Matthew Quick has a way with wounded characters. In his 2008 debut, “The Silver Linings Playbook,” the basis for the 2012 movie, an unstable grieving widow (played by Jennifer Lawrence in an Oscar-winning turn) reluctantly saves and is saved by a bipolar divorcé as they train for a dance competition. In Quick’s sixth and latest novel, “Love May Fail,” the would-be rescuer is bolder and the steps more complicated. Yet in this inspiring but flawed book, the basic theme remains: Only together can we move on.
When this novel opens, Portia Kane appears more likely to harm than heal. She’s hiding in a closet, watching as her husband of 10 years cheats on her with a teenage girl. Portia is holding her husband’s gun, intent on shooting him and his paramour. When she hesitates — “Jail time for this joke of a man?” — she realizes that she probably never intended to go through with it. After all, she has made the effort to destroy his favorite possessions first. “If you were really going to kill Ken,” she asks herself, “why ruin the humidor and cigars?” It’s an insight that gives us hope for her.
Why Portia came to be in such a terrible relationship soon becomes clear. The daughter of a mentally-ill hoarder and a nameless coworker who “took advantage of her simplemindedness and knocked her up,” Portia has essentially raised herself, making her easy prey for the handsome, wealthy Ken. The one adult who had ever seemed to believe in her was a high school English teacher, Nathan Vernon. But the saintly Mr. Vernon, Portia learns when she flees her husband’s mansion for her South Jersey hometown, has suffered his own defeat. Severely beaten by a student, he has become withdrawn and bitter, no longer able to inspire or believe in anyone.
When Portia tracks her former teacher down, her motives seem sound. She wants to repay the favor he did her, to give him reason to hope, while she rebuilds her own life. He quickly discerns that she has selfish reasons as well. As the title, a Kurt Vonnegut quote, suggests, love has failed her. Let down by her husband, Portia desperately needs to believe in one “good man.” Her former teacher, on the other hand, wants to commit suicide, following the lead he believes was set by his dog’s namesake, Albert Camus.
These two narrators alternate with others, notably Chuck Bass, another of Mr. Vernon’s former students. Drawn into the story by his sister, who was one of Portia’s classmates, Chuck is a former junkie intent on making amends, in part by caring for his fragile sister and super-resilient young nephew. Once he meets Portia again, the torch he has carried for her since high school reignites, and their love story runs alongside Portia’s quest. Mr. Vernon’s mother, a nun, also contributes a section through her letters to her son.
This structure furthers the theme of the novel: None of these characters could make it on his or her own. However, with so many voices in play, Quick has a tendency to skim over the characters’ formative crises. Chuck, for example, gets away with saying “Long story short, I became a junkie in my 20s.” We know he was fatherless and lonely, but that’s still a leap. Portia’s childhood home is also simplistically depicted. While we hear about boxes and piles of magazines, for example, a visitor apparently has no problem walking around to look at photos on the wall. That makes it hard to visualize Portia’s youth — the root of her troubles.
Despite such lapses, Portia’s sections remain the strongest in this book. Mr. Vernon reads like a parody of an intellectual, distinguished primarily by references to Camus and classical music. Chuck has heart a-plenty, but he lacks the humor and grit of his girlfriend. His sections are simply not as fun to read. The portrait of Tommy, Chuck’s 5-year-old nephew, is compelling: He’s a charming and gifted child who survives by anticipating the emotional needs of his mother. But he is one of the few characters who doesn’t have his own say in this good-hearted but ultimately uneven book. His story would be worth hearing, whether or not the adults around him manage to hold their lives together.
Clea Simon is the author of 18 mysteries, including the upcoming “Code Grey.”