This book gets me. It gets how I experienced love as a young person – love as packaged out in parcels of worry. Those who were loved the most (I thought) were the most worried about, the most needy. Louise (or Wheeze) comes to believe that to feel not-worried-over is to not be loved, and so she never accepts help because she never accepts that she could be loved – and so worthy of worry (or she never accepts that she could be worried-over, and so worthy of love). The greatest challenge for her in the book is to find a way to worry about herself and to make a decision that is worthy of her own esteem. This conflict sets up a rich narrative that does not condescend to a simplistic narrative of simple resolution, but demands the reader accept (along with Louise) disappointment, betrayal, and how her fear of her own greatness, or fear of her own worth, limit and fail her.
I let the title get the better of me in this one. I kept waiting for Louise to fall in love with some man named Jacob. I blame my insubstantial Biblical training for missing the Biblical reference, or at the very least, noting the Jacob/Esau parallels of Louise and Caroline’s relationship. (this from a girl who puts East of Eden in her top five of all time…) Or maybe I blame my expectation after reading the rest of the YAF category that all YAF is just a shoddy pretense for a romantic relationship that will either doom or redeem the protagonist.
So it was with not a little disappointment that I found Jacob I Have Loved ended with this same predictable and uncomplicated resolution: Louise falls in love and in doing so substitutes her dreams of being a doctor for satisfaction with being a mother. Barf. What a let down from the tremendous independence she gains over the course of the novel. Okay, okay, you’re saying that choosing to be a mother is its own kind of (rewarding) choice (as Louise’s mother so definitely points out to Louise!), but unlike every other choice Louise makes, this one – to be a mum and not a doctor – occurs without self-reflection or cause. It just sort of… happens in the gap between paragraphs. Suddenly the warmth of a breastfeeding baby is all she needs and the radical power of her independence is subsumed in some kind of wet dream of motherhood.
I shouldn’t end with that paragraph – if only so that you don’t think me a child-hating, baby-eating monster – because I really did love this book. I loved Louise’s anger, her frustrating and her exhaustion with trying to negotiate relationships that are not obvious, or easy, or welcoming to her. I loved her determination and her awareness of her own failings. I love that she worries about other people, and recognizes in this worry a kind of love. And I loved that she allowed herself the imperfections that made her fail or fuck up, and that these imperfections are (eventually) understood as okay.
I do wish she’d become a doctor. Just saying.