The Romantic


375 pages
ISBN 0-00-639226-1
DDC C813'.54




Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is the editor of the Canadian Book Review Annual.


The Romantic, which made the long list for the 2003 Man Booker Prize, is
an absorbing tale of obsessive love, longing, and loss. When Louise Kirk
is nine years old, her mother, an acid-tongued former beauty queen, runs
off—but not before posting on the refrigerator freezer a
characteristically unsentimental goodbye note: “I have gone. I am not
coming back. Louise knows how to work the washing machine.” One year
later, after a German immigrant family moves into the neighbourhood, the
emotionally needy Louise entertains fantasies of being adopted by the
maternal Mrs. Richter. Eventually, Louise’s affections are transferred
to the Richter family’s adopted son, Abel, a nature-lover and fellow
outcast who during school recess “migrates to the fringes of the yard
and shakes the chain-link fence like a convict.”

Shifting effortlessly between past and present, the first-person
narrative traces the doomed relationship between Louise, a
self-described “clinging, terrified despot,” and Abel, a passive,
dreamy, self-destructive underachiever who eventually drinks himself to
death. It’s hard to imagine a partner less capable of satisfying
Louise’s voracious appetite for love than the emotionally detached,
alcohol-numbed Abel. The novel’s title is presumably ironic, because
there’s nothing “romantic” about this supremely mismatched couple.

Louise and Abel’s dysfunctional relationship (which may disturb,
annoy, and/or depress some readers) is leavened by the
heroine-narrator’s self-deprecating humour. A typical observation:
“I am alone, cut off, living in an apartment whose bed, oven and phone
can’t be trusted. In a few hours I will start a job from which I’ll
almost certainly be fired. I’ll wear a pleated yellow skirt and
matching bolero jacket that went out of fashion twenty years ago.” The
stellar cast of supporting oddball characters—a Gowdy trademark—is a
welcome bonus.


Gowdy, Barbara., “The Romantic,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 19, 2024,