In 1997, Padma Viswanathan – more than decade away from the publication of her lauded debut novel, The Toss of a Lemon – secluded herself in a decommissioned tugboat docked in a Vancouver Island marina. The idea was to take some time alone to write – emphasis on alone. But during her short stay, she met Phillip, a fellow temporary denizen of the community, who quickly decided they should be friends.
Phillip is a lot. Strongly built, foul-mouthed, gay, and rough around the edges, but also exceedingly conscientious and warm, with an inherent vulnerability, he regales Viswanathan with stories about his life. Many of these centre on the less G-rated aspects, such as past drug addiction and homelessness, and an ongoing prolific sex life. But it is a story about his childhood that really piques Viswanathan’s interest.
When Phillip was 11, his father, Harvey, placed an ad seeking a woman to look after Phillip and his two brothers (with other “duties” to Harvey implied). The third woman to take the job soon became Phillip’s stepmother. Del was a smart-talking, good-looking woman who didn’t take shit from anyone, and Phillip was instantly enchanted. When, a few months after her arrival, Del revealed that she was actually Mary Lloyd, a bank robber who had broken her parole and was on the lam, her appeal and mystique only intensified. Hearing “woman bank robber travelling under an alias,” was all it took for Viswanathan to be hooked.
Over the next 20-plus years, Viswanathan and Phillip’s friendship grew. Their interactions were sporadic, but meaningful, and though they lived in different cities (Viswanathan lived variously in Edmonton, Arkansas, and other points abroad while Phillip remained based in B.C.), whenever the author ventured west she made a point of seeing her friend, their visits serving the dual purpose of socializing and research.
Because here’s the thing: as much as Viswanathan frames her relationship with Phillip as one that is based on mutual affection, she also frames it as one between subject and author. “Can a writer and a subject be friends?” asks Viswanathan. “Depends what you think of as friendship.”
Though it bills itself as “a memoir of friendship and true crime,” it would be more accurate to describe Like Every Form of Love as a memoir of writing about friendship (and a bit of true crime). Over the course of the book’s 280-ish pages, Viswanathan spends the bulk of her time writing about writing – about process and understanding how to tell the story, her research, the nature of friendship, how her friendship with Phillip impacts her ability to write the book, and the complications of writing about their relationship in the context of also trying to write about Del.
Much of this introspection and analysis is thoroughly interesting. Viswanathan, a novelist and playwright whose novel The Ever After of Ashwin Rao was a Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist, has an acerbic, authentic voice, particularly in passages in which she’s ruminating on her motivations and the often-contradictory aspects of her relationship with Phillip and others she encounters through the course of pursuing Del’s story.
But the true crime aspects of the book – the very story that hooked Viswanathan and prompted the decades of “gathering material” from Phillip, Harvey, and various others – are relegated to a series of mildly interesting asides, or merely serve as the impetus for interactions that prove to be more entertaining in their pursuit than in securing any revelations. It turns out there isn’t much to Del’s story beyond a lingering question of who killed her husband Lew; there is no smoking gun that Viswanathan – who fully acknowledges her lack of the journalistic know-how required to effectively interview subjects and access sources – is able to uncover.
The extensive use of quotations on myriad subjects by everyone from Alexander Nehamas to Philip Larkin sometimes lends an overly academic tone to the book. Viswanathan also relies heavily on allegorical references to Hans Christian Andersen’s works (mainly “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Snow Queen,” and “The Shadow”), drawing parallels between the stories’ characters and herself and Phillip. She explains these references by pointing to Phillip’s enduring vulnerability and the impact of his early experiences on the man he ultimately became. “Fairy tales are equated with childhood, but what happens in childhood happens to us our whole lives,” she writes.
Not surprisingly, the richest parts of the book are those in which Viswanathan steps away from the lectern and presents her interactions and conversations with Phillip. The nuances of their friendship, filtered through a novelist’s lens, come into focus, sometimes warm and loving, other times prickly and defensive. It’s a shame there isn’t more of this in the book, as it counteracts Viswanathan’s inclination to take on the tone of the imperious intellectual.
Outside of these passages, Phillip’s presence in the narrative, though vital, feels oddly tentative. In 2021, after decades of sometimes fraught friendship – and a disastrous joint trip to Cuba – Phillip suddenly, irrevocably ended their relationship, telling Viswanathan he no longer wanted to be in the book and that he felt she’d “not collected the material in good faith.” Obviously, Viswanathan decided to write the book anyway, and while the shift in focus away from Phillip and Del to Viswanathan herself is largely successful, the reader can’t help feeling it would have been a much richer story with more of her friend’s big personality filling the pages.