Book Review: I Couldn’t Love You More by Esther Freud – three women and the secret that divides them

Esther Freud’s new novel looks at the impact of a secret adoption on three generations of women. When Kate tries to find her birth mother, she’s not really at a good place emotionally to deal with what she might find. Her relationship with Matt is going through some difficulties and she has her daughter, Freya, to consider. Freya seems to be oddly obsessed with death for one so young. And then there’s the idea in the back of her head – why did her mother give her away? And it’s too difficult to discuss all this with her adoptive mother, who could so easily feel betrayed.

If you could give me … I try out the phrases as I help prepare the lunch, but my mother is explaining the best way to make gravy and I don’t interrupt. Afterwards she takes Freya to say goodbye to the bees. She has three hives, white clapboard, a surprising hobby for someone so concerned with peril.”

The story flips through the years to tell the story of Kate’s mother, Rosaleen, beautiful and headstrong, who escapes Ireland at eighteen for London. Her much older lover, an up and coming sculptor, has found her a job at a London newspaper where she works in the mail department, although that’s not what she tells them back home. Her family believe Rosaleen is a journalist, and her name will appear in bylines in the Express any day.

Meanwhile back in Ireland, Rosaleen’s mother Aoife (pronounced Eefa), can’t help missing her eldest daughter. Her story takes us through her marriage to Cashel, whose strict notions of propriety echo that of many Irish households in the mid 1900s. A girl who becomes pregnant is no better than she should be and must be hidden away in shame, her baby taken to a respectable family. We see the other side of this, the convents who ran laundries on the back of the free labour young pregnant girls offer in return for board and secrecy.

This is a story that has been told before, but Freud makes it fresh through her empathy for her characters. We’re taken back to the sixties, and a slice of the artistic Demi-monde, through the eyes of a young girl who for a budding reporter, doesn’t ask nearly enough questions. We’re also back in rural Ireland, with farming and rain and the endless round of chores. And then there’s Freya’s world, herself an artist, working as an art therapist, when maybe she needs a bit of therapy herself.

It’s always a joy to read Esther Freud and this novel didn’t disappoint. It took me a while to settle into the style though. I know we read a lot of books with multiple narrative viewpoints and these were clear enough through chapter headings. But the time switches confused me a little to begin with. Perhaps the disjointed time frame mirrors Kate’s state of mind – she doesn’t know where she is with Matt, her job, and the past keeps intruding on her thoughts.

If you want to read a book that takes you right into the hearts of its characters, revealing their pain – there’s a lot of it here – and their struggles to make a future, I Couldn’t Love You More is a terrific read. It’s also a powerful reminder of historic injustices against women and that the feminist movement has come a long way. The scenes in the convent that takes in Rosaleen are horrific. It’s a moving story told simply and elegantly and after a break since Mr Mac and Me (seven years!), worth the wait. Let’s hope there’s another book around the corner as Freud’s one of my favourites. A four out of five read from me.

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