Early in Lisa Gornick's Louisa Meets Bear, not long after the title characters run into each other at a Princeton University library in 1975, Louisa tries to explain her father's job to her schoolmate. She can't quite articulate what it means to be a geneticist: "I can't explain what it is that my father researches, only that I think about it as unveiling the machinery in the magic."
Sometimes, though, the machinery and the magic are the same. Even if we could unravel every strand of DNA and decode every gene, we still might be no closer to figuring out what makes us human; people have a way of being more than the sum of their parts. Being a person means being unpredictable and messy, and the math gets even more complicated when relationships come into the picture.
Gornick is perhaps better qualified than most of us when it comes to asking questions about what it means to be a feeling person. It's not just because of her education and training (she's a Yale- and Columbia-educated former psychotherapist), but also because she's one of the most perceptive, compassionate writers of fiction in America. All of that is on display in Louisa Meets Bear, her third and finest book.
Gornick's book occupies the middle ground between novel and short story collection — each of the 10 sections could be a stand-alone story, but they're all linked, to startlingly great effect. We're introduced to the title characters in the second story, also called "Louisa Meets Bear," which follows the students from their first encounter to their breakup after a sudden tragedy.
Their relationship is beyond stormy, and it lasts much longer than is even remotely healthy. After Bear learns Louisa is infatuated with another man, he explains, "I want you in this primal way. You're pining after some other guy. And yet here I am. It's like eating the leftovers off somebody's plate."
That story forms a kind of center for the book; all of the other sections deal with friends and family, removed by years and miles, but still connected to the title characters. It's also the book's best story — Gornick writes it in the second person, Louisa talking to Bear, which has the effect of making the reader feel more present in the narrative, and almost complicit in Bear's callousness and greed.
The other stories roam far and wide from there, but they're all linked, sometimes subtly. In "Misto," a girl that Louisa's cousin gave up for adoption travels with her parents to Italy, where her adoptive father questions the closeness of their relationship. And in "Parachute," one of Louisa's ex-lovers terrifies his pregnant wife with a tale of violence he witnessed as a young man traveling in Guatemala. Both stories are hugely unsettling in different ways; both end with uncertainty and a feeling something in between hope and dread.
Even more striking is "Priest Pond," which follows Bear's sister Charlotte, recently widowed and estranged from her only son, Eric, a musicologist who uses musical therapy to help people recover from trauma. Charlotte pays an unexpected visit to the surgeon — now blinded in a vicious assault — whom Eric taught to play the piano. It's a story of loss upon loss, and Gornick handles it beautifully, leaving the ending open with Charlotte still uncertain of what her life has become.
Nobody is ever really certain, though. At one point, Louisa reflects, "[T]here are two kinds of people: those who die of needing others, die attempting to rip open their skins so as to snuff out the emptiness with someone else, and those who ... maneuver through life as though the purpose is to avoid being touched more deeply than the dermis." Or perhaps we're all a mix of those two things, at different places, different times.
It's hard to know, and Gornick doesn't tip her hand. She's committed to having her characters speak for themselves, and she doesn't force resolutions just because they'd be convenient. That's part of what makes Louisa Meets Bear such a wonderful, perfectly executed novel — it's not just the beautiful writing, it's the honesty behind it, which she commits to even when it's brutal. "[I]n the end, this is everyone's fate: our remains outstrip our lives," one character reflects. It may not be comforting, but it's true, and it takes a writer as immensely talented and brave as Gornick to say it.