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The Trial of True Love    by William Nicholson order for
Trial of True Love
by William Nicholson
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Nan A. Talese, 2006 (2006)
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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

'My friend Anna wants a permanent relationship and children. She tells me, "You're in my way. You've got to go ... We're like an old married couple."' So begins the story of Bron, a writer commissioned to complete a non-fiction work entitled The Book of True Love. In Bron's fascination with the phenomenon of love at first sight, he has 'chosen to be time-rich and cash-poor', and admits 'In my own love life I appear to suffer from the standard-issue male malady called commitment phobia.'

The focus of Bron's book is French post-impressionist painter Paul Marotte, whose artwork, journals, and slim biography he diligently researches. At the center of Bron's book is evidence that Marotte experienced love at first sight when he saw on a bridge 'a young woman in a pearl-grey coat ... I knew, without the possibility of doubt, that I loved her.' She was Kate Summer, a young English governess. After Bron's exile from Anna, he moves into the home of his friend Bernard Eyre in Tawhead. Bron experiences his own meeting on a bridge 'with a figure looking down at the water ... Her golden hair fell forward'. It turns out that this woman is Bernard's cousin Flora, married to a much older man. She seeks solitude at Tawhead.

Flora flees to Amsterdam to escape Bron's growing attentions. She had mentioned E. F. ('Freddy') Christiansen - a collector and connoisseur of Paul Marotte - as a friend of hers. Bron takes the liberty of writing to Christiansen about his interest in Marotte. In turn, the mysterious collector invites Bron to visit him, and agrees to set up a meeting between Bron and Flora. She again flees without a parting word, having left her husband as well. Christiansen funds Bron to remain in Amsterdam, as the latter's book will draw public attention to his collection of Marotte paintings. He also hosts an odd character by the name of William Gandy, who flitters here and there within the story - seeming to be at first a minor character.

Arranging another meeting between Flora and Bron (without forewarning either), Christiansen challenges Bron to a debate on a 'trial of love', with himself as the antagonist, Bron as the protagonist, and Flora in the middle. These last hundred (more or less) pages reveal the true substance of the novel as Nicholson reverently and smoothly writes the in-depth dialog of a mesmerizing intellectual debate, luring the reader into self-examination. Christiansen begins: 'Is true love possible between men and women? ... Two thousand yeas ago, Ovid wrote Amor vincit omnia, which, by one of the many ironies that have followed the flight from classical education, has become the legend on the banner of romantic love. 'Love conquers all!' ... Militiae species amor est. 'Love is a kind of warfare.' I maintain that what was true of Augustan Rome is true today. The interests of men and women are opposed. We are, as we always have been, at war ... hostilities are concealed by an edifice of lies that teach us to see what ought-to-be in place of what is.'

Bron applauds and inserts his arguments: 'I've been reading about love for months ... writing about love ... thinking about love. But I'm still no nearer to understanding it. So I'm not going to try to put forward a theory of love. I'm just going to tell you what's true for me. ... I too have lied. Why do we lie so much? I can only answer for myself. I have lied because I've been afraid ... I lied, faked, bluffed, concealed what was really going on inside me. Then came the foundation for the building of truth ... I fell in love with Flora ... I say that truth and love are the same thing.' The debate leads to an ending that makes the reader gasp, then sigh. Nicholson inserts a qualifier at the end - 'The artist Paul Marotte is fictional. All other historical characters referred to in the novel - the famous lovers, artists, and forgers - are factual, and the statements ascribed to them are authentic.'

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