She Writes Press ($18.95)
by Eleanor J. Bader
Conventional romantic plots constantly tell us that love is the only thing we need to be happy and secure, but reality rarely measures up to that promise. This painful truth is central to Donnaldson Brown’s emotionally resonant first novel, Because I Loved You.
The story opens in Tyler, Texas at the beginning of the 1970s. Leni O’Hare is sixteen when she rescues seventeen-year-old Caleb McGrath’s injured horse, and in short order, the two become inseparable. Both have big dreams: Leni hopes to pursue an art career, and Caleb hopes to study physics at an Ivy League college. But almost from the start, there are conflicts and obstacles, with ever-present reminders of death and war hovering over their union.
For Caleb, there’s a palpable fear of being drafted to fight in Vietnam, something that is hammered home whenever he interacts with his volatile, just-returned older brother. For Leni, raised by a French mom who lost most of her relatives during World War II, the family mantra has always been: “Life is loss. . . . And you go on.” This once-abstract concept becomes real for Leni when her older brother dies while playing football, a sudden tragedy that threatens to upend the O’Hare family’s already-tenuous bonds.
It also mars Leni and Caleb’s romance. In fact, as they cling to one another, lies, secrets, and silences cast a menacing shadow over their relationship. Several months later, when Leni leaves Tyler without telling anyone where she is going or why, Caleb is left to unravel the mystery of her disappearance.
Caleb ends up attending Princeton University, but rather than study physics, he is seduced by the world of finance and eventually joins a successful real estate firm in New York City. Fast forward to 1984: Caleb and his fiancée have been invited to a Manhattan art opening where, unbeknownst to Caleb, Leni is exhibiting. Suffice it to say that theirs is a bittersweet reunion.
The unfolding interpersonal drama takes unpredictable turns, and Brown offers no easy resolutions. Instead, Because I Loved You presents an adult assessment of the limits of love alongside a potent acknowledgment of the power of shared history. The result is an unusual mix of a sweeping, decades-spanning saga and an intimate glimpse into the ways two people sustain platonic love when romantic love becomes untenable.
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