By Nancy Smith
Only a few paragraphs into This Is Between Us, it becomes clear that this is an intimate portrait of a relationship. A narrator speaks, perhaps confesses, directly to his lover of five years, and we get to peek inside the everyday details of this romance. The book is divided in five sections, marked chronologically by time. Early in Year One, our narrator says, “On just our second real date, we started talking about what our life would be like together. We talked about houses, cars, dreams, our kids, and our friends. Then we reluctantly talked about honesty, as if we weren’t really sure what it meant.” And this—the talk of a life lived together—is exactly what unfolds over the course of this lovely, understated novel.
I approach books about love with some reluctance. Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy a good love story, but what happens when love is all there is? This book has essentially no plot, no movement, and no action. It is entirely observational, akin to reading a journal or a set of letters. Nothing happens in the book that isn’t directly tied to the relationship, which at first I found to be completely suffocating. I kept wondering, who is this person? What does he do? What is he like? And then I realized I was asking the wrong questions. This book isn’t about doing; it is about being. Our lives, when broken down into their individual moments, are actually quite boring. The trick is to find meaning where there is none.
Watching movies, making dinner, taking the kids to school, cleaning up the house, having sex, going to yard sales, taking walks, driving, listening to music, making coffee. This is, more or less, what we do with our days. This Is Between Us explores these seemingly innocuous things, and for the narrator, these are exactly the things that connect him so deeply to the woman he loves.
The book, then, is a collection of moments that any of us might collect; the kind that gently propel us through life. These are small moments that connect two people, and our narrator carefully assembles these memories around the senses. He is always seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, and touching when he thinks of her. He says, “I liked the gaps in you. The top of your shirt billowing open for my own peep show when you bend down to tie your shoes. The smooth skin space between the bottom of your shirt and the buttons on your Levi’s when you reach up for something in the kitchen cabinet. The gap between your front teeth. The thin delicate bridge between your toughness and your sadness.”
Because they are both divorced, this love story isn’t one of discovery. It isn’t young and new; both of them come to the table with children and baggage in tow. The relationship is uneven, complicated, moody, and vulnerable. In other words, this is real love, the kind that doesn’t always go so well.
Around Year Three the couple is struggling. They go through the usual motions: fighting, couples therapy, and eventually separation. But what really makes the break-up cut through the heart are moments like this: “You used to waive any library late fees, but you had stopped doing that after we broke up. It was a small thing, but it felt like a grudge, a slap on my wrist that left a brief red mark and a sting I’d return my late book and CDs to another branch so you wouldn’t see me.” These small, hurtful gestures that always mean more to the person on the receiving end perfectly capture the essence of a breakup.
This is a book that deserves to be read in one sitting. Each moment is no more than a paragraph or two, and the vignettes gracefully pile upon one another just as our own memories stack up in our heads. Year Four and Five roll by and I’ll leave the fate of this couple a mystery, but near the end of the book, the narrator says, “Our love was hardly ever equal. The intensity of our admiration was proportional to the amount of housework we did. There were months when one of us did everything for the other and then we switched places.” There is this idea that, in any relationship, one person always loves more. This concept has always troubled me. I once asked a married friend about this and he said, “It’s true, but at least in my marriage the person who loves most is always changing.” And this, I think is what is at the heart of This Is Between Us. Love isn’t a static thing. Our perception of it, our hold on it, and our need for it is constantly changing. And yet we all seem to keep grasping for love, no matter how many times it has failed us.
This Is Between Us
By Kevin Sampsell
Tin House Books (October 21, 2013)