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‘The Book of Love’ Review: Supernatural Tale Bites Off More Than It Can Chew

1.5 Stars

Cover of The Book of Love by Kelly Link
Cover of The Book of Love by Kelly Link By Courtesy of Penguin Random House
By Erlisa Demneri, Crimson Staff Writer

Readers wanting creepy bunnies, unicorns, magical guitars, and people returning from the dead combined can find all this and more in Kelly Link’s first novel, “The Book of Love.” Set in the small and quaint seaside town of Lovesend, Massachusetts, the main story follows three friends as they resurrect one year after their deaths to fulfill a series of magical tasks and compete for a chance to stay with the living. The friends — Laura, Daniel, and Mo — don’t remember how they died and tensions arise as the rest of the city, including Laura’s sister, Susannah, have been made to think that the trio were simply away on a one-year trip.

Link is an acclaimed short story writer who was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2018, and whose collection, “Get in Trouble,” was a Finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. As such, there were high expectations for her debut with a longer novel. However, with a large cast of characters and many coming-of-age and fantasy themes, “The Book of Love” struggles to find its footing, creating a choppy story and laborious reading experience.

The novel falls into the trap of a short story narrative without a unified entity. Each chapter has the same title structure, “The Book of…,” followed by a character’s name. While at first exciting, after the initial entries define the book’s main cast, the format quickly becomes tiring. Chapters end abruptly and don’t naturally flow into each other; the sections almost seem like separate stories, leaving the reader to wonder whether “The Book of Love” could have worked better as a collection of split narratives.

It is much easier to praise individual parts of the book instead of the whole story. Link’s ability as a short story writer comes through in one standout chapter “The Book of Maryanne,” which swiftly and lyrically follows the complete life of one character. Still, this chapter could be published as a standalone story and warrant no knowledge of the larger tale, showing the disconnect between the small parts of “The Book of Love.”

The missing links between pieces of the story relate to the main issue of “The Book of Love”: its pacing. The story begins in medias res, setting up expectations of dynamic action and emotional outbursts. However, the rest of the book is then laid out in slow world-and-character-building, leaving only the last one hundred pages for the action to pick back up again and carry the narrative to the finishing line.

Such a structure isn’t inherently problematic. The issue is that the ending doesn’t award a fully satisfying payoff to the reader, making the majority of the reading experience feel tiresome and lagging.

This lack of satisfaction is because it is difficult to get attached to the characters of the novel. Link tries to juggle many themes at once, such as romantic love, friendships, and family relationships, with each main character of the cast facing personal issues. However, none of these conflicts are fully resolved because the constantly switching perspectives break apart linear narratives. As such, potentially interesting explorations of grief and angst are left underdeveloped as the story rushes, yet simultaneously fails, to move forward.

Furthermore, “The Book of Love” weaves in fantastical elements, such as divine beings that hold interworld doors open and shapeshift. The story treads the line between full-on fantasy and magical realism, wishing to blend in issues of coming-of-age struggles with mythical tales. This undecidedness results in a story that lacks identity — the magical conflicts prevent the human ones from fully settling out; in other moments, the human conflicts prevent the magical part of the plot from taking over and setting high stakes.

While the writing itself is the strongest part of the book, the prose sometimes gets in the way of the story. While Link’s voice is poetic and fairytale-esque with sharp descriptions and lively images, the writing ends up gimmicky, with parts of the narrative laid out in a questions-and-answer format: “Was that him yelling? Yes, it was,” or affirmative statements contradicted by ones in brackets, such as “it had been… (or had not been…).”

Even though the first few instances are acceptable, the writing struggles to blend the fantastical surroundings with the internal, realist suspicions of the characters. Link gets too entangled in trying to perfect the fantasy aesthetic and fairytale atmosphere, making the aim of the whole book unclear.

Fundamentally, “The Book of Love” tries to introduce a fantasy novel that combines fairytale elements with contemporary, everyday issues. However, the high expectations for the novel were not met. The lagging plot and underdeveloped characters make for an unsatisfactory reading experience.

—Staff writer Erlisa Demneri can be reached at

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