, lust and the chase, or whether desire can evolve into lasting love.

In 1977, John "Bron" Dearborn is an English writer on the cusp of 30. A love-'em-and-leave-'em commitment-phobe, he has signed a contract for a book on true love. Alas, his only experience with love at first sight - the nexus of his thesis - or romantic love of any sort, for that matter, was when he was 15. Penniless, for months he's been sharing a flat with his former lover-turned-best friend, Anna, a high-powered art dealer. But Anna's biological clock is ticking, and she believes Bron's presence is scaring off potential suitors.

Banished from her flat, he moves in with his old school chum, Bernard, on his farm down in Devon. And there it happens: Bron is thunderstruck with love when he sees a woman in the mist one morning. Bernard's elusive and mysterious cousin, Flora, is on the run from her rich older husband, a flower magnate in Amsterdam. Bron is captivated by her beauty and attempts to woo the neurasthenic young woman with love stories from his research. (Nicholson inserts fascinating tidbits about various famous people in love at first sight - Berlioz, Bogie, Bacall and others.)

Smitten beyond repair, Bron leaves Bernard, himself smitten with Anna, to pursue Flora when she disappears from the farm. His only lead is Flora's friend, art historian Freddy Christiansen. Freddy is the curator of a collection of work by the Synthesist painter Paul Marotte, friend to Paul Gauguin and the central focus of Bron's book because of his mythic love affair with a governess, Kate Sullivan, who, unable to live without him, committed suicide after his death. Bron is fascinated with Marotte's letters and diary excerpts about his love for Kate, and how this obsessive affaire du coeur changed him from a doctor to a painter in a matter of weeks.

A three-day trip to Amsterdam to cull research from Christiansen - and hunt down Flora - begins a cat-and-mouse game among the three of them that becomes ever more tantalizing - part Cyrano de Bergerac and part Diabolique. When Flora flees Amsterdam, too, a bereft Bron embarks on a series of investigative journeys: first to Pont-Aven, where the Synthesists hung out, then to Switzerland to see Christiansen's private collection of Marottes that he procured from the Nazis. In Switzerland the game progresses to stalemate, then checkmate, and Bron uncovers not only Flora's secrets but also those of Christiansen, Marotte and, by extension, himself.

This intellectual thriller/romance is mostly captivating. But Nicholson is a playwright/screenwriter at heart: He loves dialogue, and his characters, notably Bron and Christiansen, have long, discursive conversations that sometimes impart to the reader the feeling of eavesdropping. Everyone talks a lot in Nicholson's tale: Bron and Christiansen discuss art and love in varying degrees of tension. Bron and Anna chat amiably. Bron and Flora play sexual word games together.

The Trial of True Love is voluble, and at times that volubility has a deadening effect on the action as things get cloyingly intellectualized. The novel is slow to start, although the pace soon picks up; once Bron hits Amsterdam the plot revs, and by Switzerland it's a page-turner.

The central question Bron poses - and which Christiansen volleys back to him - is whether there can be true love between men and women, or if what passes for love is really the commodification of sex and the perpetuation of lies. Bron, in the throes of his obsessive love for Flora, believes that true love is about truth: that there is intimacy in revelation, in stripping away all veneers and subterfuges. But does Flora agree? And when she does reveal her true feelings, will they be what Bron wants to hear?

The Trial of True Love is a deft and compelling, if sometimes frustrating, novel about why we seek love. Nicholson holds our attention with his intellectual gavotte, particularly with the fascinating character of Christiansen and the subplot about Marotte. But in this talky tale about the vagaries and vicissitudes of love, the climax comes a tad too soon, and the ending may feel anticlimactic to some. Nevertheless, it's an intriguing romp through the many types of love between men and women, with an ending that twists and twists and twists some more - just like love itself.

Victoria A. Brownworth is a writer and editor who teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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