The book description for Shirley Abbott’s The Future of Love, which takes place in the fall of 2001 in New York, compares her ensemble of characters to that of the HBO show Six Feet Under. It’s a strange comparison to make on a book jacket, since it moves away from the literary and makes a risky play towards the glut of pop culture that is television. But the comparison is apt.
Not, though, in the way it might have been intended. There is little of the dark, humorous, and over-the-top nature of Six Feet Under in Abbott’s book, but it does share a trajectory with the long-running HBO show.
Like the first two seasons of Six Feet Under, the first half of The Future of Love is a compelling interweaving of a variety of tensions. There is Mark’s affair with Sophie. His mother-in-law’s affair with the married Sam. Mark and his wife’s financial troubles as Mark avoids finding any work aside from part-time hours at a liquor store. There is Edith, Sam’s wife, who is preoccupied with her daughter’s commitment ceremony to her lover Candace, to be held at their house. Between her qualms over gay marriage and her well-founded suspicions of her husband, you can hear the harmonics trilling high and whiny through every moment of her days.
Abbott adroitly allows the connections between her characters to reveal themselves in organic ways. As we bounce from person to person in each chapter, the spider web of association spins itself and a tension builds between what we, as readers, know about this world and what the characters know. By the middle of the book, each storyline is given the same amount of play, more or less, and they weave and tangle in compelling, believable ways.
But then, as we know will happen from page one, the September 11th attacks occur and everything in the book is thrown, understandably, into upheaval. Mark, meant to interview that morning at Morgan Stanley’s World Trade Center office, uses the attacks to disappear, hoping to run away with Sophie. Of course, as it turns out, his plan fails and his affair is found out, as is Sam’s, and the rest of the book is concerned with resolving these fresh wounds.
The problem, though, is that instead of just the characters getting derailed by the attacks, the book itself gets thrown off the tracks. The immediate reactions to the attacks themselves are unbelievable—as the planes hit, Sam exclaims that the “Arabs” have done it. And while, in the book, the tragedy exposes personal betrayals, the second half of the book allows the characters to become talking heads too often, spouting off knee-jerk and already dated sentiments about the attacks.
Perhaps there is a point in their assertions following the attacks, some insinuation that Americans felt individually entitled to grand political opinions in the wake of such a disaster. But the idea is never taken anywhere. The characters never reject these notions in favor of the reality of their lives, nor do they wrap themselves in them to avoid their personal hurt.
Instead, the second half of the book coasts, and repeats ad nauseam the pain and dishonesty in the characters’ lives without pushing it forward to any sort of conclusion. Much like Six Feet Under, where the final three seasons become almost caricatures of the first two seasons storylines, The Future of Love crumbles under the weight of its own ambition. The show smartly opted to embrace its absurd melodrama with results that were no less entertaining for being mixed.
Abbott tries, nobly, to reign in the chaos she’s created in and around the terrorist attacks and return her novel to its everyday drama. But too much has happened to go back, and the characters that were initially so compelling, see their arcs flatten out.