Ten Things I've Learnt About Love
Sarah Butler, 2013
Penguin Group USA
About to turn thirty, Alice is the youngest of three daughters, and the black sheep of her family. Drawn to traveling in far-flung and often dangerous countries, she has never enjoyed the closeness with her father that her two older sisters have and has eschewed their more conventional career paths.
She has left behind a failed relationship in London with the man she thought she might marry and is late to hear the news that her father is dying. She returns to the family home only just in time to say good-bye.
Daniel is called many things—"tramp," "bum," "lost." He hasn't had a roof over his head for almost thirty years, but he once had a steady job and a passionate love affair with a woman he’s never forgotten. To him, the city of London has come to be like home in a way that no bricks and mortar dwelling ever was.
He makes sculptures out of the objects he finds on his walks throughout the city—bits of string and scraps of paper, a child’s hair tie, and a lost earring—and experiences synesthesia, a neurological condition which causes him to see words and individual letters of the alphabet as colors. But as he approaches his sixties his health is faltering, and he is kept alive by the knowledge of one thing—that he has a daughter somewhere in the world whom he has never been able to find.
A searching and inventive debut, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love is a story about finding love in unexpected places, about rootlessness and homecoming, and the power of the ties that bind. It announces Sarah Butler as a major new talent for telling stories that are heart-wrenching, page-turning, and unforgettable. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—ca. 1979
• Education—B.A., M.A., Cambridge University; M.A., University of
East Anglia; M.S., University of London (current student)
• Currently—lives in Manchester and London, England, UK
Sarah Butler, author of Ten Things I've Learnt About Love, also runs Urban Word, a UK consultancy to develop literature and arts projects which explore and question our relationship to place. She has been writer in residence on the Central Line, the Greenwich Peninsula, and at Great Ormond Street Hospital (all in the UK), and has taught creative writing for the British Council in Kuala Lumpur. Ten Things I've Learnt About Love, her first novel, is published in twelve languages around the world. (Adapted from the publisher and Urban Word. Retrieved 7/25/2013.)
Butler's lists have a surprising emotional resonance. They represent her two narrators' anguished and perhaps futile efforts to organize the sad and turbulent parts of life in an intrinsically chaotic city called London, circa right about now. And they are only the surface layer of a carefully structured story that invites and even requires puzzle-solving. This is a novel deeply committed to unfinishedness—the characters speak in sentences that trail off, plot points are left to be guessed at or pieced together. As a literary technique, the elliptical style is enormously effective, keeping the narrative in a constant, trembling state of tension, which gives the lists a grounding effect. This and the charming, gritty and appropriately damp view of London nearly devoid of any Cool Britiannia elements make for a novel that often evokes strong feeling.
Maria Russo - New York Times Book Review
Graceful and subtle...love, in all its shape-shifting complexity, is at the core of this novel; that and the consequences—good and bad—of keeping secrets.... The shifting and intricate dynamics of family life, and the vertiginously painful feelings of loss induced by relationship breakdown and bereavement, are written with imaginative precision. This is a thought- as well as emotion-provoking novel.... It also sparkles with hope.
Lisa Gee - Independent (UK)
It’s obvious from pretty early on where this is heading and Sarah Butler doesn’t try to disguise that, concentrating instead on the subtle and difficult interactions of family...life, before finding another increasingly suspenseful plot thread that has the reader racing towards the end. It all adds up to a moving and satisfying debut.
John Harding - Daily Mail (UK)
This poignant novel about fathers and daughters, homecoming and restlessness, is also a love letter to London… Butler has viewed the city in all its weathers and moods, and this shines through on every page. Equally elegant are her observations of the emotional turmoil of her main characters as they pace the capital’s highways and byways, united by a secret… A moving, life-affirming debut.
Marie Claire (UK)
Alice...sets out to travel the world, wandering from place to place until her sisters summon her home because their father is dying of pancreatic cancer. Alice is adrift and unsettled, unable to communicate her love to her father before he dies... [She] alternates narration with Daniel, a 60-year old homeless man whose heart troubles are causing him to revisit his past. The relationship they build is unusual, and Butler’s elegant prose...makes this a moving debut.
Daniel and Alice, a father and daughter who have never met, tell their stories in alternating chapters, each beginning with a quirky list reflecting its narrator's current state of mind. Daniel lives on the street, having lost his way in life.... Alice, who knows nothing of Daniel, has been called home to...the bedside of the father who raised her and...sets Alice off on a reexamination of her relationship with her father and disapproving older sisters.... Butler's poignant first novel has a distinct sense of place and sympathetic characters who have much in common. —Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont.
Ten Things I've Learnt About Love explores the intricacies of familial relationships and what an individual is willing to sacrifice to preserve the relationships and the people in his or her life. Combining detailed storytelling with character-revealing lists of 10 things her protagonists have learned to treasure, Butler establishes herself as a talent to watch.
Carla Jean Whitley - Bookpage
Butler's graceful debut explores life's heartbreaks, unexpected family bonds, and the search for home.... [The] narrative's controlled suspense and unanswered questions make for a satisfying tale.
The top 10 lists strewn throughout point to increasingly somber subjects: a mother's early death, infidelity, a father's death from cancer, and elder sisters who are both fervent and ambivalent in their affection for their much younger sibling, protagonist Alice.... [I]n alternating sections, Daniel, a homeless man, scours London for the daughter he fathered during a long-ago affair but has never met.... All he knows is that the woman he is searching for might have red hair, like her mother, and is named Alice.... Spare language and an atmosphere of foreboding will keep readers on tenterhooks. Whimsy and pathos, artfully melded.
1. What is the function of the lists Alice and Daniel make? How do they shape your reading of the chapters?
2. How does Daniel's understanding of the city differ from Alice's? What does it mean to each of them to be "at home" there?
3. What is the significance of the quote from John Clare that opens the novel?
4. How do you think Alice's personality has been formed by her relationships with Cee and Tilly?
5. How have the choices that Cee and Tilly made about starting their own families differed from Alice's?
6. Why do you think Daniel has not sought help to improve his situation?
7. Why does Daniel make sculptures out of found objects?
8. Discuss the dynamics of Kal and Alice's relationship. Why have they come to such an impasse?
9. What do you think of Daniel's decision not to reveal the truth of his past to Alice? Why does he decide against doing so?
What do you think Alice has learned about herself by the end of the novel?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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