Four Letters of Love, by Niall Williams
by Robert A. Parker
This is a beautifully written 1998 novel that troubled me during the reading, but then was spellbinding toward the end, except a conclusion that seemed to be just but also arbitrary. Overall, this is a love story between Isabel and Nicholas, who never meet until the final forty pages—forty pages that are the highlight of the novel. They do not meet because Nicholas lives in a Dublin suburb with his father William Coughlin, a civil servant whom God told to become an artist, and his mother Bette; while Isabel lives on an island off the west coast of Ireland with her father Muiris Gore, the local schoolmaster, her mother Margaret, and her brother Sean.
I was troubled first because the lovers take so long to meet, but also because Isabel’s life is told in the third person and Nicholas’ in the first person. In an afterward, the author explains that Nicholas is really telling Isabel’s story; and that the lovers do not meet until late in the story because what interests him most here is the pattern or design in life that brings people together, not what happens afterward. Which I can certainly testify to in my own life, where the pattern of losing my parents and encountering my one love is far more interesting, to anyone outside my family, than the life that followed.
Another element that bothered me was the arbitrariness of the ending. Which the author also explains. I noted the significance of his line that “the plots of love and God are one and the same thing.” Meaning, I felt, that God is love, and that the love between humans is a metaphor for the relationship between God and all humans. But Williams also means that, despite all the obstacles, this love story was inevitable, “that loving Isabel Gore was what Nicholas Coughlin was born to do.”
Another aspect of the ending was also bothersome. There is almost unbearable tension in waiting for the outcome of the last four love letters that Nicholas writes—that is, learning the final destiny of these lovers, whether they will be together or apart—but that destiny reverses itself too many times. Indeed, the final answer seems almost arbitrary—until one realizes it fits the author’s theme. But I do question the need for so many reversals.
There is a spiritual magic that fits seamlessly into this novel, both because of its mystical Irish setting and because of the link it makes between the living and the dead. That is, Nicholas’ dead father, the creator of a painting that brings Nicholas to Isabel’s world, is very alive in the first part of the book, as Nicholas tries to connect with him; and then his father’s spirit does connect, appearing at crucial moments to aid his son’s pursuit of Isabel.
Another mysterious element is the stroke that early in the novel paralyzes Sean, Isabel’s brother. There is no explanation, but Isabel blames herself. And then Nicholas arrives on the island, to buy back his father’s painting as his own means of connecting with him. Whereupon, he takes Sean to the same site where Sean suffered the stroke, and the boy is cured—which is long before Nicholas meets and falls in love with Isabel.
Nicholas has no explanation for the cure, indeed denies he has done anything, but it as if he has brought a mysterious goodness to the family on this island, a goodness that will later impress Isabel. One can only suggest that this goodness comes from God, and is part of the destiny that moves all our lives.
While organized religion plays no role in this novel, the work is deeply spiritual, and God is present everywhere in the lives of these characters—in their loves, their dreams, their inspiration, and their fate. Indeed, early on, the narrator Nicholas writes about his boyhood. “It seemed to me, God came to live in our house. He was not often spoken of, and was never addressed. And yet we knew he was there. Not exactly holy, not exactly prayerful, but a kind of presence.” It is this presence, one senses, that follows Nicholas to the island and perhaps results in the cure of Sean.
Another mysterious element are the flies that inundate the island as the love of Isabel and Nicholas is challenged by Isabel’s mother. Except, they do not invade the cottage where the good Nicholas is staying—as if the evil of their separation exists elsewhere. And these flies vanish when the human obstacle to the couple’s love no longer exists.
As I approached the ending, this novel seemed to be leading toward tragedy, toward a death of one of these characters that so engaged me. But Williams’ interest is not in creating a literary impact; it is in portraying human fulfillment, in destinies he sees infused by love, and by the loving hand of God. And who am I to dispute the appropriateness of that approach in a work of literature?
When Williams writes, “the plots of love and God are the same thing,” he is writing about more than Nicholas and Isabel. For there are other love stories here, that of William Coughlin and his wife and how they met, that of Muiris Gore and his wife, both how they met and how Margaret sustains their love (whereas Nicholas’ mother Bette could not), that of Isabel and her brother Sean, that of Peader O’Luing’s pursuit of and appeal to Isabel, and that of Nicholas and his father William.
Williams also captures the many permutations of love in the thoughts of Isabel’s mother: ”If Margaret Gore had spoken to her daughter she could have told her. In love everything changes, and continues changing all the time. There is no stillness, no stopped clock of the heart in which the moment of happiness holds forever, but only the constant whirring forward motion of desire and need, rising and falling, falling and rising, full of doubts then certainties that moment by moment change and become doubts again.”
Despite my many criticisms of this novel, it confirms my interest in reading more of Williams. First, because of his beautiful, evocative style, and then because of the presence of many varieties of love, but mainly because the spirit of God impacts the lives of these characters. As Kathleen Weber wrote perceptively in the Times, this novel gives us “ a place devoted to the belief in miracles and the obsessive power of love.” (January, 2015)