The Stories in 'All Stories Are Love Stories' Are a Haunting Tribute to Perseverance

by Christopher John Stephens

24 May 2017

Four characters search for healing and resolution in the wake of a San Francisco earthquake.
 
cover art

All Stories Are Love Stories

Elizabeth Percer

(Harper)
US: Mar 2017

The premise of this novel seems simple, formulaic, and easy to navigate. What seems simplistic at its surface, though, can prove impossible to effectively pull off for the length of a novel. What Elizabeth Percer does with All Stories are Love Stories, however, is prove that sometimes a standard formula can seem fresh and rendered new if treated gracefully.

Take four primary characters, place them in San Francisco on Valentine’s Day, and put them through an earthquake. As each person deals with past regrets and possible irreparable damage if they don’t get home to their loved ones, they learn as much about the power of forgiveness as they do about the apparently unlimited strength of their heretofore untapped potential. Wrapped throughout the separate narratives of young lovers Max and Vashti and older married couple Eugene and Franklin is Percer’s passionate and unvarnished love for the city of San Francisco.

It’s hard to determine whether or not this should be categorized as a good “beach read” or the type of high-minded popular literature best appreciated when adapted as a Christmas film release starring a random pair of photogenic young lovers and an older pair of men looking to nab some Oscar nominations. That can hurt the overall strength of this novel as it starts and the feeling will linger in the jaded reader.

We meet Max and Vashti, a young couple reunited by happenstance on that day years after a traumatic breakup. Max is an events coordinator, a fervent San Francisco booster, and Vashti is a baker who puts her heart into everything she makes. “Every time she neared him, she was sure she smelled the faint, dark sweetness of his flannel shirt, the brassy trumpet smells always on his hands, bitter but not unpleasant.”

The loss of life these two experienced when first together figures prominently in why they had separated, and there are moments during their return that are truly heartbreaking. Percer trusts here that her readers will take their time getting to know them, understanding they needed to heal from their first trauma, confront each other about lingering pain, and get through the here and now together.

The second couple, Gene and Franklin, represent old-school San Francisco. Franklin had been there in the late ‘70s, when Harvey Milk was killed and gay liberation conclusively transformed from an anomaly to be tolerated into a fundamental and ongoing battle for basic human rights.

“Gene had read about that night thousands of times, but Franklin made him feel it—all those candles and the cold, silent San Francisco night air—in a way that took Gene’s breath away.”

It helps that Percer makes Gene a geologist with specialized knowledge about when and why earthquakes would hit. Percer separates them from the beginning, and after the quake Gene understands he needed “…someone to give him guidance, realizing as he did how much he lived every moment of his life with Franklin by his side.” Again, Percer understands that the best way to bring us through the disaster is to reflect on previous, better times in the lives of these two couples.

Do the couples make it through this in one piece? Do they recognize that hanging on to past longings unfulfilled, and not working together, will kill them quicker than the earthquake? The ending could be seen as too tidy and convenient, even in the midst of the rubble, but Percer never really loses control of her narrative. People survive and strangers return and that’s life. Beyond the characters and the carefully rendered location, there’s Percer’s abiding love of San Francisco. Consider this passage:

“…San Francisco corralled its unhappiness to corners easy to avoid and neighborhoods easy to circumvent, encouraging the unhappy to stay small and keep to themselves.”

This tone seems a bit at odds with the novel’s relatively smooth, peaceful ending. It isn’t that we wanted loose ends and ambiguity; it’s just that Percer’s sprinkling of darkness in the midst of her tightly controlled story makes the reader wish it ended in more of a rubble, more of a haze. Take this line from one of the epigraphs she includes at the start of the novel’s four sections: “It may be helpful to see beauty in decomposition…” There’s nothing inherently wrong with a carefully developed and intricately plotted novel about four disparate characters in a desperate situation reaching an understanding once all the aftershocks have passed and everything is clear. However, All Stories Are Love Stories could have benefitted from judicious trimming, and the two couples were worthy of their own novels.

That said, the novel is a haunting tribute to perseverance that manages to push expected notes without being completely predictable. Readers should give it time to grow and space to breathe and they will be rewarded.

All Stories Are Love Stories

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