Patti Callahan Henry's Idea of Love
The Alabama author explores the concept of stealing other people’s stories in her latest summer read.
Patti Callahan Henry’s newest book The Idea of Love (available this week) is a duplicitous story about lies, love and second chances. The novel’s plot is full of dramatic irony. Main characters Blake Hunter and Ella Flynn lead double lives and lie to each other almost constantly. A failing Hollywood screenwriter disguised as a travel writer, Hunter treks down to sleepy Watersend, South Carolina, in search of a woman with a love story beautiful enough to translate into big screen success.
He believes he’s found what he’s looking for in lovely Ella, whose tragic story includes the loss of her husband in a sailing accident where he drowned saving her life. The only problem is that Ella is lying too. As the pair bind themselves tighter with the lies they tell, they must also examine their different ideas of love.
They’ve both been hurt in the past, and those scars have left them without a solid understanding of what love is. Hunter brushes love aside as just an idea. Ella doesn’t seem to be able to come up with a definition. As their secrets emerge, Ella and Hunter will have to choose how to define the sometimes unattainable concept that is love.
Henry explains how she came up with the idea for such an interesting story:
“When I do book signings or speeches or go out on the road, a lot of times people will come up to me and say, ‘I have the best story. You should write my story.’ And I always say to them, ‘I don’t want to steal your story. You should write your own story.’ Then I started thinking about what that means. Could you really steal someone’s story?”
Henry decided to hang on to that thought for a while. As she started developin the plot, she saw the potential for intrigue. At first, Hunter was just stealing stories. However, as Henry thought about it, she knew she had to flesh out the person Hunter would be stealing stories from. That’s when it hit her: What if the liar was also being lied to?
Throughout much of the story, Ella and Hunter lie to each other about their jobs, pasts and plans for the future. Hunter starts in with his lies as soon as he arrives in town, and his interviewees never guess he’s anything other than an out-of-town writer.
To all of these women, his name was Hunter Aderman and he was writing a book on Southern coastal towns. That’s how he presented himself. That’s who he was. At least for now.” – Chapter One
Hunter is unaware that the woman he just picked to interview has a few lies of her own. Ella spins quite the tale about her own life, running from the unpleasant truth.
The first lie about Sim’s death had just slipped out. It had been a defense against the truth, a soft padded denial of reality. This one? About being a wedding dress designer? It had all been too easy. Hunter didn’t need to know that she sold shoes, cleaned the backrooms, and entered orders for her boss-from-hell.” – Chapter Three
Neither Ella nor Hunter can manage to escape their guilty consciences. They both want to clear the air multiple times, which presented a struggle for the author as well.
“I kept thinking if we want to like Ella and if she’s a good person, she’s got to tell him,” Henry says. “I mean, she won’t be able to stand lying to Hunter, but I have her so heartbroken that she’s rationalizing it.”
Ella’s heartbreak over her husband’s infidelity is tangible in the story. She reads dozens of self-help books and tries to follow their advice, but nothing really works. At least, not until she starts lying to Hunter. Ella seems to find an escape in the new life she creates for Hunter. She weaves her tales together to create the story she almost wished had happened, reinventing reality. Unfortunately, all of the lies take their toll.
Ella does find some unexpected relief in next door neighbor Mimi. Mimi has a dog that annoys Ella with its constant barking. She finally decides to meet the owner and have it out with her, but the owner turns out to be a sweet, scrappy, lovable elderly woman. Mimi and Ella soon become close friends, with Ella even confiding in Mimi about her lies to Hunter.
Ella took her own bite and savored the buttery texture, the melted crust on her tongue, the sugary aftertaste. ‘I will never ask how many calories are in this. Ever. Because it doesn’t matter, I will eat it anyway.’
‘Thatta girl.’ Mimi took another bite and then placed her plate on the coffee table. ‘Now tell me more about Hunter.’
Ella recounted the day, and she loved talking about it. She loved telling Mimi every detail.” – Chapter Seven
Mimi is a lot of fun to read, and according Henry, she was a lot of fun to write too.
“I just loved the way Mimi talked and the things that came out of her mouth,” she says. “I thought she was a brilliant character. I loved writing her. Truth be told, I would’ve liked to give her some more space and time, but that’s the struggle when you’re trying to tell a story about something else. You have to be careful that the other character doesn’t walk away with the story.”
Despite Mimi’s lovableness and her grandmotherly ways, she entered the story almost by accident.
“I was trying to show how miserable Ella’s apartment was by putting in this yapping dog,” Henry explains. “I had Ella going to complain to Mimi about the dog, and then this friendship started forming. I thought this is perfect because we have got to give Ella some kind of stabilizing force in this story. She’s lost her mom. She’s not close with her dad anymore. She’s lost her best friend. She’s lost her husband …”
As Ella, Hunter and Mimi wade through their own ideas of love, they struggle to understand the concept. Hunter thinks love is just an idea. Mimi calls love a gap filler. Ella is so lost she doesn’t know what to think about it. By having her characters struggle with defining love, Henry shows that it’s natural for people to question such a huge force in our lives.
“Ella was struggling with what love was because she thought she knew, and because she lost it, she no longer knew what it was,” Henry says. “And that to me was the most heartbreaking part. She couldn’t give a definition of what it was because in losing it she thought she didn’t know what it was, so she had to rediscover all over again what it meant.”
Ella finally rediscovers what love is toward the end of the novel. She has an aha moment during which she makes the important distinction between her estranged husband’s words and his actions.
‘My God.’ Ella leaned her head back on the bench, tears coming before the words. ‘This was all just some elaborate idea — the marriage, the house, the true love. I saw how I wanted it to be instead of how it really was.’ – Chapter Fifteen
“It’s the actions that are evident in what we want in our lives,” Henry says. “I think it goes a little bit along with the whole idea that we also have to be careful looking at life for what it really is and not what we were imagining it to be.”
For so long Ella had asked who her husband, Sims, wanted her to be and now she would start asking herself who she wanted to be. You’ll have to read the book to discover if she finds true love in the end.
Chat with Patti Callahan Henry on Friday, June 26, via Twitter from 1-2 CST using the hashtag #southernlit.
Vote for The Idea of Love as your favorite summer book cover here.