Loved and Missed by Susie Boyt
This is a book of painful beauty. At its heart it is the story of an incredible baby, girl, young woman, Lily, who is brought up by a grandmother, while coping with her near ghost of a mother, Eleanor. Ruth narrates a story of love as expressed through a thoughtful, always hopeful woman who takes the only action that she felt that she could to save a baby who “cried for something no one could give her”. In doing so she risks everything, including her daughter Eleanor whose lifestyle of addiction means that she is basically lost. Ruth’s relationship with the exception Lily reflects so much about her own life, her feelings about being brought up by her own mother, her sadness about her bright, intelligent daughter who cannot be predicted.
Despite, or maybe because of its unrelenting urban setting of flats in dubious areas, the writing of place has an intensely lyrical quality of genuine love for the unaccountable pieces of life. There is a sad humour of appreciating the challenging nature of teaching teenage girls, for the little acts of love that can transform a day, for the love of a child. At first I thought that this book would be a tough read, and at times it is challenging, but the love that Ruth has for Lily, and even the elusive Eleanor is so beautifully expressed that I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this very special book.
The book begins with Ruth hosting an evening in her flat for “ghosts”, three women who she had grown up with, who she still partly thinks of as “the girls”. A mutual acquaintance “had this startling way of making you less uninteresting to yourself”, and that is the sort of writing that reveals people in all their negatives, but also the positive aspects that can redeem them despite everything. As a member of the group reveals that she has seen Eleanor, shown her generosity and respect, Ruth cries, but is cheered by her friends and the appearance of the infant Lily, as sensitive as ever to feelings, atmosphere and more. A memory of a Christmas day, of an attempt to celebrate with Eleanor “like a lot of young girls intent on cancelling themselves” and her boyfriend Ben shows how desperately Ruth tried, tries, to remain in contact with her daughter. A carefully prepared meal in a park recognizes that she knew that the young couple would not be tied down to even eating indoors, let alone celebrate the season in a traditional way. When Eleanor reveals that she is expecting a baby girl, Ruth can only begin to think about the implications of that for a young woman who struggles to look after herself in any recognizable way. The action that Ruth takes reflects her fear of neglect, as she recognizes that her daughter neglects her. Her impressive friend Jean, another determined teacher, warns her of the desperate lengths that people go to in such circumstances, and Ruth’s actions are always conditional, thoughtful and imaginative in relation to a daughter who appears and disappears like a dream.
The quality of the writing in this short novel is stunning, full of the beauty of women, girls, who want to make a difference, express the love that they feel “I breathed my love onto Lily. What we felt for each other had a lot of heat and urgency”. This book is so beautifully written that every page contains a quotation of the power of love. It is also a powerful testament of female friendships, female relationships. As Ruth and Jean seek to not just teach but prepare girls for life, they live out what they say, supporting each other in inventive and courageous ways. There is suffering in this novel, it is scaffolded in challenges, but there is also love, love of different types, expressed in many ways, powerful and life changing. I recommend this book as offering a reading experience of real lyrical and vivid beauty.