True Love by Sarah Gerard. Harper, 2020. $25.99, 224 pages
We meet Nina on speakerphone, telling her friend Odessa that her mom is trying to reconcile their past, while holding her phone’s camera to her crotch to send a picture to Brian, a man she is sleeping with.
Sarah Gerard’s True Love tells the story of Nina, a young writer hunting for love as she embarks on her creative career.
Gerard’s novel begins in the thick of it. Nina’s drifting. She patches together an income off of various side hustles and non-paying writing opportunities and sees Brian on the side while dating Seth, an artist who showcases trash at a local gallery instead of preparing any of his own, original work. The men she pursues drip with pretension and condescension, a lack of ambition that hampers Nina’s attempts to get her own start.
The novel captures this sense of drifting and yearning quite well. Nina moves to New York with Seth to pursue her MFA in creative writing. To stay afloat, she becomes consumed by the gig economy: “I’m an art model, a freelance editor, a dog walker, a part-time assistant, a babysitter, and a movie extra. I find these jobs through friends of friends, on Craigslist, on Facebook, on flyers posted at public libraries and around Bed-Stuy…I feel as if I’m always gasping, always moving never sleeping. I begin to feel a deep sense of hatred for the hustle; I see the hustle as a form of violence wielded against me by late-stage capitalism.” Much of the novel is narrated in this slightly detached voice, rendering the absurdities of this creative, gig economy in arresting clarity. The hoops she must jump through are, indeed, absurd. Nina, the writer, catalogues the development of her relationships and career in a manner that underlines her dissatisfaction.
She seems to hover above her situation, and the prose plays with her sense of self-awareness. When meeting her partner Aaron’s mother, Nina imagines that the mother “probably thinks I’m the kind of person who moves back in with her parents and thus does not deserve her son, all the while judging me poorly for dating a person who has moved back in with his parents.” At times, Nina dwells in this space of imaging how others must perceive her. Yet in other moments, like with her therapist, this clash of perception evades her as she’s so caught animating what others might be thinking. Her need to perceive others at once underscores her desire to associate with people in her orbit and hints at the drifting that threatens her romantically, financially, and creatively. None of this is without consequence, and the situation with each romantic partner becomes increasingly dire. Though dark comedy haunts the prose, the sense that her situation is spinning out swells over the novel.
Nina moves through intimate relationships in an effort to attach to somebody. For her, a “partner is a conduit for conducting a certain dimension of one’s experience, a way to collage and create oneself, like a walking, breathing search engine: it’s expedient to have one, affords one’s life content and depth and authority and direction. Plus I have no idea how to do it alone.” Nina uses her relationships to ground into her world. When she moves to New York, she keeps in touch with Brian, sending him details from her day in order to connect. “Brian is an outlet, recipient, and depository of my observations as a native returning from exile,” she says. As a writer, alone in the city with a boyfriend who she doesn’t connect with, Nina is hunting for something she can use to ground into her life.
Her creative and romantic searches conveniently align in Aaron, an old college classmate who she reconnects with in New York. They begin working on a movie script, titled True Love, which follows “a group of troubled, narcissistic young people as they become entangled in a series of ill-conceived relationships that flame out in humiliating ways.”
The novel is similarly populated with vivid, selfish characters that impose themselves on Nina. Her mother periodically attempts to reconnect and subsequently cuts off communication. Her friend Odessa asks to visit while pregnant with her second child. Everybody’s concerned with the image they create. Everybody lies. Or rather, the characters are so mired in their own ideas of self and desire that they cannot understand their flaws from a different point of view. The novel operates as a hall of mirrors, and sometimes Nina wields her own mirror as a defense. Thus, the book comprises a creative study of how we delude ourselves and implicate others along the way. Even Nina’s motivations and perceptions are undermined: so often she is the one standing in her way.
At first, it takes a minute to find one’s footing in the text. Nina’s life is a hustle of jobs, magazines, significant others, and ghosts from her past. Before Nina leaves Florida, the novel weaves together flashbacks and narrative through associative meaning. Her past is constantly threatening towards the surface, and this layering of memory underlines her sense of drifting as well.
Yet, she does not drift without consequence. Nina’s relationships, whether with her mother, Odessa, or her romantic partners, tend to snarl and explode. Living with Seth and Aaron, she is always struggling to pay rent. Major life events, like her graduation from her MFA program, are measured not by what she has written but by the fact that she will lose health insurance and can no longer afford her therapist. Though in the past her family afforded her certain privileges, Nina is running out of time. Danger in the novel comes to a pitch with the rise of Donald Trump. Readers will recognize the backdrop against which Nina’s quest unfolds. Though some stories of self-discovery, pursuing artistic and romantic fulfillment are threatened by ennui, Nina’s is deeply entangled with a world young millennials know well.
Michael Colbert loves coffee (his favorites are Costa Rican and Ethiopian) and horror films (his favorites are Candyman and Silence of the Lambs). He is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at UNC Wilmington, and his writing appears or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Southern Humanities Review, and Kyoto Journal, among others.