'Love's Compass' follows love's endings and beginnings

Peter Costa

Author Mary McAvoy discusses her new novel, “Love’s Compass.”

Q. How would you describe your novel?

A. "Love’s Compass" is a simple and captivating love story. But through the thoughts and feelings of the main character, Liv, it questions our cultural expectation of life-long partnering. And it suggests that we find a more peaceful and loving way to part from our partners of many years.

The couple in the story have had a long marriage; their children are young adults. The husband needs to find personal fulfillment in his remaining years, and his journey toward this does not include his wife. Because of our cultural thoughts about marriages that end, Liv, his wife, is disoriented by the unexpected prospect of moving forward in life without her family intact. The landscape of her life is so altered that she is lost within her own life. "Love’s Compass" is the story of her metamorphosis.

Q. How did you get the idea for it?

A. For reasons related to my health, I had to reinvent a skill set to make a living. I have a B.A. in English and the classics, and I’ve always felt that maybe I could write a book. So, I gave it a try and "Love’s Compass" is the result. When I first sat to write, I didn’t have a storyline in mind. I just wanted to try an exercise in writing. But after piecing together a few chapters, the characters took over and gave the story to me. As I wrote, it was as if I were present in their midst, and I recorded what I saw.

Q. As social commentary, do you think it reflects a common trend in marriage?

A. Yes, I do. Half of all marriages end before the end of the life of either partner. So, “until death do us part” seems to be slipping away as the model. And we live so long and have so many phases of life, I think it may no longer be realistic to expect one person to be the right partner for each phase.

I don’t think a marriage commitment is to be taken lightly. And certainly love should be at the heart of all marriages. But love can also be at the heart of the ending of a marriage – presuming one partner has not offended the other through infidelity or unkindness.

In "Love’s Compass," the husband and wife have had a long-term marriage and, for many years, a happy life together. But the husband is feeling unfulfilled. He has spent years in the pursuit of achieving the societal expectation of degrees, and homes, cars, food, education for his children, vacations, etc. And that while he’s been busy doing this, he has neglected his personal actualization. His wife feels that in these same matters – achieving and maintaining a family life – she has found complete fulfillment.

"Love’s Compass" is the story of a wife accepting her husband’s need to take another path, while she tries to make honorable decisions as she steps onto a path that veers off the journey she had anticipated.

Q. Who are your favorite novelists?

A, I like this question, but the truth is, I have favorite books more than favorite authors. For me, a favorite book is one that I can read over and over and never tire of. Those that come immediately to mind are "A Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving, "Captain Corelli’s Mandolin" by Louis de Bernieres, "Memoirs of a Geisha" by Arthur Golden, "The Secret Life of Bees" by Sue Monk Kidd, "I Capture the Castle" by Dodie Smith, "Ava’s Man" by Rick Bragg, and I love "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen for its humor, which is subtle and so humanly real. And two favorite classics are "The Odyssey" by Homer, and Sophocles’ "Antigone."

Q. How do you go about writing fiction, i.e., describe a day in a novelist's work life.

A. I wish I had just a novelist’s life. But the truth is I also run a business, Syntax and Style, through which I build the Web presence (sites, blogs, e-newsletters, etc.) for my clients. So, these days, I have to get away to write. I go to Wellspring House in western Massachusetts for a week at a time. When I am there, I am a novelist and I love it. (And I meet other novelists, which is a real treat.) There is no cell phone reception at Wellspring House, which is a mixed blessing since I don’t like to be out of touch with my children while I’m away. But other than them, I’m glad that for a spell no one can access me.

While there, my focus is entirely on my writing. The setting is so peaceful that it is a Zen-like realm from which my thoughts and words percolate. And, to be in a silent house where other writers are at work makes for a creative energy that permeates the place. My hours are my own. For me, a lot of the ideas and writing happens in my head before I sit to write. So, to a casual observer, I might appear to be aimlessly puttering in my room or in the kitchen or as I walk to the tiny downtown. But much of the work is happening then. When a scene is solidly in my mind, then I sit and capture it in words. My mind is most active for writing at night, and on occasion into the wee hours.

Preston Browning, who at age 85 runs Wellspring House, is a silent inspiration the whole time I’m there. I write about real people and real human struggles. He epitomizes humanness as he slow-steps through each day, caring for his houseguests, and for his wife, Ann, who is in a nearby nursing home.

Q. What is next for you in fiction?

A. The book I’m working on now, which has a working title of "I’d Love You There Again" (inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Wedding Song”), is an intimate portrayal of a day in an elderly woman’s life – the day of her husband’s funeral. As she attends his funeral and burial, her aged mind drifts among the realms of past memory, present reality, and her future in the world where her husband now is.

And throughout the day, her daughter is by her side. Their relationship is poignantly portrayed as the daughter witnesses her mother’s mind slipping farther and farther from her earthly reality. The story is set in the mill city of Lawrence, Mass. I’m weaving true history and true images of place throughout the story. So, for this book, much of my time is spent researching Lawrence from its beginning in 1845 to the year of the funeral, 1992.

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