Love in the Present Tense by Catherine Ryan Hyde

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Love in the Present Tense by Catherine Ryan Hyde

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Fairhead
Reviewed by Sue Fairhead
Summary: About a boy, and his honourary father; about love, and eternity; about death, and life. Love in the Present Tense takes a little getting into but is rewarding.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: January 2007
Publisher: Black Swan
ISBN: 978-0552773645

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The front cover of this book describes it as: 'The magical story of a young boy's search for his mother' . This is misleading. Leonard, the young boy in question, is a remarkable child even at five years old when the main part of the story starts. His mother Pearl, who had him when she was only thirteen, is pretty amazing too. Street-wise, almost obsessively clean and tidy, and an intuitively good mother despite her extreme youth. However he never actually searches for her, even when she's gone.

But I'm leaping ahead. The novel opens as Pearl, seven years old, watches someone dying outside her house. Then moves us forward to the night when Leonard is conceived, when she herself commits murder. Not a very hopeful start, really. I wondered what on earth I was going to find to like in this book, which seemed initially to be about poverty, corruption and violence. Not my scene at all. Yet this opening is necessary to set the pace of the book, and as I kept reading it gradually grew on me.

Then we meet Mitch. It took me awhile to get into the style of the novel, which is told in short chapters by three different people: Pearl, Leonard, and their next-door neighbour Mitch. He relates the first time he meets Leonard, seeing a small but very intelligent child with thick glasses and an asthma inhaler. He becomes his child-minder when Pearl has to work. Mitch is straightforward and basically honest - other than being deep in a secret affair with a married woman - and I liked him immediately. He recognises something of a kindred spirit in Leonard, and Pearl instinctively trusts him.

To confuse me further, the story is not in chronological order. We hear from Leonard at five, and then at seventeen, looking back. Mitch is twenty-five when he first meets Leonard, but he also relates some chapters twelve years later before returning to being twenty-five. But it works. The story needs a lot of information about the past to build up the plot, and this style of dotting around the decades is much easier to read, once I'd figured out what was going on, than many books that use more traditional flashback styles.

And the plot? Hard to say. Pearl vanishes and Leonard is convinced she's dead because he sees glimpses of her in candles and raindrops. It's pretty obvious to the reader, too, that she's dead, because she isn't the kind of person who would abandon a child. Mitch is never quite certain, though, and I did wonder - once or twice - whether she would suddenly appear from jail (she did, after all, murder someone) or a kidnapping. But because Leonard is sure, he never goes looking for her. He's perfectly content to stay with Mitch, and then to live with some foster parents for a while.

Really, the main focus is character development. And love, in its deepest sense. Leonard, even as a small child, realises that the kind of love Mitch has for his adulterous lover is narrow and rather self-seeking. He talks about 'forever love', the kind that doesn't end even when someone dies. And at eighteen years old, Leonard has a very painful lesson in discovering that life is valuable, and that he cares as much for Mitch and his foster family as he does for the long-gone Pearl.

The whole is very well put together, with a tidy conclusion, and by the time I was about half-way through it was difficult to put down. It's a book that I'll probably think about off and on during the next few weeks, because Leonard and Mitch have undoubtedly got under my skin. It's not one I'd necessarily have chosen to read, but I can see why it's made the Richard and Judy shortlist.

If this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger or Sons and Fascination by G S Mattu.

Booklists.jpg Love in the Present Tense by Catherine Ryan Hyde is in the Top Ten Tube Reads.

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Buy Love in the Present Tense by Catherine Ryan Hyde at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Love in the Present Tense by Catherine Ryan Hyde at


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