A Word for Love: A Novel

Image of A Word for Love: A Novel
Release Date: 
January 16, 2017
Riverhead Books
Reviewed by: 

Emily Robbins has written a lyrical story about love in nearly all of its manifestations. A debut novel of relationships, culture, and increasing political unrest, the book clearly draws upon her own experience as a Fulbright Fellow in Syria, although she never names the country where her protagonist, Bea, is living and barely studying.

Bea lives with a family whose “Madame” rules the roost; her kind husband Baba, a bookbinder who has paid a price for his activism; their three children; and Madame’s Indonesian maid, Nisrine. Bea, at twenty-one, is an ingénue in search of love, and a budding scholar whose main purpose in coming to this Middle East city is to read an ancient manuscript that tells a famous Arabic love story.

She is continually thwarted in this effort and only studies twice a week with a tutor. In the course of her time with her host family, she becomes deeply attached to the gentle Nisrine, who wins the heart of a policeman, Abdel, to whom Bea is first attracted. She also falls in love with the family she lives with and the country she is living in.

A certain lack of verisimilitude may exist for some readers. How can Bea love being locked away and restrained in her movements by the controlling Madame? How can she not die of boredom while only “studying” with a tutor twice a week? How can she be so adolescent in her quest for romance? How can she hate the idea of leaving a country visibly sliding into violence, increased oppression and war?

But these are practical questions and this is a poetic novel. Robbins writes beautifully about love, whether it is her love for Nisrine, for Adel, for the family, for the country.

“I saw how place didn’t matter, and at first this uplifted me. . . . I thought, Love is everywhere, it follows you, and at first this seemed a joyous thing, how we are able to love, even after the lover has left us, how memory can live on. . . . But even as I felt joy . . . I saw how painful love could be. And I saw too, how missing does not stay in one place, but spreads out like snow, how it dusts everything, and changes the landscape.”

It is said there are 99 words for love in Arabic. Bea savors many of them, rolling them around in her mind and on her tongue like the sweet flavors of a new country. As the situation in her adopted home and country intensifies and worsens, putting Baba at risk, and as she becomes embroiled in the Middle Eastern Romeo and Juliet story of Nisrine and Adel, she is moved mightily and changed irrevocably.

The Arabic love story Bea is kept from until the novel’s denouement is referred to as “The Astonishing Text” by those who know it. It is said to make readers weep. It is that story which serves as a framework for Bea’s reflections on love and which helps her understand that no matter what happens, love prevails, even long after the people and place that passed on that knowledge are gone.