by Leni Leanne Phillips
When my children were young, we went around the dinner table and shared serendipities—something surprising and joyful that had happened to each of us during the day. My children are grown now, and I live alone, and we are in the midst of the worst phase of a global pandemic. Serendipities are harder to come by, but I still look for them on a daily basis. On a recent evening, I cracked open a book I’d been asked to review, and a serendipity came to me unbidden—Michele Morano’s memoir in essays, Like Love, is the definition of a joyful surprise.
Like Love is Morano’s second memoir. It follows Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain, in which Morano considers her relationship with a country and its language. Like Love is a deeply personal collection of fourteen essays about love, each of them centered in Morano’s life and experiences. It is well-paced and spirited—it immediately drew me in. Morano addresses hard topics, but she does so in ways that are often so entertaining they sneak up on you. The through-line of the collection is obvious from the beginning (or seems so). But I was impressed that Morano found so many and such unique points of entry into a topic we not only take for granted, but assume we already know everything about.
From the first essay, Morano surprises us with truths that are universal, but that we often overlook. In “The Law of Definite Proportions,” she writes about romantic friendships, something she’s warned her friends away from—“You deserve better.” When Morano finds herself in such a relationship, though, she uncovers its complexities—the purposes it can serve, yes, but also the ways in which it is clandestine and unreciprocated, the ways it holds its partakers back from the better, more honest love of which they are worthy.
There are countless forms of unconsummated, romantic love, Morano shows us. In “Breaking and Entering,” she shares the depth of her unrequited love for the Bay City Rollers when she was eleven. More deeply, this essay is one of several that concern Morano’s mother falling in love with a woman and leaving her father, something which triggers years of both joy and heartache for her mother and for their family, particularly during a time when her mother’s sexual orientation was not socially accepted. Morano’s relationship with her mother and motherhood is something she comes back to again and again.
Morano is bold, honest, and courageous in the telling of her stories. In “Crushed,” she writes about her feelings for a twelve-year old student at an academic summer camp for overachievers. Feelings that are romantic in a way. Something like my feelings for Sam Shepard, I imagine, a man whose intellect and body of work and way of being in the world inspired the kind of crush that could never amount to anything. But with the added element of being forbidden, taboo. Morano’s diminutive Eliot is earnest, open, innocent—so many things we start out as in life, but that are chipped away at as we evolve into adults. As children, the future stretches out in front of us, a blank slate we have yet to set chalk to. We have the luxury of naivete, of believing that we can do anything we want to do, of believing that everything will turn out fine—perhaps these are among the things Morano recognizes in Eliot, the feelings Morano most wistfully longs for.
“Ars Romantica (or a Dozen Ways of Looking at Love)” weaves the story of Morano’s romantic friendship with her boyfriend’s landlord with various theories about love. Morano examines the ways we come to understand love from a dozen perspectives, such as narratively—the stories we are told about what love is or should be—and linguistically:
In Spanish, love is more nuanced than it is in English. You don’t love a person (te quiero) with the same verb you love, say, a pineapple (me encanta). In both Spanish and English, we can fall in love, echoing lost paradise and a lot of work ahead, but in Spanish the more common phrase carries a reflexive twist: me enamoré de. It’s the grammatical equivalent of ‘Now I lay me down to sleep,’ with a subtle implication of agency, of choice. I became in love.
About two-thirds of the way through the collection, Morano leads us into the fray. No spoilers, of course, but everything that comes before leads to this quiet and unexpected moment. Here, the layered complexities of the collection as a whole fully reveal themselves. The moment as it happened in Morano’s life was surprising and unexpected for her, too, and she did a lovely job of allowing us to feel some semblance of what she felt.
One of the most charming essays in the collection is the title essay, “Like Love.” “This is not a love story,” Morano tells us at the outset. It is an essay about travel and a chance meeting with someone who turns out to be a soulmate:
I wasn’t looking for romance on this month-long journey. Or rather, I wasn’t looking for the kind of romance that involves another person. As Pico Iyer writes, ‘we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.’ There’s no ‘with’ to the ‘falling in love,’ there’s just the glorious feeling of surprise and surrender that travel brings.
Morano reflects that the experience she details in the essay couldn’t have happened if her boyfriend had been with her and wonders what things she will miss out on when he joins her. Not love, not romance, but even so “the most romantic weekend of [her] life. … [S]o much like love that all the way to Copenhagen, and for a long time after—decades, in fact—the air seemed to crackle with its spell.” A serendipity for Morano, as well as a reminder for readers that for everything we choose, there is something we miss out on, good or bad.
Morano is at her best when she is self-aware. She reminds us often that she is a writer writing stories, albeit true stories. In “Backstitch,” Morano tells us that what she is sharing with us is not the kind of thing you share, and yet, she’s sharing it, not only with us, but with the world. “How to Tell a True Love Story” emphasizes its constructedness in a breathtaking way that I won’t spoil for you. And in “My Sky, My Life,” Morano reminds us “how important the act of telling” is. Morano realizes, at a young age, that she is being required to keep her family’s secrets. In a passage in “Breaking and Entering” that foreshadows the future for the young girl she once was, Morano writes:
Now I was someone else, someone whose personality involved keeping quiet, guarding secrets, becoming a repository of stories. But not forever. One day, I thought while planning the bubble bath I would soak in that night until my skin wrinkled, regardless of how many people banged on the door, one day I would tell on us all.
The memoir comes full-circle in the final essay, “The Married Kiss”—the only essay written in third person. “The story goes like this ….” Morano writes. The conclusion is a satisfying one that finds Morano navigating a new beginning, but back at square one in some ways, finding her way in a relationship which is both familiar and exquisitely new. Like Love is a dissertation on love: feelings that disguise themselves as love, love that is unconsummated, unrequited, unfulfilled, unpredicted. Love. The result is a memoir that is surprising, captivating, and fearless.
Leni Leanne Phillips is a writer based in San Luis Obispo, California. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. You can find her at lenileanne.com.