The Behavior of Love: A Novel
“[W]hen love ends in frustrated, sad, even bitter disappointment, what does that really mean? Does it, in fact, end? Or are certain behaviors, once learned, irrevocably etched into our psyches? This is a novel to consider and reconsider, insightful and thoughtful . . . It’s the kind of novel you don’t forget.”
In her quietly intense and psychologically astute novel, The Behavior of Love, Virginia Reeves asserts that people want to be seen. As much as they long to intimately merge with another sexually and emotionally, they crave being recognized and heard as separate individuals, and mature love must include both behaviors to be successful.
Doctor Edmund Malinowski is an ambitious behavioral psychiatrist who talked his artist wife, Laura—with whom he, more than she, perhaps—really, really wants to have a baby—into moving to Montana where he is now the superintendent of a run-down and understaffed psychiatric hospital.
What Laura wants is to paint. And, yes, to work outside the home, a notion about which Edmund is not a fan. He wants her to focus on making that baby and to understand the importance of his turning the hospital around, deinstitutionalizing as many patients as possible, and all right, sure, her painting. She should also love the isolation of the Montana landscape as he does. She “should” a lot of things, most of which she tries hard to do, and if she can’t, well, she tries to make him believe she does.
Laura also largely keeps her feeling to herself when Ed overrides her. She thinks she can make it work. And maybe she could if he didn’t talk all the time about that teenage patient, Penelope, who shouldn’t be institutionalized at all. Penelope has uncontrollable epileptic seizures, not a psychosis, unlike the other patients who have serious psychiatric diagnoses.
It would also help if Ed didn’t go out drinking with his hospital buddy night after night to unwind rather than coming home so they could have dinner together. Laura gets a job, and she’s good at it. What’s the point of telling Ed? Turns out none at all, because he has no idea what she does during the day, and he’s not particularly curious about the subject.
The Penelope talk gets to Laura, though. It’s pretty clear Ed’s got a thing for her. Enough is enough. To reassure her and to ease the tension, Edmund invites Laura to teach an art class once a week at the hospital. He thinks it will make her more understanding about his job, which is intense and demanding. He puts the very talented, bright, and beautiful Penelope in Laura’s class for Penelope’s benefit. What could go wrong? Somehow this exposure to the object of Laura’s jealousy does not improve the marital relationship.
The reader is, perhaps, expecting a torrid affair to ensue when there’s a genuinely inappropriate response to Penelope, who’s fallen for him, on Edmund’s part. Maybe sometimes, though, there can be attraction, even lust, but no acted-out affair. Would a suspected affair finish off a marriage? How about just not being seen?
Behavior can, of course, be a function of individual will. Can Edmund exert his will to alter his behavior? Behavior is also dialectical and reactive, shaped and influenced by relationships. Laura meets Tim—through the job that Edmund doesn’t even know she has—who does see her. Sees her art, too. In that context, she slowly realizes that she has not exerted her own will in a very long time.
Edmund, who loves his wife, seems incapable of seeing her or hearing her, and Laura—who also loves her husband—increasingly withdraws even as she discovers that she loves teaching and is genuinely able to awaken dormant expressiveness in the patients in her class. She grows in confidence.
But there’s more: How does a child affect a marriage?
At one point, Laura says of Ed,
“He raises his glass, as though if we toast enough, all our problems will vanish.
‘To the baby again?’ I ask, and think of my drinks with Tim. A toast to my work.
‘Something else,’ Ed says, ‘. . .Penelope is getting discharged!’ He delivers it with a flourish, chiming his glass against mine, his face all smile and pride. Like my childhood dog who brought me a dead squirrel once, laying it at my feet with the utmost care . . . so I petted his head and told him he was good.
Ed wants to be petted and told he’s good. But he is more misguided than my dog, whose only mistake was thinking a human would appreciate the same thing a dog would. Ed’s mistake is greater, the gift he’s laid at my feet dirtier.”
There is gorgeous writing in this novel, both about the stunning Montana landscape and in the brevity of sketches of suddenly recognizable human dynamics. Laura says, for example,
“I love, in a deeply pitted part of me, that he can’t alter my behavior. This behaviorist, with all his training, I’ve outsmarted him, slipped his reins . . .
We left it at that, and I lied again this morning. ‘Fine, I’ll stay.’
‘Are you lying?’
‘Can I trust you to tell the truth, Laura? You’re putting the baby in danger every time you drive that road.’
To Martha on the phone, ‘Class is on.’
‘Of course it is.’
What would Ed say of his own behavior? His need to create the fiction even when he knows it won’t come true?”
Reeves asks us to consider, when love ends in frustrated, sad, even bitter disappointment, what does that really mean? Does it, in fact, end? Or are certain behaviors, once learned, irrevocably etched into our psyches?
This is a novel to consider and reconsider, insightful and thoughtful as opposed to hit-you-over-the head. It’s the kind of novel you don’t forget.