Top critical review
on 16 November 2016
'The Love of my Life' is the story of Olivia ('Liv'), who unexpectedly loses her Italian chef husband Luca in a car crash. Distraught with grief, Liv leaves London and returns to the Northern town where she and Luca grew up, even though she has no friends or family there - her mother has broken off all contact, and for some mysterious reason Luca's large Italian family the Fellicones are very unwelcoming. All, that is, except Luca's twin brother Marc, with whom Liv begins an impetuous affair at Luca's funeral, despite the fact that Marc is married with two young children, and that his wife Nathalie hates Liv. This affair continues and casts a shadow over Liv's life, even as she tries to settle into life in Waterford, taking a job as research assistant to a literature professor working on the town's one famous novelist, and making friends with Chris, the chef at the local cafe, and her colleague Jenny. And as Liv recalls her past, we begin to realize why the Fellicones hate Liv, and to realize that if the affair continues with Marc continues, it will be even more destructive than these things usually are...
I bought this novel on the advice of a review from the Bookbag site, where it was likened to Maggie O'Farrell's 'After You'd Gone'. Unfortunately, I found it markedly inferior, largely because Liv is for the most part so unlikeable. In the chapters dealing with her childhood and adolescence, she comes across as profoundly boring, silly and self-involved, with no real interests, and prepared to do anything (even have a fling with the husband of the woman for whom she babysits) to get attention. As an adult, it was amazing how quickly and with what little guilt she entered into the fling with Marc, even though she was still supposedly mourning her husband, and had good reasons not to hurt Marc's wife. Maybe Douglas was making the point that Liv's unhappy fatherless childhood had made her totally dependent on men in a rather clingy way - but if so she didn't make it clear enough, and Liv never really seemed to come to any greater self-knowledge. Nor did Douglas make quite enough of the fact that Liv couldn't have children, though this was an interesting idea to introduce. The other characters in the novel were rather colourless stereotypes: bossy Italian Mamma Angela ordering her sons around; her henpecked husband Maurizio; the nasty vengeful sister-in-law (in fact, Liv seemed to have been pretty hurtful to her, all things considered); the weak lecherous brother-in-law; Liv's cold, religious-fanatic mother (given to phrases such as 'I don't want to breathe the same air as you at the moment') and her creepy friend Mr Hensley. The more interesting characters, such as the Professor who Liv works for and Chris at the cafe felt under-used, and I'm not sure why Douglas didn't make more of Liv's work on the life of the local novelist Marian, which I'd thought would be a big part of the book - it really didn't play much of a role at all, which meant that the 'big revelation' at the end fell completely flat.
I also felt the book was somewhat clumsily put together. There were some unlikely plot developments. If Liv had left school at 16 and never bothered to get any other qualifications or skills, she would have been unlikely to rise high in the world of PR. I've never known someone drink gin AFTER wine rather than as an aperitif. If Liv was that much of an alcoholic, wouldn't she have shown more signs of it? Why did Liv want a university job if - as she said - she had no academic interests? And university professors advertising for research assistants usually do so among graduate students (who are often so much in need of experience that they'll work for free) or at least graduates, and would be unlikely to take on an unqualified woman with few literary interests. And in comparison to Douglas's later very gripping thrillers (including 'In Her Shadow' which I think I under-estimated) the novel really lacks plot: Liv's research work doesn't feature enough, her affair with Marc rambles on inconclusively and we never get much of a sense that she's come to any greater self-knowledge, that her grief process has developed in any way or that she's resolved her problems with Luca's family. This makes the book neither a particularly rewarding family saga, nor a very focussed observation of grief.
There are, it has to be said, some beautiful passages to the book, particularly Liv's memories of past happiness with Luca, and her enjoyment of her work. And I think Douglas should be applauded for not giving the book a straightforwardly happy ending - the final chapter was one of the best written bits. I also liked the 'black dog' images that recurred as a symbol for grief. All this hints at a writer of promise - but I didn't think the promise came to anything much in this book, which was in the end rather cliched and sentimental. Sorry to fans of this book - but I do believe in writing honest reviews!