As Robert ponders what more he will be able to contribute to the world, he is taken back to his youth. At 21 years old, he travelled from Far North Queensland down to Melbourne, stopping simply because he was met with the end of the country. Here Robert began another phase of life, where he would find love, writing, and would pave the way for his everlasting contribution to this world. That is until he meets Lena, a rich, educated, and beautiful woman who herself, paves another fork in the road for him to consider.
To me, this sounds like a story of self-love, acceptance, adventure, and passion. However, after reading all 584 pages of this book, that is not what I was met with. I am not one to devour a book while being overcome with dissatisfaction but I had high hopes for The Passage of Love. I understood that it was a bit literary and sometimes novels of such likes take some time to grapple onto. I often find I have to take a moment to ease into the story, to understand how and what it is trying to tell me. But unfortunately, I didn’t find that here. I then thought perhaps the plot would ramp up, it did not. Perhaps the characters would shape up and truly overcome all the grievances they faced throughout the novel, that didn’t happen either. I don’t want you to think I’m here to bash this book, because I’m not; everyone experiences reading differently and this book simply did not hit the mark for me even though I gave it so many opportunities to.
Firstly, I found this novel to be too long. The story circulates and repeats itself. Lena runs away to pursue her ‘purpose’, they move, Lena runs away, they move. It seems as though Lena and Robert are literally attempting to move onto another part of life, to change the phase of their relationship through a change of locality. It doesn’t occur to them to look intrinsically at why they are facing issues being uninspired and unexcited, not finding this ‘purpose’ Lena is so set on. Not that I would have enjoyed it more, but I think the impression of their intrinsic problems could have been communicated through simply one cat and mouse chase. Despite no outward or obvious feelings of personal inferiority being displayed, there are offhand moments of this that feel integral to the relationship. It seems as though Robert's commitment to Lena comes from the idea that he is not worthy of her, that he must be grateful for her despite everything because of this. On page 112, upon meeting her for the first time Robert narrates:
“He saw her as a well-groomed middle-class young woman he would have admired in the street or on the tram but would never have spoken to.”
Furthermore, on page 113, he continues:
“He couldn’t imagine there was anything about his that would interest such a woman. What could she possibly be expecting from him?”
This impression of inferiority and superiority establishing a hierarchy of worth is how the relationship between Robert and Lena begins, and to me, that seems highly problematic. However, this is simply my speculation because Miller gives us little to hint or hold onto in the way of rational, or contextual explanation as to why they are the way they are.
Continuing on from this, I found this novel to be really quite depressing in its explorations of the notions of love. I have never, nor will I ever, understand the idea that I have found in literary love stories I have read of late (*cough* The Only Story), that presentations of the deepest love are ripe with suffering, anger, and resentment. Ultimately, I found Robert to be very unhappy in this novel, Lena too, unless she was literally running away, so I don’t know how or why these two people are the focus of a novel about love. As I read, I pondered why? Why put up with a woman who leaves you, who demands impossible, and hypocritical things from a person? In the name of love? I don’t know about you, fellow readers, but this does NOT make an ounce of sense to me. Lena demands Robert be a certain type of husband, without setting the same expectation upon herself. I found her to be highly selfish and highly inconsiderate of Robert, and his dreams. Lena was only ever infatuated with her own purpose, which on one hand is inspiring, but not when you demand a commitment from someone, do not meet that commitment yourself, and abandon all responsibility in the name of finding this purpose. Here I am brought back to my question of why? Why did Miller decide to portray this relationship and these characters this way? Perhaps it was a journey that Robert has to suffer through in order to pursue and perfect his writing.
Secondly, writing. That is what I thought this book was going to be about. I thought the passage of love was THROUGH writing. But no, well yes? But no. I found myself wanting more about the relationship between the side characters that, to me, played a very essential role in the cultivation of Robert’s writing. Martin, Robert’s best friend whose life inspired his first story he described as “familiar to him as his own body.” John Morris, Robert’s neighbour, was the person who encouraged him to go to university. Then finally, Wendy, who within the first 100 pages tells Robert “You’re a writer if you write! It’s that simple,” which began his journey of writing the perfect story. I felt more emotion, passion, and support from these relationships than I did with Lena throughout the whole. So again I wonder, why did we focus on Lena when her presence discouraged or inhibited Robert’s writing process. With this, it shows Lena’s hugely inconsiderate nature. While she was so hellbent on the idea of finding her purpose, she completely disregarded Robert in his more grounded pursuit of his own. Despite Lena’s neglect of Robert, he continuously supported her in her pursuit and whims. Robert accepts Lena’s decision to literally leave him, to go to Italy to attend a university and study Italian language and culture. When Lena stops making contact with their close friends Robert feels an obligation to find her, to ensure she is okay, despite everything. Before he embarks, he considers his reasoning for going to find her. He concludes it is out of ‘puzzlement’, as a result of infatuation or an ongoing obligation? It’s hard to know but he sums up his feelings in this statement “His love for Lena was real, but he didn’t know that it was necessary,” and yet, he still went, again I question why?
Robert eventually saves her from this unsuccessful endeavor—she is basically homeless and in a very unwell state of her own creation. Without Robert arriving to help Lena, she very well could have died. Undeterred by his never-ending commitment to her, Lena betrays Robert by reaching out to his family, without his consent, and forcing him to do something he did not want to do. Robert and Lena come to blows about how it makes him feel, and Lena’s lack of consideration in all facets except herself. At this end of this chapter I noted down, “are they both very selfish or unfit for one another?” and from this review, I think my feelings have changed. While I think they are unfit for one another as humans, it seems I now feel as though Lena is the more selfish one. So why do I feel Robert’s pursuit of his dreams are more important than Lena’s? Perhaps it is because he doesn’t abandon those in order to explore whims, perhaps it is because he has worked to master his craft rather than moving on when something doesn’t fit? It seems to me he is the only one who has had to make true sacrifices for the sake of another person, therefore inhibiting his own life? I don’t know.
Throughout the novel I was desperate for something from Miller: an explanation. I wanted a rationalization of why things and the characters were the way they were. I think that’s part of the reason I read this agonizing (to me) novel. I myself can’t believe that suffering is worthwhile, or valid, in the name of love, and that therefore is ‘the passage of love’. I had extremely high hopes for this novel’ I wanted it to teach me something about the world, and about myself but instead, it further solidified my cynicism. Nice to know some things never change. But, in saying that, I think my cynicism plays a huge role in my reception of this type of story. So if you enjoy gruelling, cruel, and seemingly never-ending love stories perhaps this book is right for you.
I must say, I raise my hat to Miller because I did finish the book. Miller gave me just enough at the very beginning and snippets through to illicit that things will get better for Robert. Miller masterfully sprinkles hope throughout the book to convince me it is worth getting to the end, that satisfaction will reign victorious and I will get answers to my questions. Despite my questions being unanswered and my satisfaction remaining limp, Miller’s writing convinced me to go on. Moreover, I can’t doubt there are some pretty quotable lines in this book, however annoying their context maybe. Now, is this enough for me to reconsider my dislike and dissatisfaction? No, but good on you Miller, you got my cash and my attention which I suspect that is all a writer fundamentally needs.
The Passage of Love
584 pages. 2017.
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