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You Are the Love of My Life: A Novel
by Susan Richards Shreve

Published: 2012-08-20
Hardcover : 304 pages
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For fans of Sue Miller, a finely wrought novel of family secrets and the desire for sustaining love.

It is 1973 and Watergate is on everyone's lips. Lucy Painter is a children's book illustrator and a single mother of two. She leaves New York and the married father of her children ...

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For fans of Sue Miller, a finely wrought novel of family secrets and the desire for sustaining love.

It is 1973 and Watergate is on everyone's lips. Lucy Painter is a children's book illustrator and a single mother of two. She leaves New York and the married father of her children to live in a tightly knit Washington neighborhood in the house where she grew up and where she discovered her father's suicide. Lucy hopes for a fresh start, but her life is full of secrets: her children know nothing of her father's death or the identity of their own father. As the new neighbors enter their insular lives, her family's safety and stability become threatened.

From a writer whose ?unique presentation of human experience makes reading a delight? (Elizabeth Strout), You Are the Love of My Life is a story of how shame leads to secrets, secrets to lies, and how lies stand in the way of human connection.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


THE AFTERNOON IN February when Lucy Painter was moving from New York City to the house in Washington where her father had died threatened violent storms.
Lucy stood on the sidewalk outside the apartment on Sullivan Street looking between the buildings at a slate gray, agitated sky, a raw damp to the air.
“Snow,” she said to no one in particular.
“Snowman!” Felix said.
He was standing on the sidewalk next to his mother holding the large yellow chicken Reuben had given him as a going-away present.
“If it’s snowing in Washington, we’ll make a snowman when we get there,” Lucy said, lifting him into the truck she had leased for the journey.
Reuben was sitting on the back of the U-Haul eating a turkey sandwich while Mickey, the boy he had hired to help with the move, carried the small items down the steps of the four-story walk-up.
“Bite?” Reuben asked, patting a seat beside him on the back of the truck.
Lucy pulled the orange wool cap he had given her for Christmas low on her brow.
“I’m not hungry,” she said.
But he pinched off an edge of the sandwich anyway, careful to get plenty of turkey in the bite, and popped it in her mouth.
“I’ll call as soon as I get to the office in the morning,” he said. “And every night before I leave from work.”
Not Reuben’s first promise nor the only mention of his plan for keeping in touch after thirteen years of living within blocks of each other, together several times a week whenever he could make it work. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the publisher:

1. What do you make of Lucy’s mother’s decision to change their last name from Baldwin to Painter? How does this change connect to Lucy’s eventual future career as a children’s book author and illustrator?
2. Zee admits that “the pleasure she took in the misfortunes of others disturbed her.” What does this tell you about Zee as a character? How does this admission affect your perception of her created world of “dear friends” who are so dependent on her?
3. What parallels can you see between Lucy’s discovery of her father’s suicide and her witnessing August’s accident?
4. Why do you think Zee is so “terrible with secrets” when she keeps such a monumental secret of her own? What does this tell you about her as a character?
5. What do you make of Lucy and Reuben’s relationship? Do you believe Reuben when he tells Lucy that she is the love of his life? How do Elaine and Nell factor into your perception of this complicated situation?
6. What impression of marriage do you get from the husbands and wives in You Are the Love of My Life?
7. So many of the residents of Wichita Hills are described in terms of their faltering mental states at one time or another: Lane Sewall’s husband is “concerned [she’s] losing it”; Zee says of herself, “I’m not okay, if that’s what you are wondering. . . . I’m sick. I’m sick to death”; Lucy describes August as “a little crazy, this strange man.” What, if anything, do you think this says about their gravitating toward one another? How do their different stumbling blocks bring them together or drive them apart?
8. Upon learning about Lane’s keeping her cancer a secret, Lucy wonders, “Is that lying or shielding them [her children] from the truth? Or were those the same thing?” What sort of relationship do the residents of Wichita Hills have to truth? How does that affect their interactions?
9. Lies and deception make up the historical background of You Are the Love of my Life as well. How do the events of the Watergate scandal, Viet Nam, and Samuel Baldwin’s suicide interrelate with the lives of those in Wichita Hills?
10. Why do you think Maggie is so drawn in by Zee Mallory? What does Zee offer that Maggie’s mother does not?
11. Ultimately, do you agree with Lucy’s decision about when to reveal the details of her father’s death and Reuben’s true identity to Maggie and Felix? Why or why not?
12. At the novel’s close, we see “the Mallorys were arriving from Vermont. Their friends, gathering on the Painters’ porch that afternoon, speaking in whispers about Zee,” and Lucy with “the front door flung open to welcome the families of Wichita Hills, her neighbors, her friends, her dear friends.” What do you make of this description? Does the language Lucy uses strike you as reminiscent of Zee? What do you think that means?
13. The book is narrated from three different points of view: Lucy’s, Maggie’s, and Zee’s. Which of them, if any, do you sympathize with most? Why? Is there a narrator whose point of view you had particular trouble connecting with?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

An Interview with Susan Richards Shreve

1. The Watergate scandal is the backdrop of You Are the Love of My Life. Why did you select this time period, along with the DC setting, to set the novel in?

Lucy Painter, a single mother of two young children, and with a reconstructed past, has returned to the house where, in the summer of 1951 when she was twelve, she discovered her father’s suicide. A suicide that resulted from his personal shame and that led to the secrets and inevitable lies that govern Lucy’s life and the lives of her children.

You Are the Love of My Life takes place in 1973—a year of public lies with Watergate marking the end of Nixon’s credibility and his presidency. The Paris Peace Accords on Vietnam in January 1973 concluded our involvement in a devastating war as the lies generated by our government surfaced in the press. It was a tumultuous year of social change with Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion and civil rights especially for women and blacks. And finally at the end of 1973, as Harvey Milk ran for city council in San Francisco on a platform of social liberalism against government intervention in sexual conduct, the American Psychiatric Society eliminated homosexuality as a mental illness. All of these are part of the story in You Are the Love of My Life. I had in mind the story itself, the characters, the private deceptions, and the love stories, and then I chose the year of public deceptions and was amazed to discover how much happened in 1973.

I was interested in the lie. How much was invented in private and public lives, how much repressed or simply retold as a better, more acceptable story than the truth might have been.

2. What research did you do when writing this book to be able to so accurately re-create DC in the ’70s?

I researched what was happening in 1973—the music, the movies, the elements of social change and public dishonesty. But I also know Washington. I grew up in Eisenhower’s Washington, the daughter of a print and media journalist, and I moved back with my own family in 1976. What primarily drew me to that time when I was a young parent came of reading my older son’s novel When the White House Was Ours, written from the point of view of a boy whose parents, full of optimism and courting failure, are starting an alternative school. Something my son’s father and I had done when he was a child opening a school for smart troubled children in Philadelphia. It closed two years later.

“How could you have been so idealistic?” he asked me, speaking from the more careful, thoughtful, even cynical point of view of his generation.

I had not thought of us as idealistic. Simply young. But writing this book, I returned to a time when I had young children and the feelings of those times came back. So much of the research was simply memory.

3. How much of what occurs in the novel do you feel was part of your own experience during the tumultuous ’70s?

The details of the story were mine—the communities with vegetable gardens and homemade bread, spider plants and tiny gardens, the men belittled by Vietnam whether they had fought or not, the women on the cusp of a new tomorrow, fearful of change and longing for it. There was a certain irresponsibility, a lack of order, a sense that the world was full of promise and that the promise belonged to us.

4. The tightly knight neighborhood the novel takes place in is full of interesting and unique characters. Are any of these characters exaggerated versions of people you know?

I grew up in an area of Washington called Cleveland Park. It’s a community like Witchita Hills in the book, which I invented geographically but not in spirit. The characters are made up. I start a book with a character, and the reality of the story is in my imagination. I don’t recognize anyone I have created as someone I knew or know, which is not to say I am free of association with the characters who people my real life. I started my professional career intending to become a theater director; I knew I couldn’t act in front of an audience—by nature I’m a backstage player—but I love the excitement of inhabiting another life. I believe a fiction writer needs only to know him/herself to imagine any life from any cultural background and any geography. That to me is the joy of writing fiction.

5. The book starts with a startling suicide. Why?

The book begins with Lucy’s discovery of her father’s suicide. Samuel Baldwin is a man of integrity and dignity, a trusted advisor to President Truman, who is discovered in the act of sodomy. He kills himself before his disgrace is revealed in newspapers all over the country.

Her father’s suicide and the reason for it begin the book as it opens for Lucy a life of secrecy and shame.

During Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, Walter Jenkins—a close friend, an appointed advisor to the president, and a family man—was discovered in a homosexual act and resigned in public disgrace. My younger brother was with my father at National Airport when my father recognized Jenkins heading out of town for the last time and embraced him. According to my brother, Jenkins told my father, “You are the only person in Washington who has spoken to me since IT happened.” What happened to Walter Jenkins certainly was the seed for Samuel Baldwin.

6. You write the book from both the daughter’s point of view and the mother’s perspective. Was it easier to empathize with one or the other?

The book is written from the point of view of two women and a young girl. I empathize with each of them. Zee Mallory is the charismatic leader of the neighborhood women of Witchita Hills, and every woman except Lucy but including her daughter Maggie falls in love with Zee. The competition between Zee and Lucy for Maggie’s love finally stirs Lucy from the stasis that has dominated her life as the single mother of a married lover who is the father of her children. The loss of Maggie galvanizes Lucy to go after her daughter, to lay claim to her, to tell her the truth. As Lucy reveals her hidden life to Maggie, the reader realizes as well what dreadful secret has propelled Zee Mallory to take on Maggie as her own.

7. Do you think parents should always tell their children the truth?

I told my children too much—my own parents told me too little, and so it goes generation to generation. I believe you should tell a child what he/she asks to know without the frills. And I do believe that secrets are destructive to intimacy and this is a book ultimately about love.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Misleading and lots of loose ends"by Seeton5 (see profile) 04/01/13

This book had a lot of promise, but the characters are very shallow and the conflicts flip flop a lot. And what is up with the animals that Lucy drew...they didn't tie into anything. Very a... (read more)

  "Not worth the read"by D.Evans (see profile) 03/25/13

This story just didn't get anywhere. Characters are woefully underdeveloped. In a word: boring.

  "changes"by msharry (see profile) 05/08/13

In spite the title, this is not particularly a love story except for the love between mother and child. Rueben is just a jerk. Lucy, unmarried mother of two, comes to live in a close-knit ne... (read more)

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