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The Trial of True Love

By William Nicholson

Doubleday Canada,

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287 pages, $29.95

William Nicholson's The Trial of True Love is a novel of love and lies, so we may not always want to believe narrator Bron Dearborn when he tells us that it is both a specific love story and an examination of love in general.

When an ex-girlfriend tosses the unemployed young Bron out of her London flat, he retreats to a friend's farm to work on a non-fiction book about love -- unrequited love, love at first sight and what he insists on calling "true love." Central to that internal book is the story of Paul Marotte, a (fictional) post-Impressionist artist whose life as a 19th-century French physician and hobby painter is said to have been transformed when he glimpsed a young governess strolling beneath a bridge.

Marotte's love story perpetually intrigues the impressionistic Bron, and when he himself catches a glimpse of the beautiful Flora, he too succumbs to love at first sight. When Flora suddenly flees Bron and their budding romance to return to her home (and husband) in Amsterdam, Bron follows her on the thin excuse of researching Marotte at a Dutch museum.

Nicholson -- screenwriter for films as diverse as Shadowlands and Gladiator -- has chosen his title carefully. The Trial of True Love ultimately works more as an examination of love than as a love story, and chief among its interests in love is deception. The coquettish Flora claims to despise lies, yet insists that all lovers eventually become liars in order to attract or hold romantic attention.

In its fascination with romantic and artistic forgery, and in its continent-hopping quest for the lost paintings of an amorous artist, Nicholson's Trial is startlingly similar to Peter Carey's superb new novel Theft. (Book clubs seeking a double bill need look no further.) Love is stolen in Carey's novel and put on trial in Nicholson's, and that trial is predominantly verbal, not physical. The novel's climax actually follows a formal debate on the possibility of genuine love.

Without its duplicitous art plot, The Trial of True Love risks a fatal mistake in its preference for discussing love rather than embodying it. During the first two-thirds of the novel, one might periodically think of better love stories, especially given Bron's implausibly chaste adoration. Bron loves almost exclusively with his head, not with his heart and certainly not with anything lower down the body.

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The romantic plots of Louis de Bernières's Captain Corelli's Mandolin or Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version could make statues weep, and yet neither novel ever forgets that love lives in the body. Charles Baxter's multiply impressive The Feast of Love reserves its examination of love solely for its narrative, not its narrators, showing us the costs and benefits of attraction and abandon rather than declaring them. The English Patient never forgets that all love is a wager against death.

Nicholson's preference for thinking about love rather than portraying it is curious, but not irredeemable given his varied and numerous insights on love and his parade of fascinating love stories from history. Repeatedly, the novel wonders whether love is "given or taken," and speculates on the enmity between love and pity.

Nicholson knows that "none of us makes sense on our own, but there is a price to pay for belonging to others." At least two characters learn to recognize that love simultaneously tests and expands our courage. This extensive taxonomy of desire includes the recognition that "there is a sort of aggression in unconditional love."

Nicholson also proves to be a shrewd archeologist, unearthing romantic and artistic gems from history, including star-crossed lovers from Romania's royal history who preferred suicide to separation. Quite relevantly, we learn how an inadequate or censored reproduction of a Dutch painting caused Goethe to describe a brothel scene inaccurately as one of paternal admonition.

At the apex of both Nicholson's love and art plots, we're told of the painter Maurice Utrillo, who was unable to distinguish between his own work and that of a forger when called to testify as a witness in a Parisian art-forgery scam.

Nicholson's good novel could have been great if creativity and excitement were split more equally between its exciting but late-blooming art plot and its undercooked love story. Nicholson offers fascinating romantic information and ideas, but pins them to undeserving characters, relying on the tired image of a clever young man wooing a slim, attractive woman. Ultimately, The Trial of True Love is the sort of novel you have a fling with rather than marry; it's fun and stimulating, but not quite your intellectual equal.

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Darryl Whetter is the author of A Sharp Tooth in the Fur and a former professor of creative writing and English. His latest story appears in 05: Best Canadian Stories.

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