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The Book of Trouble: A Romance
By Ann Marlowe
HC, 288 pg., US$23.00
ISBN: 0-1510-1131-1

The lessons of love

By Steven Martinovich
web posted April 10, 2006

The Book of Trouble: A RomanceThere are few of us today who don't have a love affair in our past that had we stood outside of ourselves and observed as a disinterested third party, we couldn't have quickly come to the conclusion that it was doomed to end catastrophically. That kind of love, however, is -- to risk a hoary cliché -- like a hurricane; we may see the storm clouds swirling around us but for the moment we feel safe.

Ann Marlowe's romance with a man she identifies as Amir, as she chronicles in The Book of Trouble: A Romance, is one of those affairs. Marlowe, who is Jewish, in her late 40s, an ex-heroin user who loves sex with strangers, is drawn to Amir, a man ten years younger, Muslim and an Afghan expatriate. Had The Book of Trouble merely confined itself to her physical affair it would have been suitable only for the Sex and the City demographic, but Marlowe's ambitions range further than detailing a romance gone wrong.

Marlowe meets Amir in 2002, just one month before she is scheduled to go to Afghanistan on a teaching assignment. Over the following weeks, their friendship turns into a torrid -- and loving -- sexual affair as each reveals their vulnerabilities to the other. All is not bliss, however, as Amir treats her warmly when they are alone but is distant in public -- not to mention occasionally announcing his desire to sleep with her friends. Marlowe's desire for Amir is such that even when he announces he's seeking a 17-year old virgin for an arranged marriage and that he plans on returning to Afghanistan in the near future, she refuses to see that this is an affair that can't end well.

From there her story moves to Afghanistan where she carefully observes how Afghanis interact with each other. Although poor and living in a war torn nation, Marlowe notes that its people treat each other with a kindness alien to her native New York. While many Westerners focus on the superficial when it comes to their relationships, Marlowe sees a simple and honest love between Afghani men and women. A friend later notes that Third World peoples are often capable of this kind of tenderness because although they have traditions, they don't have rules -- a difficult concept for us in the First World to understand. Though she tires of her near rural existence, complete with cold water showers and unheated rooms, it is plain to see that she loves Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Back in New York she reconnects with Amir and discovers him to be even more distant than before. He announces an imminent return to Afghanistan and goes out of his way to avoid talking to Marlowe. Seeking escape, she travels once again, this time to Iraq where she finds a society struggling to recover after the recent war, one that she supported on moral grounds. There she meets with Ahmed Chalabi, who as largely unknown Iraqi expatriate once attended one of her New York parties, and learns how life difficult is even in a city like Baghdad.

Upon her return to the United States she engages in a post-mortem of her failed romance with Amir. The Trouble with Romance, however, isn't merely content with that affair thankfully. Throughout the book, Marlowe shares her observations and thoughts on a variety of topics that include religion, culture, gender roles and male-female romances. Here is where this book truly shines as her insights are uncommonly penetrating. Proving that it is the sinner that knows God the best, the sexually adventurous Marlowe blasts our cynical culture that shies away from declarations of love in favour of the businesslike concept of "relationships."

In a chapter entitled "People don't fall in love anymore" Marlowe writes:

"Our culture makes it easier to devalue love by the language it uses. Lover, romance, making love -- even these words have to sound racy or treacly or archaic. We have boyfriends and girlfriends, sex and relationships ... Relationships are part of the intellectualization of love that has crept unnoticed into our culture. Relationships take root in the mind, love in the body. We choose relationships, but we fall in love. ... Relationships are part of a turn our culture has taken away from both feeling and the body. We like to say that love doesn't mean desire and that sex needn't mean anything. Now our fondness is here and our desire there; our kisses, we say, are inspired by lust, but our words by love. It used to be otherwise. Once a kiss meant love, swooning meant love, and love meant the need to touch and possess the beloved. Once, feeling and body were as one in love."

Her romance may be of little interest to the reader but The Book of Trouble is much more than Marlowe obsessing about what was ultimately a short-lived affair. It reads like an uncommonly intelligent romance novel but it is in fact a memoir, and as with all great memoirs Marlowe takes the opportunity to explore larger issues that intersect with her life. When combined with her keen insights on both global and personal issues, The Book of Trouble is a powerful call for us to reevaluate what we've done over the past few decades to devalue the concept of love. Today it is like accounting for many, with each side carefully keeping track of gestures and words, and noting supposed inequalities. Marlowe reminds us that we can strive for more.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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