As I age, I find very new novels written about ageing, or about adults in the latter phases of their lives (Penelope Lively’s Booker-award winning novel “Moon Tiger” was one of the first of this genre, though written decades ago; recent fiction by Margaret Drabble enters this territory as well). Roddy Doyle’s newest novel “Love”, considers the lifelong friendship between two men, Joe and Davey, as they spend one night in a variety of pubs in Ireland , reviewing their own histories, from their early post-high school days to the present. Written entirely in dialogue–which is an incredible feat on Doyle’s part– the reader will learn of the depth of this friendship, the roads taken and not taken by both men, including marriages and children; one remains in Ireland, while the other moves to England, though the two have met at least annually in Ireland, where Davey still has an ageing widowed father whom he visits.
When the men discuss their marriages/wives together, the threads of earlier relationships wander through the dialogue; back in the day, both had shown an interest in a cello-playing woman they’d both met in a pub in their early twenties; those memories are fraught for both men, as, it turns out, Joe has just left his wife of many years for this very same woman, and he’s eager to tell Davey all about it (it’s clear that Davey’s the interrupter, the less patient of the two friends, and Joe the main storyteller, or so it will seem until near the end of the novel). All friendships have such imbalances, and Davey’s often impatient responses to the seemingly endless story of how and why Joe has left his (seemingly admirable) wife and family for this neurotic woman–they’ve bumped into each other at a school event, where both happen to have daughters there) are perfect venues for the author to delineate the differences in character of the two ageing friends (they are both just short of sixty in the novel). It’s fascinating how Joe believes that this woman, who’s plagued his fantasies for decades, “needs” Joe; in this relationship, Joe’s the listener, not the talker. And it turns out the Davey never was interested in this woman. Meditations upon women and wives during these conversations show a level of maturity on both men’s parts. Davey has married a near wild woman, rich, and seemingly neurotic; he’s left a steady girlfriend to do so, and his widowed father is horrified and appalled, which is why Davey and wife move to England. It may be that the vicissitudes of these relationships may not mean a lot in a cosmic sense, but it’s the stuff of daily living, and familial approval or lack thereof are often the defining motivators for relationships we all chose or reject. The dialogue is pitch perfect; there’s not an extra word or thought or emotion; it’s never once boring or trite, but it has an elegiac tone, though leavened with humor and moments of considered nostalgia.
I’ll not be a spoiler and reveal the last section of the novel, which will bring this old friendship back onto its best supports, where both men truly need one another as it’s revealed that Davey is in town because his father is dying from cancer. The writing in this section, the last, of the novel, is superb; the strains that ran through the earlier evening vanish entirely, and the reader is left to understand the strength and depth of the bonds of this friendship. And the “Love” of the title means many different things: love between these men and wives past and present; love between Davey and his dad, and, of course, love between these two old and dear friends. “Love” is one of the finest novels of 2020; it’s written with grace and humor, its language spectacular and its understanding of the psychologies of these two ageing men superb (last year’s “Last Boat to Tangier”, also by an Irish writer, Kevin Barry, goes into similar territory about friendship between two ageing con men). “Love” is a magnificent read.