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Title
Hope Makes Love
Author
Trevor Cole
Publisher
Cormorant
Pages
294
Price
$29.95

Shakespeare may have wondered whether fancy was bred "in the heart or in the head," but for the characters in Hope Makes Love, the new novel from Toronto writer and journalist Trevor Cole, the question takes on a more contemporary tone.

Zep Baker is an aging former baseball player, a man who experienced a bit of the big leagues and is now the owner of a Tampa-based car wash chain. He's the sort of man who shouts at other drivers from the safety of his own car, who is prone to obscene outbursts, who is always working on the Next Big Thing. When we meet him in the novel's opening pages, he's driving north, hoping for a reconciliation with his estranged wife Emily, who has returned to Buffalo with their 13-year-old daughter Pebbles.

In what the reader will soon know as a typical Zep inspiration, he has become convinced that "mind control" is the key to making Emily fall in love with him again, and who better to help with that than Hope Riopelle, a young neuroscientist working on her PhD at the University of Toronto, who interviewed Zep when he was a player. While she originally balks at Zep's request for help, Hope eventually accepts the challenge – equating Zep's idea of mind control to coaching or counselling – setting up a real-life, real-time, uncontrolled study into the nature of love. If Zep is able to win his wife back through their carefully planned scientific subterfuge, they will both have gained: Zep will, he thinks, be back on track, and Hope will, she believes, have disproved the romantic idea of love, breaking it down into chemical and behavioural markers and manipulations.

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But why does Hope want to disprove the idea of love so badly? And what chances does the heroically inept Zep have of proving himself to the woman he loves?

From even a brief description, this sounds like the fodder for a broadly humorous novel, precisely the book one might expect from Trevor Cole. But while Cole is well known as a comic writer (with a Leacock Medal for his novel Practical Jean to show for it), laughs are in short supply in Hope Makes Love. That's by design.

From the broad premise of the novel, Cole methodically peels away layers of pretense and affectation, strips away the external façades to reveal the true depths of his focal characters. Told in alternating chapters, moving between Hope's clinical clarity (including detailed clinical notes and objectives for the experiment) and Zep's over-the-top near mania (dictated as voice memos to his never-seen secretary), the novel initially presents the characters, then proceeds to dismantle them, subtly weaving in memories and backstories at odds with how they would prefer the world to see them. The emotional truths are hard-won and there are passages in the novel that are truly harrowing. One begins to sense early on, for example, that there are significant secrets in Hope's past that have closed her off from the world; when those secrets are exposed, it is with a violence and brutality that is harrowing and almost nauseating.

It is not all dark, however. Despite the seriousness of the book, there is some humour. Any outright laughs are largely reserved for Zep, who is a comic foil of the highest order, but the book as a whole retains the feel of the best humour writing: it has the rhythms and beats of humour, but in service to a darker significance. One is reminded of the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple, which is structured as a comedy, but unfolds with increasing violence and tension.

There are points where that rhythm falters, where the novel seems to lose momentum slightly, settling in for passages when one is expecting the pitch to continue to escalate. This makes for a slight sagginess in the middle of the book, but this is barely a fault. Most readers will want to spend as much time as possible with Zep and Hope, to savour the process of getting to know them.

And I use that phrase, getting to know them, advisedly and appropriately: with Hope Makes Love, Trevor Cole has crafted a novel of vivid emotional truths, grounded in characters so skilfully drawn they emerge as human beings captured on the page, rather than created. Zep and Hope are the unforgettable foundation for a novel that is gracious and graceful, powerful and clear-eyed, thoughtful, and full of life.

Robert J. Wiersema's latest novel is Black Feathers.

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