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Review: A cross-cultural romance dissected in Xiaolu Guo's intellectual 'A Lover’s Discourse'

Eliot Schrefer
Special to USA TODAY

Do we feel we belong once we have a sense of place or does the feeling instead come from our relationships? Xiaolu Guo tackles this and other heady questions in her new book, "A Lover’s Discourse" (Grove, 288 pp., ★★★ out of four), which follows an unnamed young woman who moves to London and simultaneously has to adapt to a foreign culture and to a foreign lover.

Not officially named memoir or fiction, "A Lover's Discourse" opens in a United Kingdom roiled by Brexit, when our young Chinese academic glimpses an Australian-German man picking elderflowers beside a public park. The terse, occasionally devastating vignettes that follow are addressed to that man and track the relationship that ensues. She’s immediately drawn to him. As her parents are dead and she has made few English friends over the course of pursuing her Ph.D., the “you” of the book becomes her main source of companionship and, ultimately, romance.

"A Lover’s Discourse," by Xiaolu Guo.

Guo borrows her title from philosopher Roland Barthes’ classic, and like Barthes, she is interested in how the perception of a relationship can carry as much weight as the relationship itself. Through her precise and unflinching language, a revealing account emerges of how one mind opens to another, how it processes each decision and moment of wondering. “When does a physical relationship begin? It is when the lovers kiss or when they imagine their kissing beforehand?”

The protagonist’s academic interests feature heavily, too. That results in some riveting sequences, as when she returns to China to study a town whose residents are professional art copyists. Those chapters are a profound meditation on the meaning of originality in the face of convincing facsimiles, which casts effortless thematic reverberations over Guo’s portrayal of the couple at the book’s center, as they struggle to reveal their authentic selves to each other. Other nonfiction digressions are less successful, making the portrayal of the relationship at the book’s core feel stagnant for long stretches.

Author Xiaolu Guo.

Novels about love affairs are often named romances, but the most distinctive quality of "A Lover’s Discourse" is how unromantic it is. As the protagonist addresses her boyfriend, we get a sense of the good and bad of their relationship, recounted in tones that never turn sentimental nor vindictive. This unflagging honesty results in some startling, powerful imagery, as when the author discusses her pregnancy: “I wondered whether I would get used to this peculiar state of being – carrying a fertilized egg and walking around as it grew limbs and body parts?”

Given how fully the book gives itself over to examining him, the “you” lover remains disappointingly vague by the end of "A Lover’s Discourse." Of course, that may well be the book’s intent, to explore whether we can ever truly know the people we sleep with or spend our lives with, if true belonging might always be out of reach for those who find themselves in a new land. Guo reminds us that “maybe this was the final illusion, that love could survive the dispelling of all one’s illusions about the other.”

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