Contemporary Literature · Romance

A Word for Love

A Word for Love was the February book from Muse Monthly. I realize it’s now June…don’t judge. It sat on my shelf for months and, I’ll be honest, was on my TBR list but nowhere near the top. But then a good friend and incredible supporter of this blog, someone who has given me more positive feedback and taken more of my book suggestions than almost anyone else (thank you, L!), asked me if I had read it. She said she had just finished it and that it was one of the most beautiful and best written love stories she’d ever read. Well, with that kind of recommendation…I started it the very next day.

A Word for Love by Emily Robbins

A Word for Love 00012

“To start off, I’d like to just say that I literally cannot think of a single truly negative thing to say about this book. For all that it was not what I was expecting, and definitely not one of those “I literally cannot put it down” novels, it’s also one of the most polished reads I’ve ever experienced. The writing style is difficult to describe, a combination of sparse and picturesque, a bit like long verse poetry masquerading as prose. I just read my first book of poetry earlier this year, and that is definitely the most closely related style that I can think of. And truly, it’s gorgeous. Plus, having studied Arabic for years, much of the discussion of vocabulary, of how hidden meanings appear when you look at the similar roots for words that on the surface appear so distant, was a joy to read and digest. The inclusion of those word philosophies and connections gave a wonderful extra depth and dimension to the story. I read at the end that the author, who studied in Syria and has lived in various countries across the Middle East, was a student of anthropology. That didn’t surprise me at all, based on her inclusion, and descriptions of, many small but meaningful cultural practices. And it actually helped explain some of the moments that I found the most poignant, when our main character notices the small things that can speak volumes, but are usually overlooked. For example, I recall a lovely passage where items like empty juice glasses left out on a counter are reverently described as “charms” of daily life.

Throughout the book, we watch the blossoming, if you will, of a distant, forbidden, love between two characters. A love that, similar to that of Romeo and Juliet (forgive the obvious and mostly overdone reference), is purely visual, from afar, grows quickly out of a bit of desperation in the face of the forbidden, and proceeds quickly to dramatic overtures of affection and eventual tragedy. It’s a classic story, but for me, also superficial. What was more deeply felt, I thought, was the observer role. Our main character and narrator, Bea, travels to Syria to study the language. She is obsessed with the construction and meaning of words and has the single minded goal of seeing and read “the astonishing text,” an Arab love story, the manuscript for which is said to bring all readers to tears. She romanticizes the text to an extreme and imagines herself in the role of the female protagonist, finding her true love, often. As the story progresses, Bea ends up realizing that she is, at least in the story we are reading, not the protagonist, but the supporting character. She is the one who observes the love unfolding and survives its cataclysms to tell the tale. Mirroring the astonishing text that she came to read, she is the shepherd, the friend, and ultimately the author of the written tale. And perhaps, for being on the outside looking in, learned more about love than those directly in its thrall.

All the reviews and comments, from such well known authors as Khaled Hosseini, and of course my friend, talked about how this was, essentially, a love story written as an ode to love. And I can see that. But for as much as this book talked about, was about, love, there is a section at the end where the author spends some time talking about loss. And for me, that’s what hit home more than anything else. There is a thin, if present at all, line between love and loss, for one cannot necessarily fully be experienced without the existence of the other. And each character in this story has just as much loss, if not more, as they have love. What this books really explores is that dual space. One of the passages in that section about loss talks about love being something you feel, not something you read. But when that is gone, when the loss of that love has come, then all you have left is words. And though all you can do is write about love because there is nothing else left, from that loss spring the most beautiful words about love. So I saw this book as an ode to love, yes, but from page one, it is love through the eyes of loss. That’s what struck me as the biggest takeaway, and perhaps the biggest difference in impression between myself and the other reviews/recommendations I got. However, regardless of that difference, nothing can take away from the beauty with which this particular story about love was written.”

I feel like I’ve been on a roll lately with the ethereal type novels, where the language is as important, if not more so, than the story itself. And with all books like this, I feel compelled to share a number of quotes illustrating that. Because without understanding the beauty of the language, you are not getting a full feel for the book (even with my phenomenally written reviews, of course). So, here are some of the passages that struck me most as I read A Word for Love:

“To My Flower, the Jasmine. Peace to the one with hair like dusk falling. Even her Sweat smells Sweet.” p.62

“But there is a lightness to love, even when it’s not your own. There is camaraderie in waving. She took my hand. Adel stood on one side, we stood on the other, waving and waving.” p.125

“Nisrine once told me about a word that meant maid, and heroine, and moveable house. It was not from her language, it was from her mother’s, who came from a different island. But in Nisrine’s town, the concept was the same. …A moveable house was like a maid’s, or a heroine’s, heart. It had to be flexible, but strong, no matter the surroundings; for those who counted on it, to always be a home.” p.125

“Theirs had always been a faraway love; she had taught him the beauty of two eyes, ready, waiting to be given.” “Theirs had always been a faraway love. She’d taught him the power of a look, of two eyes ready, waiting to be given.” p.136/151

“His heart swelled and swelled, until it was so full it stopped, because there was no room for beating.” p.150

“…I love you so much, I can feel your soft soul all around me, it’s like being covered in the most beautiful flower.” p.152

“There is a letter in Arabic that stands for silence. It is called the hamza; its shape is a half-moon, or a teardrop, and like a teardrop it asks you to pause a moment, and breathe. It opens up space. … His face hurt. His side hurt. But his mind was a hamza, his arms open. …all Adel could remember was a dark hip, a surprising feeling. He dug into the memory. He let it cover him.” p.233

“As as I began to read I, too, felt joy; I saw each word and met it, joyfully, with understanding.” p.265

“I thought back to all the moments without words that I held in my heart, and I thought, Of course. Why did I study words that meant love? Love is not in what is said, but what is done, what is felt and experienced, it is the intimacy of silent moments, of small meanings.” p.268

“This is the problem with missing: it doesn’t stay in one place, but spreads out and changes the landscape.” p.278

“And, what if the love that we found was not meant to be shared just between two people, but by many; a fiery, starry substance that grows when it’s kindled, so that the more you love and are beloved, the more light?” p.279

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