The Secret Lives of People in Love – Book Review

Love reveals the beauty of seemingly trivial things – a pair of shoes, an empty wine glass, an open drawer, cracks on the avenue. – from The World Laughs in Flowers, page 48 of The Secret Lives of People in Love –

Simon Van Booy weaves tales of ordinary people and makes them extraordinary in this collection of nineteen short stories. What appears trivial, is revealed to be monumental in the lives of his characters … all of whom have secrets they keep from those around them. As with his other published collection, Van Booy writes stories in poetic, intricate language which draws the reader in.

My favorite story in the collection is perhaps the shortest story at only three pages. In The Reappearance of Strawberries, a man’s deathbed becomes a reminiscence of love in France sparked by the joy of sweet strawberries.

Eight stories above the infamous rue de Vaugirard, the man in the ninth bed of the Bonnard Hospital ward had requested nothing but strawberries for several day. For most of that Tuesday afternoon all that could be heard were the tiny hands and feet of rain against the window. – from The Reappearance of Strawberries, page 11 of The Secret Lives of People in Love –

Van Booy takes the reader to New York City in several of his stories, relating the immigrant experience from a very personal point of view. A Russian man living in Brooklyn finds himself contemplating marriage to an American girl, but he harbors a secret from when he served on a Russian submarine. This secret fills him with guilt. Before he can move forward in his life and in his relationship, he must face his demons; and as the tale unfolds, the secret is revealed.

All seas are one sea. Every ocean holds hands with another. Although I have a job in Brooklyn, and I even have a girlfriend called Mina, part of my soul is in Russia. If I can brave the sea one last time – just up to my chest – I know that I may be reunited with myself. – from As Much Below as Up Above, page 14 of The Secret Lives of People in Love –

The themes of loss and redemption are common in this collection. For many of the characters, their secrets keep them tethered to guilt. In Distant Ships a father living in a small village in Wales chooses to become mute when tragedy steals his son from him. His days are monotonous as he gets up each day to work in a warehouse. He mourns his son and the wife who has moved to America but never divorced him. Van Booy’s ability to capture grief and loss is amazing – and he does so with few words.

Sometimes I time my walk to coincide with the three o’clock school bell. Children gush into the playground like hot water and into the arms of their parents. I would give everything, even memory – especially memory – if I could hold Leo again. The weight of his absence is the weight of the entire world. – from Distant Ships, page 68 of The Secrets of People in Love –

I also found myself being pleasantly surprised by some of Van Booy’s stories. In Snow Falls and Then Disappears the opening sentence reads:

My wife is deaf. Once she asked me if snow made a sound when it fell and I lied. We have been married twelve years today, and I am leaving her. – from Snow Falls and Then Disappears, page 77 in The Secret Lives of People in Love –

Because of those first sentences, I thought I knew where this story was going – but as with so much of Van Booy’s prose, the story takes an unusual turn I was not expecting.

There were a couple of stories which had me scratching my head a bit – Some Bloom in Darkness is one of them. In this story Sabone, who works at the railroad station, witnesses a woman being abused. This event has a huge impact on him – specifically, he begins to lust after a manikin in a store window. I won’t tell you how the story ends, but suffice it to say, this one was a bit bizarre.

Despite sometimes feeling a little lost as to the meaning of certain stories, overall Van Booy’s debut short story collection is astonishing and satisfying. Poetic, spare, and showing insight into the human condition, Van Booy’s writing is a treat.

Those who love the art of the short story will want to add this book to their reading list. Van Booy does not disappoint.


**FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

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  1. I used to be afraid of short stories, but have come to realize I enjoy some collections. This sounds like a good one.

  2. I like the title. In some ways, all love is secret?

  3. I don’t get around to reading many short stories these days, but I am interested in this collection. From the small summaries that you gave, I really think that this collection might break me out of my slump. Thank you for the very thoughtful and detailed review. I will be looking for this set!

    • Andi on June 29, 2010 at 11:38

    Loooove this one! Love love love this one. It’s definitely high atop my re-read pile. “The Reappearance of Strawberries” was my favorite, too.

  4. I think you’ll find that if/when you reread the book, those stories that don’t click begin to make sense. That’s true for me, anyway. The Secret Lives of People in Love has become one of my most-reread books. I sometimes just pull the book off the shelves and flip through at random. Simon’s writing always speaks to me in some small way.

    • Wendy on July 4, 2010 at 17:35

    Kathy: Anything by Van Booy is good 🙂 Don’t be afraid – dive in!

    Shelley: Good point 🙂

    Zibilee: You’re welcome – I think short stories are a great way to break out of reading slumps because they can be read in just an hour a story…and you can move around and pick and choose among the collection.

    Andi: Glad you also love these stories! And Strawberries was just so understated…it was the perfect story.

    Nancy (Bookfool): I think you are probably right – many times if I miss the point of a short story, I can understand it better on a re-read.

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