Like most brides Lea, the elusive character at the center of Sarah Rainone’s debut novel Love Will Tear Us Apart, doesn’t care about anything on the day of her wedding except the event at hand. She is a perfect paper doll of a creature who provokes envy, hatred, eye-rolls and yawns from her friends, the real stars of the book.
The technical setting of the book is her small-town Rhode Island nuptials to Dan, who is also apparently flawless. We’re never given an opportunity to know the happy couple, which is an interesting tactic by the author but also a disappointment.
The wedding renders Lea nothing but a bridezilla who could absorb all of our hatred if her friends weren’t also very annoying. Two men, the best man, Ben, and Shawn, and two bridesmaids, Alex and Cort, trade off chapters. Perched at various moments of the wedding ceremony and reception, the characters briefly set the scene before lapsing into long remembrances of their youth. It’ normal for weddings to render even the most peripheral guest nostalgic, but Rainone pushes this to its limits. It’s just not possible for the characters to have enough time to do all this thinking in the space of a wedding.
The rare present-day events are quite good. In the opening scene Alex, the coked-up female best friend of the groom, who is also a bridesmaid, is late to the wedding, and stands alongside the other bridesmaids with her sunglasses on her head until Shawn is able to signal to her about it. It’s an entertaining scene that gives the boring and unlikable Alex some human qualities as the perceptive Shawn navigates the tension. But Alex lusts after Dan in a manner virtually indistinguishable from the plotline in My Best Friend’s Wedding.
The attention Rainone gives her in the wedding’s early moments suggests that her plight will be a central focus of the book, but there turns out to be enough flitting around in time and perspective that Alex’s jealousy doesn’t control the emotional arc. Alex is continually given concrete and painful evidence that Dan doesn’t want her, but she keeps on pining.The way Dan’s lack of regard for Alex is conveyed is deftly written, but it’s hard to care about her plight.
If Rainone had carved out more present-day action, it’s likely it would have been more memorable than the flashbacks. As it stands Ben, the self-conscious, goofy, music-obsessed best man, draws the reader in with sharp descriptions of what a person’s sexual fantasies are actually like. Rather than being cookie-cutter images of overdeveloped girls and porn stars, they are pleasantly strange and surprising.
He recalls having caught Dan’s hot divorcée mother, Kelly, masturbating while hanging out at Dan’s house. In the moment, he briefly considers joining her, reasoning that she’d “moaned loud enough to wake the dead.” But instead, he flees, choosing to recall the incident from the privacy of his bedroom. But when he gets home, he finds that “the only thing I could see … the same thing I see pretty much anytime I’m getting ready to blow my load—was, is, and forever will be goddamned Shawn goddamn Riley.”
Shawn, unlike Ben, is openly gay. While the two had a sexual encounter in high school, the event is only mentioned in passing, which is kind of a shame.
Cort is a bit of a treehugger straw man of a character—a dreadlock-donning, Grateful Dead concert-attending, deodorant-hating friend of Lea’s. But as with Ben, her high school experiences are real and relatable. Glimpsing a predatory jock named Luke Goldenrod at the wedding, Cort recalls falling into his hands years back. In a meeting that she orchestrates, Cort’s teenage naiveté shines through as she surveys the unfamiliar things that decorate Luke’s high school room: a Reservoir Dogs poster, a Cypress Hill t-shirt (“I wondered if that was a place in Jamaica or Amsterdam or something.”)
Cort’s sad victimization is probably the finest segment in the book, and the best example of how Rainone uses a meaningful song from the characters’ youth to mark each chapter. Dave Matthews Band’s “Lover Lay Down” plays as Luke seduces her; she pretends to know who the band is as Luke describes one of their concerts as “the craziest time of my life.”
Waiting for Luke to come back with beer, she notices a poster on his ceiling “of a model in a red bathing suit that hardly covered her breasts or her butt. Her hair was soaking wet, her body was dusted over with a layer of sand, and she was smiling in a way that made it look as if the sand actually felt good, when everyone knows there is nothing worse than getting sand all over you; it’s scratchy and gets stuck inside your suit and I hated that someone made the poor model smile as if it felt good.”
The song gains significance as Cort is coerced into giving up her virginity to Luke, whose friends call him “Goldenpussy”. In his bedroom after field hockey practice, he tells her to keep her uniform skirt on, but nothing else, as he plies her with compliments like, “You’re so beautiful” and “You look so fucking hot.” She knows her parents are expecting her, but she convinces herself to stay because “I had heard about blue balls and I didn’t want Luke to be in pain.”
Looking back, “The way I remember it is this,” Cort says, “Lover Lay Down” “was about love, or about lovers, at least. It wasn’t about things ending, it wasn’t about seeing him in the hallway the very next day, kissing Alex Rossi, holding her hand.”
That Cort is rendered shy and obedient by the slutty Luke is a bit predictable, but Rainone does a good job with the raw material. Cort describes Luke as “much taller, much bigger with his clothes off.” She uses unlikely words for her, like “totally”, and is fooled by his idiotic explanation for why he wants her to keep her uniform on: “I want to experience what you’re, uh, like on the inside,” he says, “while you’re, um, wearing what you wear, you know, like, on the outside…in, um, nature I mean; in the environment. Is that ok?”
Rainone is very skilled at capturing the way people talk. But the book is all archival footage; the characters don’t do enough acting and reacting to amount to more than a loosely connected series of vignettes. Each chapter may be framed around a song, but the connections between the songs and the events are at the very least coincidental, and at the most deeply subjective.
It’s also impossible not to see the book as derived from Rainone’s life because she grew up in Rhode Island and attended Syracuse, the book’s two locations. This wouldn’t be a problem if more happened and more was revealed about the characters’ lives. But Love Will Tear Us Apart is not very interested in the people who attend the wedding. Instead the story is a touching nostalgia trip that the author may have simply needed to get out of her system.