1566 A particular kind of life

All I Stole from You
by Ava Bellows

Toronto: HarperCollins Canada (Harper Perennial), 2022
$23.99 / 9781443466806

Reviewed by Candace Fertile

*

The “you” of the title in Ava Bellows’ debut novel, All I Stole from You, is Ingrid, wife of Rob, with whom Maggie, the narrator, has an affair. Right off the bat, relationships are the focus in this somewhat overwrought romance. In a Prologue, Maggie tells Ingrid, “I’m not sure I’m ready to relive everything, but after all you’ve given me, your forgiveness, your wisdom, your kindness, Rob . . . I owe you this much.” Maggie then goes on to detail the affair.

Leaving aside the idea that Ingrid can’t give Rob to anyone as he makes his own decisions, but nope, I can’t leave it aside as that idea gives a sense of the level of Maggie’s emotional development. She’s young, in her twenties, and firmly entrenched in a world of appearance in Los Angeles. She’s an aspiring actor, who house-sits, and whose mostly estranged father is a multi-divorced director. She lives with her best friend, Dani, whose boyfriend, Craig, copes heroically with the tight friendship of the two women. And Maggie is mourning the loss of her former boyfriend, Jackson, an addict on a path of self-destruction.

Ava Bellows grew up on Denman Island and in Los Angeles

The initial tone of the novel/letter is snappy. Maggie meets Rob at a party she doesn’t want to attend as she’s recovering from her latest breakup (a DJ dumps her by text), but Dani promises to do the dishes for a month if she does. As the party is thrown by Dani’s boyfriend, attendance makes sense to me, but Maggie has a long way to go to recognize Craig’s value. She disses him and his party: “It was Dani’s boyfriend’s thirty-fifth, and he did what any guy who liked Leonardo DiCaprio a little too much would: he rented a boat to take him and his hundred closest acquaintances along the coast for six hours.” Like any coming-of-age novel, this one is clear about the main character’s mistakes.

Rob asks Maggie for a cigarette, and that sets things off. Maggie notes, “No one has a right to sound as good as he did. Still does. I’d always been a sucker for an English accent, so I was fucked from the start.” When they introduce themselves and shake hands, Maggie reports, “I’m surprised I didn’t dissolve into the air or otherwise explode unto a tiny, nicotine-fuelled fireworks show.” The physical attraction is palpable. When they kiss, we get a description which plants the novel firmly in the romance category: “So no, it wasn’t a chaste kiss, but it wasn’t a rip-your-clothes-off, The Notebook-style kiss either. On the spectrum of peck to Gosling, it was somewhere in the middle.”

Ava Bellows

The party takes place in the first chapter, so the novel gets off to an immediate and intriguing start. How is this relationship going to play out? How will Maggie negotiate the secret of the affair? The novel delivers a picture of a particular kind of life, one in which people drink a lot of coffee that they do not make themselves, have tattoos and talk about their meaning, and have casual sex. Rob is a tattoo artist, who has no tattoos, but who has tattooed Craig and Maggie’s father (who has his five wives’ names on his body). Bellows cleverly creates connections among her characters.

As time goes on, the tone becomes somewhat less snappy and more tearful. As my knowledge of the romance genre is limited to Jane Austen (superb), I can see that Bellows is following the necessary arc. The would-be lovers, or in this case, the lovers, have to overcome some difficulty in their relationship or the whole thing is pointless. Maggie’s understanding of her past failed relationships is conventionally tied to her almost non-existent relationship with her father who left his wife and their two daughters for wife number two. The fact that Maggie has predictable daddy issues makes her problems no less real or painful.

Fortunately, Maggie does have strong connections, not only with Dani but also with her older sister Pearl and Pearl’s family. In this fictional world, as in the real world, the love of friends can save you. Romantic love? That remains to be seen.

*

Candace Fertile

Candace Fertile has a PhD in English literature from the University of Alberta. She teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria, writes book reviews for several Canadian publications, and is on the editorial board of Room MagazineEditor’s note: Candace Fertile has recently reviewed books by Beth Kope, Geoff InverarityAngélique LalondeJane MunroArleen Paré, and Ian Williams for The British Columbia Review.

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The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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