Love in the Present Tense
It’s not every novelist that who not only sees an unpublished book made into a film but then, on top of that, sees the book published and hit the best-seller charts. Fewer are the novelists who can see a good idea turned both into a book and a movie, and, from there, turn it into a foundation. Catherine Ryan Hyde did all of that with Pay It Forward, a book and film based on the simple idea that the world might be a better place, and in short order, if, for every good deed you receive, you do three good deeds for others. It’s a lovely notion, though the question of whether it will endure has yet to be decided. In part, the question raised by Hyde’s book is this: are human beings really good enough to sustain such a charitable social movement? Or are there simply too many people who are so fundamentally selfish that a "pay it forward" trend is doomed to brevity, even inanity?
Hyde could have gotten stuck in the "pay it forward" groove and become a parody of her own good intentions, but instead she has taken the fundamental question that lay beneath her earlier idea -- human charity versus human selfishness -- and explored it in a new direction. The result is her new novel, Love in the Present Tense.
As with Pay It Forward, Love in the Present Tense involves a man whose mentoring affects the life of a young boy. But in this case, the boy is an orphan whose mother is abducted and murdered by a vengeful man seeking a crude form of justice, and the man with whom she leaves her son is a young businessman running an upstart PR firm. Over the next 25 years, the boy -- his name is Leonard -- presents a peaceful, wise aspect to his foster father, Mitch, who regards Leonard with a mixture of protective love and something close to awe. But underneath his preternatural wisdom, and the faith he has that the spirit of his mother watches over him, Leonard suffers from the all-too-human afflictions of anger and abandonment. Years later, as a young adult, Leonard must take a literal leap of faith that threatens him with grave bodily harm -- but also promises to reward him with illumination as to his own identity.
Hyde structures the book as a series of reflection on various events, allowing different characters -- sometimes the same character, separated by many years from his earlier self -- to relate what took place and what it seemed to mean. Cleverly, Hyde allows the details to vary, depending on who tells the story. More crucially, she recognizes that the meaning of each event will change from narrator to narrator, and over time. The story that unfolds is both a touching, if hardly original, tale about family -- the family Leonard has lost, the family that he gains with Mitch and, later, with a couple named Jake and Mona who adopt Leonard, but who are smart enough to allow Mitch to remain part of his life -- and a work of spiritual poetry that explores the concept, and consequences, of eternal love between parent and child.
It sounds sappy, but it’s not. Hyde has foreseen the need to avoid saccharine, and she speaks to the world’s burnt-in cynicism about devotion and commitment through Mitch, whose love for Leonard is uncompromising and absolute, but who struggles with the meaning of it all. "I guess I’m just not that much of an idealist," Mitch reflects. "The world was full of divorcing couples who swore they’d remain friends and now couldn’t stand the sight of one another. The world was full of mothers who ditched their kids and ran. That was the real world, like it or not." Mitch’s personal world is a confused one, caught somewhere between the illicit affair he carries on with a powerful politician and the responsibilities he takes on, without second guessing or resentment, when young Leonard more or less falls -- like an angel from troubled blue heaven -- into his life.
Leonard seems to live in a higher world, however, a world where there is nothing at all unusual or hard to credit about what Mitch calls "The love that can never be broken. The devotion that no power, no circumstance can pull apart." For Leonard, the presence of his departed mother is palpable in the light of a candle, the flight of a bird, or the pattern of colors on a string of beads. Even as a tot, Leonard lends Mitch strength and clarity, which mostly works in the book’s favor despite the occasional strange moment when Leonard comes across as too unearthly to believe in. In one of the book’s few overdone plot points, Leonard spends much of his early life facing the prospect of blindness due to a retinal condition resulting from his premature birth; the blind child, in this case, not only sees more clearly, but pronounces his lessons more dispassionately and eloquently than any of the book’s adults. It’s not entirely necessary that Leonard be half blind to get to the book’s ultimate goal, which lets Leonard grow (or tumble) out of his near-angelic status and into a more fully realized humanity, but it does ratchet up the pathos a little bit, though the issue of whether that is for the better or the worse is a matter of personal taste.
Still, Hyde writes with assurance and power about subtle issues, investing each character with rich personae and sketching out, in plain language and messy, emotionally charged situations, the risks and rewards of ordinary human life, and the extraordinary power of love to create, destroy, and stand true despite time, distance, and maybe even death.
by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Publisher: Doubleday / Flying Dolphin Press. Publication Date: May 30, 2006. Price: $21.95. Pages: 262. Format: Hardcover Original. ISBN 0-385-51800-5