Jill Santopolo’s novel The Light We Lost is more than a novel of choices, although it touches broadly on “the road not taken” and the constant wonder of “what could have been.” Santopolo’s narrative crosses that border, a transcendence into the memento amorem of a first love.
Lucy and Gabe first meet as students at Columbia University on September 11, 2001. Though the tragedy and its aftermath serves as a foreshadow of sorts to the outcome of their relationship, the intensity and passion that draws them to each other are forced to take second place when Lucy and Gabe’s professional ambitions embark them on different paths.
The story is told from Lucy’s point of view, only changing to the second person narrative when she speaks to Gabe, looking back on their history together with vivid, painful, but also beautiful memories. But these are recalled with such loving detail because the star-crossed lovers never forget each other. Not even when Lucy marries and starts a family with someone else or when Gabe moves to a torn city in the Middle East to chronicle the devastation of a country ravaged by war.
Gabe’s passion to achieve a successful photojournalism career, which brings him closer to a lifetime ambition of leaving his mark upon the world. But this also takes him further from Lucy, the only woman he’s professed to have loved with an almost frightening intensity.
Santopolo chronicles ten years of Lucy and Gabe connecting on and off again, sometimes in person, other times by phone or emails that often leave Lucy reeling, unsure that the life she leads is the one she wants. She recalls one of their meetings in New York, blanketed with a tone of evident longing and expectation.
I was so caught up in the fog of you that I can’t even remember what we talked about that night. Can you? I’m sure it was my show, your work, our families. I just remember feeling wholly and completely alive. Like every molecule of my body was awake and alert and excited. Any other feelings were pushed aside, smashed down because you were there, in front of me, smiling like I was the only person who existed in the world.
Lucy frequently calls up the relationship with her husband, Darren, with alternating feelings of her certainty and doubt. She knows he is a good man, and she’s convinced of her love for him. But she recalls a memory, a conversation before their engagement, when she doubts the way he sees her, or rather how he doesn’t see her. The exchange boiled into an argument when he boldly refers to her ambition to produce a children’s television show as “adorable.” Lucy soon forgives him and forgets her rage at his dismissal of her ambitions. They move forward, but later she remembers it as one of the cues about Darren she neglected to notice.
Lucy’s shifting feelings for Darren, beyond his place as a husband and father to her children, is a constant throughout the novel. “He’s never had all of me,” she candidly admits to Gabe and herself, invoking that her choice to make a life with Darren had never taken root in helping her forget all of the crucial differences between them.
Lucy’s admittance that she has never allowed herself to let go of Gabe entirely is a parallel to his feelings for her, struggling with the passion and dedication of his job that took him further away from Lucy or any chance they might have to re kindle their relationship. Santopolo inundates Lucy’s story-line with impossible choices and untimely regrets. Her love for Darren and what they’ve built together, always competing with the love she still feels for Gabe and her desire to throw caution to the wind and be with him again.
It’s not difficult to side with Lucy’s plight. She’s no Anna Karenina, or Madam Bovary, ready to abandon her husband and children for the thrill of a new passion or the excitement of a love affair steeped in absurd fantasy. We have no trouble feeling sympathy for Darren either, despite his at times insensitive demeanor that borders on outright misogyny.
When Darren suggests to Lucy that perhaps she would be happier staying home with the children instead of working, he feigns offense when she eloquently lets fly what she thinks of that idea. But this doesn’t make Darren mean or even a lousy husband; it just makes him clueless and completely out of touch with Lucy’s thoughts and desires.
Gabe is also a simpatico, albeit intense character, but he’s hardly exempt from flaws. Through Lucy, we know that he is often selfish, self-absorbed and careless in his choices to achieve what he wants. His constant search for professional validation puts him and Lucy on opposing paths time and time again.
In the end, the many forks in the road will bring Lucy and Gabe to one final choice, one decision that they never thought they would have to make. But enveloped in this choice is a silver lining, the light that they lost in a decade apart shining again in the most unbelievable way.
With The Light We Lost, Santopolo tugs mercilessly at the heart strings, weaving a narrative that is unique in its beauty, allowing us to experience love, heartbreak, longing and loss through the eyes of its complex and imperfect characters, letting us know that it’s our choices which ultimately make us who we are.