A Review of Michele Morano’s Like Love
November 20, 2020 § 5 Comments
By Tom Montgomery Fate
Even though Michele Morano’s last book, Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain, was published a decade ago, I still return to it for her incisive reflections on the relationship between language and culture. Perhaps this is why the focus of her new book of essays, reminded me of an assignment I once gave to my students while teaching in the Philippines: Write a one sentence response to the question, What is love?
Those Filipino students, all who were tri-lingual and struggled with English, wrote things like: “Love is like the mango––ripe, sweet and everywhere” and “Love is patient, like slow, bubbling rice.” This was quite different from what my students in the U.S. wrote when I gave them the same assignment. Most wrote something close to this: “Love is a strong emotional feeling or bond which a person has for another person or thing.”
The point of this simple exercise is to distinguish between writing that explains and writing that reveals, to move from abstract concepts to concrete imagery. It was interesting how the Filipino students seemed to more readily give examples, to show love rather than attempt to explain it.
All good essays and memoirs must answer the question—What is love?—to some degree. But most readers are not looking for a new definition or explanation of love. Rather, what we want, is an artful invitation into the writer’s experience, so that we might find a bit of our story in theirs.
And that is what readers will find in Like Love, largely due to Morano’s raw honesty about her struggles to love a variety of men, her parents, and even her newborn son. The book is a weave of Morano’s childhood and adulthood, with each chapter jumping forward/backward in time. This allows her to explore her evolving understandings of love and sex and friendship and family––and how they blur and converge, or don’t.
In the second chapter, Morano’s mother leaves her abusive father for Jan, a woman she worked with. It’s the seventies, and lesbian relationships are less accepted, so eleven-year-old Michele, and her younger brother, Michael, have a lot to digest that night they flee with their mom to live with Jan and her children. But it gets harder. One night (a month after they’ve moved out), they return to their old house (where their father still lives), and break in through a window. They hurriedly snatch up all the stuff they want—clothes and books and appliances. Then the police and her father arrive.
This is an important but confusing chapter, in that it weaves the two nights together (the escape and the break-in) and echoes the confusion in Morano’s young mind. After the break-in, she writes, “All the way back to Jan and Maggie’s house, I felt sad for my father, guilty about the evening’s events and excited by a shift.” The shift is in her self-perception: “Now I was someone else, someone whose personality involved keeping quiet, guarding secrets, becoming a repository of stories.”
And these stories that Morano has been guarding and distilling for forty-plus years are widely varied—in theme and style. She attempts to define love in a segmented riff on Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (subtitled “Or Twelve Ways of Looking at Love”), in a riff on Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” (“How to Tell a True Love Story”), and in a dozen more conventional essays.
But it is her struggle to love her mother, and to love being a mother, that both frames and thematically undergirds the book. None of the other love relationships are as complex, or as deeply rooted. And it is a relationship that touches all the others.
A few months after moving in with Jan’s family, Morano’s mom––Rita––decides to move them all back in with her husband. So, Michele and her brother must return to their old house, to a place, and parents, who still don’t feel like “home.” When their mother decides to leave a second time, “it felt, like a rupture, a turning away, like the love of my life was gone.”
“Sometimes I fantasized about my mother dying,” Morano later writes, “which would at least have the benefit of allowing people to understand the pain I carried. Instead my mother, who I loved and resented and missed so deeply…had left me behind.”
In a late chapter, Morano’s mom––now in her sixties, and disgruntled by retirement due to disability––decides to visit her daughter in Iowa City for two weeks. Michele, now a PhD student and teacher, is falling in love with her eventual partner, Kevin, at the same time Rita visits. Morano magically weaves these two love stories together—the lifetime of suffering love between her and her mom, and the breathtaking day by day joy of falling in love with Kevin. As the chapter progresses, and Morano’s love for Kevin intensifies, so does her love for her mom. She feels a “tsunami of tenderness.”
“I had known this woman, this body, my entire life,” she writes, “first with the unencumbered adoration of a toddler, later with the capacious devotion of a child who recognizes flaws and feels more deeply because of them…. But I did love her, as steadfastly as I would ever love anyone.”
The loose braid of this love, and her love for Kevin, is tightened by a third strand in the final essay: Morano becomes pregnant at forty-three, and gives birth to a son. Unlike the rest of the book, this chapter is written in the third person, and the emotional distance is arresting. Rather than saying “I did not love my baby,” she writes, “She did not love her baby.” And here, Morano’s own childhood surfaces as she considers how to love her son: “What, she wondered, would love for a child—real, deep, unconditional love—feel like?” (italics added)
By book’s end, it seems Morano knows. She is resilient and compassionate, and living the answer to that question—What is love?–– every single day––as the daughter of an imperfect mother, and the mom of a curious little boy in search of his own answers.
Tom Montgomery Fate is the author of five books of creative nonfiction. The most recent is Cabin Fever, a nature memoir (Beacon Press). His essays appear in The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, The Iowa Review, and Fourth Genre, among others, and have often aired on NPR and PRI.