Hope Riopelle is a post-doc fellow in Toronto doing research on the brain. Zep Baker is a former pro baseball player trying to reunite with his ex-wife, Emily. Zep wants Hope to help him achieve his goal: he thinks she can devise a method of “mind control” he can use to win back his former spouse. So Zep travels to Toronto from his home in Tampa to enlist Hope. For reasons of her own, she accepts the challenge.
In his new novel, Trevor Cole employs a nifty narrative approach. Half of the book is told from Zep’s point of view, via thoughts he dictates to Marcie, the office manager at his chain of car washes. He’s not sure what he will do with the transcripts, but thinks they might lead to something at some point in the future. His commentary to Marcie is utterly guileless, and as his favourite word is “fuck,” the transcripts are also quite vulgar. But he’s essentially a good guy who has made some really stupid mistakes. Cole manages to reveal Zep and all his flaws while maintaining sympathy for him. Essentially, Zep is a big, untrained puppy who wants to please his master but keeps crapping on the floor. He is not stupid or completely insensitive, but he often says things before thinking, then has to do damage control.
Zep’s transcripts are quite amusing. He’s frequently at the wheel of his beloved Maserati while talking into the recorder, which makes for some major silliness as he interrupts his account to deal with the immediate situation, such as flipping out when he has to take a detour onto a dirt road. Walking through an airport, he decides he needs to know how to pronounce Hope’s last name and starts asking random people. “Irrepressible” is the word for Zep. He’s a big bundle of emotions, all of which exist right on the surface. He would be a challenge to be married to, and he knows it.
The other half of the novel is from Hope’s point of view. Her journal entries are interspersed with Zep’s transcripts. Hope is the opposite of Zep: she is a scientist who rarely reveals her emotions – in fact, she seems loath to have any. Hope’s journal entries are full of calculations about how to achieve Zep’s goal, and observations about how the process is going. These are not funny – Hope is deadly serious about the implications surrounding the experiment she is undertaking. As she writes, “If love can be made, if it can be imposed on someone, then love doesn’t matter.”
It becomes clear quite quickly that Hope is suffering, and Cole provides hints as to why: she is afraid of men, and she is actively avoiding a man after a brief encounter. Her unease feeds her impulse to find out about the essential nature of love. The novel also presents Hope’s relationship with her mother – with whom she does not get along, for excellent reasons – and with her roommate, Lesley, who adopts the role of a surrogate mother and has been instrumental in maintaining Hope’s stability.
Much of the novel is set in Buffalo, where Emily lives with her parents and Pebbles, Emily and Zep’s 13-year-old daughter. Emily is rather thinly drawn, but that doesn’t matter; as it’s Zep who is describing her, what matters is how he conceives of her. Pebbles, who loves both parents, is hilariously devious – she is definitely her father’s child.
The title of the novel suggests its various concerns, including the question of whether Hope is able to make Emily love Zep again. It touches on Hope’s sexuality, and reflects on the importance of hope for love itself. The novel explores both the science and the mystery of human emotions in a tragicomic manner.
It’s difficult to combine the comic and the tragic. Zep is a largely comic character; Hope is tragic. By bringing these two together, Cole allows them to play off each other, learn about each other, and, most important, learn about themselves. They are both victims; the difference is that Zep has victimized himself. Both Hope and Zep are in pain, but they approach their pain from different angles and registers, which are reflected in their respective narrations.
Cole’s ability to make readers think is as important as his talent for making them laugh. It would be possible to take the plot of this novel and redo it without a single moment of levity. But so much would be lost. It’s the combination of comedy and tragedy – of science and emotion – that makes the book so rewarding.