‘Love Is’ opens with the very ambitious, goal-oriented and purpose-driven Diane Collins in an airport, waiting for a flight after having just endured an interview for a job that is well beneath her abilities and her lofty expectations for herself. She’s got huge plans, but knows that the job, however lacking, could be a stepping stone to where she wants to go, so she’s willing to consider it. As fate would have it, also on that flight, and in need of a buffer between him and his over-exuberant fans, is Warren “the Warrior” Scott, an NBA player with the Boston Celtics. Warren and Diane strike up a conversation and shortly thereafter a friendship that will dramatically change the trajectory of her life.
Unbeknownst to Diane, she is meeting Warren at a pivotal moment in his life and career, and though he may be the biggest thing to happen to her in a long while, her significance (and certainly her value) in his life … well, that remains in question throughout most of the novel.
‘Love Is’ is notable for lots of reasons for me. First, it’s definitely genre-bending. Though there are certainly love affairs and ‘love dilemmas’ in the story, the big questions are raised by how much Diane may or may not love herself and how that self-love, or lack thereof, may lead her into making bad decisions. The love between parents and their children is also a theme that gets a lot of attention from the author and by the time the book is done, the choices parents make for the benefit of their kids, and sometimes to their kids’ detriment is also thoroughly and thoughtfully explored.
But let me get concrete. Here’s what made this book a ‘must-read’ for me:
The Maddening, but “Relatable” Imperfection of the Heroine–I wanted to choke her out a time or two, I can tell you that. I rarely agreed with her choices and a few of them made me want to scream. But here’s one thing I didn’t do: I didn’t doubt that those were choices a woman might make, choices women have made, or choices that even with her flawed reasoning made a certain kind of sense. It is almost the most important thing to me from the beginning of a novel to the end, that I am convinced. And I found Diane thoroughly convincing. She was the friend you know, who you watch make mistakes, but whose mistakes you are powerless to prevent her from making. At one point, I could almost weep for Diane, seeing how she far she had departed from the woman she was in that airport.
The Ambiguity of the Anti-Hero–so there’s a hint for you (and a mild spoiler) by calling him an Anti-Hero. Warren Scott (whose choices reverberate in the lives of characters in several other Tia Kelly novels) is a complicated man. He does incredibly romantic and thoughtful things, and then mind-blowingly despicable things. He is heart-meltingly tender, and then unbelievably callous. But like, Diane, he is real. The realistic nature of the character is only part of the appeal for me, though. I also loved that he was an enigma, not only to the reader, but you also got the sense that he was an enigma to himself–unable to explain his feelings, or process them, unable to discern his own wants and needs; unable to stop himself going down a path that could only lead to pain for himself and others.
The Familiarity of the Themes–the story is in some ways an old and familiar one. And in the traditional telling of this story, Diane could be seen as the villainess, or at a minimum, as being, well, not very smart. But the way the author had the story unfold, you realize the slow steps people sometimes take to almost certain ruin. Only from the distance of a reader are we able to see with clarity how ruinous their choices are, but at the same time, we understand why they the protagonists and participants in the story may not see it.
The Attention to Time and Place–if you were born in the 80’s, or a pre-teen or teenager then, you will recognize all of the cultural references–the clothes people wore, the shows on television, the happenings in the world’s of sports, entertainment, and politics— and you will delight in them. These details were unobtrusively sprinkled throughout, reminding us that the action doesn’t take place in an unspecified ‘modern America’ but in a very definite era. And that era, before social media made the details of everyone’s personal life a Google search away, is essential for understanding a key plot point. Also, each chapter, rather than being numbered, is named after a song from that era with a title relevant to the unfolding of the action. This kind of thing sets a book apart, and makes it clear that it was the product of thought, rather than an impulsive regurgitation of ideas expressed in a million other books before.
The Bold Conclusion–Around 80 percent into ‘Love Is’, you’re pretty sure you know what’s going to happen. Well, you’re wrong. And that’s all I’m saying.
Disclaimer: the author is a friend and someone I often have conversations with about writing, characters and popular culture and how that impacts what writers write, and what people read. She co-hosted an event with me in Washington DC called ‘Wine with Writers’ which gave us, as well as writers Xyla Turner and Lily Java, a rare opportunity to have face-to-face time with readers and talk about the theme of African American women in fiction, and hear their impressions of our work and characters. It was a super-fun, interesting and eye-opening afternoon and gave us a new perspective on the ways that the things we can write affect real people with real lives. That’s an awesome amount of power and responsibility to have. It still amazes me that anyone would even want to meet writers, just because of our fanciful scribblings about imagined people and their imagined lives. But I don’t think my friend and fellow-writer Tia Kelly would mind my saying that she takes that power and responsibility really seriously.
The seriousness with which she treats that responsibility is clear in ‘Love Is’. Having read everything she’s released, I have to say that this is, hands-down, her very best work.
About the novel:
It took a once-in-a-lifetime bond to teach her what love is, and a once-in-a-lifetime betrayal to show her what love is not… Love Is. A different kind of love story.
Diane Collins had big plans for her life, and hoops star Warren Scott was not among them. He doesn’t want to be the face of the NBA, and she doesn’t care that he is. His reluctance to be part of the limelight disarms her and the two embark on an unlikely friendship that becomes an even unlikelier romance.
Soon, his life is her life – filled with VIP treatment, parties and luxuries beyond Diane’s wildest imagination. But Warren is harboring a secret, and once it’s revealed Diane’s decision to stay or go could change the very fabric of who she thought she was.
From ‘Love Is’:
“I wish you would have rescued me tonight,” he said in a quiet voice.
Diane kept her eyes focused on the rising moon. “I feel like that’s all I’m worth to you.”
“No.” They returned to silence, but several minutes later he added, “I never meant to make you feel like that.”
“I know… sometimes, at least.”
He moved his feet in the water, and it splashed against their calves.
“I just don’t know what this is with you. Between us,” she explained. She inhaled the night air and released it, hoping to let all the bottled-up emotion that was building up out with it. “I can’t do another trip… All of this is lovely, and I know I probably sound ungrateful for saying this after you picked me to be here with you, but… Warren, I can’t keep doing this. Not when I don’t know how you feel. Or maybe I know and refuse to accept it.”
“Cada dia que passa eu me apaixono mais por você.”
He laughed. “No… Portuguese.”
“Interesting,” Diane said, her voice trailing off, blending with the lapping of water hitting the wall of the pool.
“I probably butchered it a little. Still not always the best at speaking in Portuguese.”
“Planning a trip to Brazil?”
“No. I learned it once trying to impress a girl.”
“Did it work?”
Warren closed his eyes and shook his head. “No.”
Diane stared down at the water, looking at their feet beneath the surface. “What does it mean?”
“It basically means with every day that passes, I fall in love with you more.”
Diane looked up and caught him staring at her.
“I know one thing,” she said, looking into his eyes—a crazy hazel so intense that the color transformed into a bright green within the warm gold and brown iris she was used to seeing. The bold transformation was hypnotic.
“And what’s that?”
“It worked on me.”