31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 10: “Love Is Not a Pie” by Amy Bloom

May 10, 2011 by · 3 Comments 

From Come to Me

Note: The following discussion reveals essential plot details about the story under consideration. If you do not wish to be privy to such, etc., etc.

***

“In the middle of the eulogy at my mother’s boring and heart-breaking funeral, I began to think about calling off the wedding.” As first sentences in debut-story collections go, that one is a bit of an eye-opener. It’s got that elusive “hook” that creative writing teachers counsel their students to include in their opening salvos, but it’s also got the unexpected enjambment of “boring” and “heart-breaking” to describe the mother’s funeral – a fairly subtle literary effect. However, it is inevitably the glancing reference to the narrator’s wedding that will snag readers and make them curious to press on. The story’s second sentence provides more detail about the narrator’s hesitancy: “August 21 did not seem like a good date, John Wescott did not seem like a good person to marry, and I couldn’t see myself wearing the long white silk gown Mrs. Wescott had offered me.” It is not until the story’s close that we understand why “John Wescott did not seem like a good person to marry,” and by that point, most of our readerly expectations have been subverted.

“Love Is Not a Pie” takes the form of a flashback to the narrator’s childhood. At the reception following her mother’s funeral, the narrator, Ellen, spies Mr. DeCuervo, a longtime friend of her parents. The story flashes back to the summer Ellen was 11 and her sister, Lizzie, was eight (this, we are told, was Lizzie’s “last naked summer”). Part of that summer was spent in a cabin in Maine, where Mr. DeCuervo and his eight-year-old daughter Gisella joined Ellen and her family.

As the summer unfolds, 11-year-old Ellen witnesses her mother and Mr. DeCuervo interacting in ways she doesn’t understand, but seems to instinctively question. Mr. DeCuervo dances with Ellen’s mother “as though they’d been waiting all their lives for each song.” One night, Ellen awakes and goes to the kitchen for a glass of water; en route, she notices her mother and Mr. DeCuervo embracing: “I remember being surprised, and puzzled. I had seen movies; if you hugged someone like you’d never let them go, surely you were supposed to be kissing, too.” Although Ellen remains perturbed by the gestures and body language that her mother and Mr. DeCuervo engage in, a more experienced reader is able to interpret the signs and conclude that the two are having an affair.

Such a worldly reader would be wrong.

Rather than engaging in an extra-marital affair, it transpires that Ellen’s father, mother, and Mr. DeCuervo are partners in a committed ménage-a-trois, with the full consent of all parties. Of course, this is not something that the 11-year-old Ellen is capable of understanding. When she suffers stomach cramps in the middle of the night, she rises to seek help from her mother and finds the three adults curled up in bed together. “What was that, I thought, what did I see?” The situation continues to vex Ellen into adulthood, and it is only after their mother falls ill that she and her sister discuss it openly. Lizzie confronts her mother about the relationship with Mr. DeCuervo, and relates their conversation to her sister:

I asked her how she could do it, love them both, and how they could stand it. And she said, “Love is not a pie, honey. I love you and Ellen differently because you are different people, wonderful people, but not at all the same. And so who I am with each of you is different, unique to us. I didn’t choose between you. And it’s the same way with Daddy and Bolivar. People think it can’t be that way, but it can. You just have to find the right people.”

In addition to being a writer, Bloom is also a practising psychotherapist, and the mother’s explanation contains a bit too much of a therapist’s language to be entirely believable. Still, the tolerance for alternative lifestyles is refreshing in a fiction about family; rather than pulling the family unit apart, the triangular relationship between the parents and Mr. DeCuervo helps to cement it, and eventually leads to Ellen’s realization that she can’t go through with her marriage: “I didn’t come from a normal family, I wasn’t ready to get normal.”

“Normal” is a loaded word for Bloom, who used it as the title for her non-fiction work Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops and Hermaphrodites with Attitude. Freud once stated, “The only unnatural sexual behaviour is none at all,” and although it’s not at all clear that Bloom would endorse this statement, her work insists that sexuality exists on a sliding scale, where the idea of “normalcy” doesn’t apply. Her approach to sexual dynamics is one of compassionate tolerance and inclusion, not judgment or opprobrium. Instead of Freud, Bloom is closer to John Lennon: “Whatever gets you through the night.”