A box of ARCs arrived and as I was making a reading pile, this book’s red cover grabbed me. Inside was a letter from the editor, and I immediately took it to the couch and gave it my full attention (the writing whispered of Elliott Holt, more on that in a minute). Two sittings later I was done with the book, sadly, and wished it would never end. In the best cases, characters in books that I love live on, and they still reside in the town where I left them. Perhaps the author is writing the rest of their lives. I suspect Alice and Daniel are still steadily gazing at the stars that hang over London, right where I left them when this book ended.
Alice has been running from a bad relationship and a life where she just doesn’t fit in. Suddenly, she is brought home, her father is on the verge of dying, and her sisters Tilly and Cee are holding down the home front. There is a disconnected wandering to Alice and her feelings about everything are at loose ends. She poured herself into Kal, the ex-boyfriend that left her because she didn’t fit into his life. Her family can’t make a place for her either. Nothing works; Alice lacks the ability to connect on a human level, and this makes every situation seem like hell.
Along comes Daniel: bum, vagrant, hairball, and the kind of person who is so bad off that no one seems to notice him. His life has been on greased rails, spiraling down to an endless bottom that he never hits. For a long time I wondered why he was in these pages, why are we breaking away from Alice, who is just perfectly awesome to read about, for this dust bunny of a man? Alice arrives as her father’s last breaths can be counted her fingers and toes, and slowly it dawns on her that there is no reason to stay. Her sisters treat her like the kid who always spills her milk, and Alice is very comfortable in that role.
She is left to sell the family house, and when an elderly couple come unannounced and there is a moment of reflection from Alice as she imagines the buyers; “I can see her, sitting on a low cushioned stool, rubbing night cream into her skin. He’s in bed, a velvet-trimmed lamp pooling light on his book.” Alice is so addicted to loneliness that she might die without it.
We’re taken back to Daniel who at this point has found a way into Alice’s life, through her past, he knew her mother. Ms. Butler is fond of her characters making lists, Daniel and Alice take turns, his are grim and regretful, “avoid turning out like my father,” is number ten on one of his lists. Alice has a set of lists too, at the start of this story where the hook was set, “I wish you’d talk about Mama. I wish you’d kept something of hers.” Each one of these lists was almost too much for me to deal with; all of them are overpowered by grief, sadness and deep regret. Not to say they don’t keep you on your toes, because the silky prose can easily lull you into a safe place, and then you turn a corner and the knife goes in.
Alice never knew her mother, and Daniel knew her too well. The absence of parental figures weighs on this story, and each character is defined by the ones they don’t have. They become the biggest part of Alice and Daniel’s life, the only relationship. This is a novel written by a seasoned pro, not the debut it claims to be. I suspect Ms. Butler’s editor, who also edits Elliott Holt (‘You Are One of Them’) and Charlotte Rogan (‘Lifeboat’), has a keen eye for this kind of rare talent. Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love is the story you’ve been waiting to hear from a close friend, about a mutual friend’s disastrous life, and you can’t wait to hear more. I wish happiness for Alice, and wonder if things are okay…I hope they are.