Seth Greenland’s new novel, I Regret Everything: A Love Story, is an intoxicating and ultimately moving modern romance, told in alternating first-person chapters by Jeremy Best, the New York lawyer who writes contemporary verse under the pseudonym of Jinx Bell, and Spaulding Simonson, the would-be poet struggling to get a toehold on adulthood. It’s a departure for Greenland, a longtime television writer (Big Love) whose previous novels have been of a more satirical bent. [Editor’s note: Greenland is also on the board of the Los Angeles Review of Books and host of The LARB Radio Hour.] Shining City (2008) was the breathlessly funny tale of a Los Angeles family man who unexpectedly inherited a laundromat that turned out to be a front for a prostitution ring. The Angry Buddhist (2012) followed a crowd of colorful characters (one of them decidedly Sarah Palin–esque) through the last days of a congressional election in the California desert, unfolding as a sort of sun-baked, gun-dappled screwball. (You could almost see, like a mirage, the Tarantino movie it might have made.)
But now Greenland’s brought us to New York, for a more bookish brand of romantic comedy, and written a tale that’s shorter and sweeter — and that focuses closely on two people both confronting mortality: Jeremy, in the book’s first act, receives a devastating cancer diagnosis, while Spaulding is relatively fresh from a stint in a psychiatric clinic after a suicide attempt. In the world they occupy, divorce is the norm (in both their families and among his clients) and true love a dream rarely achieved.
So the odds are stacked against Jeremy and Spaulding, and from the outset we steel ourselves with a sense that this likely can’t end well. But who wants to read a love story in which everything’s easy? Don’t we remember Romeo and Juliet far more than all those beaming couples who marry at the end of Shakespeare’s comedies? Would Daisy and Gatsby live in our hearts quite so vividly if Fitzgerald had conjured up a way to make everything work out in the end? Happy couples are all alike; those who manage to pluck fleeting joy out of tragedy, like a pearl from an oyster, are irresistible.
That’s not to say I Regret Everything is tragic, far from it. Greenland’s a skilled satirist who can’t help but pepper the book with wit. (In a subplot that’s practically an aside, we learn that the artist wife of one of Jeremy’s clients sold her husband’s Kandinsky — to pay her shopping debts — and painted a lookalike copy to hang in its place. Surely I’m not the only reader who would also like to read the story of this marriage.) And the supporting characters, though few, are vivid: Jeremy’s thuggish, pierogi-wielding neighbor; Spaulding’s wistful half-brother, who yearns to wear ballet slippers; a jock-ish colleague of Jeremy’s, who “looked like the kind of person who never suffered a head cold”; Jeremy’s college friend Margolis, a struggling playwright trying to get funding for a multimedia piece about Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, complete with video, dance, and shadow puppets, to be staged in a converted airplane hanger in Teterboro, New Jersey. (Can he please have his own book, too?)
The central couple, though, is so vivid that you can’t help casting the theoretical movie: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, perhaps, as Jeremy, and Emma Stone as Spaulding? Spaulding, though hardly an innocent, is new to love, and caught up in its silken web, while Jeremy is slower to succumb. We learn that years ago he fell, quickly and deeply, in love with his graduate school advisor’s anthropologist wife and considered moving to Africa with her. Reason prevailing, he declined (running off with her seemed operatic, out of character). It was a decision that continues to haunt him. “Regret expands,” he muses. “It matures. It accrues strength and mass. It is a living organism.”
And yet, somehow, Spaulding finds a crack in his wall of regret, and nestles there.
Our lives are lived with the illusion of control and then there are moments rare as wisdom when we abandon the pretense that we are masters of our fate. Despite all of my finely honed instincts of self-preservation, the chorus of inner voices imploring me to run in the opposite direction, and every iota of common sense, I had fallen in love with Spaulding Simonson.
(You may sigh here, dear reader; I did. It’s the sentence that hopeless romantics wait for, in every love story.)
Both writers, Jeremy and Spaulding are fascinated by language, which makes them a pair of intriguing if not entirely reliable narrators. Greenland lets us see them in their own rough drafts, endlessly shaping the words of their own consciousness. Spaulding, in one passage, lies in bed realizing that she can’t stop thinking about the man she still calls, half-jokingly, Mr. Best. “Because Mr. Best what? Invaded my thoughts? Loomed in my vision? Hovered over my bed? Yes, all of those phrases.” Later, she expresses herself more directly: “I wanted him to love me the way a five year old loves cake.”
I Regret Everything is filled with literary texture: Spaulding reads The Bell Jar (a bit spot-on) and Middlemarch; another character chooses “Ezra Pound” as a pseudonym, and Jeremy notes that Spaulding, in her work — and, we notice, in her chapters — declines to use quotation marks. (“It worked for Joyce. Steal from the best,” he tells her.) And Jeremy, fighting cancer in his waking hours, dreams of himself beating the Minotaur. For both lovers, poetry has been an escape from a disappointing world, and becomes a language they can speak together. “Shouldn’t you be home scribbling a sestina?” he asks her. For Spaulding, who in challenging moments tries to fit her thoughts into five-beat lines, poetry is an island of calm. “Arranging […] reality in iambic pentameter made it easier to deal with,” she notes.
Things grow darker in the book’s final third: a couple of crimes are committed, one of them violent; Jeremy’s illness advances; Spaulding begins to learn, as 19-year-olds must, that love isn’t a rope line to safety. We find, perhaps surprisingly, that we care about these spiky and not always lovable characters, that we want them together, that we’re hoping, despite that “every iota of common sense” mentioned by Jeremy telling us otherwise, that everything will be all right somehow.
Greenland, through the book’s alternating narrations, has created two characters who speak in distinct ways: Jeremy’s voice has a slight weariness to it, as if he’s seen enough of the world to find it wanting, while Spaulding’s is a little more florid, dramatic, emotional — in the way that any former 19-year-old girl might recognize. (She’s also, in her use of those Joycean dashes instead of quotation marks, a little pretentious — but she’ll outgrow it.) In a Manhattan that’s nobody’s fairy tale — full of therapists and real estate woes and vaguely threatening strangers and nasty weather — Greenland has crafted a story that’s all the sweeter for its shadows. Reading it, you think about how love stories are, in essence, a two-level miracle: the characters fall in love with each other; we fall in love with them.
Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times, where she also writes about books, ballet, and style.