In this post-#MeToo era, it’s a particularly poignant meme. These are modern women unlikely to let a boss underpay them, or an unsolicited flirt pester them. Yet they surrender to lovers who lie, cheat, steal, humiliate and otherwise demean them. Why is this contemporary version of the 1950s “bad boy” (or girl) still so seductive to feminists who otherwise own their lives?
To read Hanna Halperin’s compelling sophomore novel, “I Could Live Here Forever,” is to inhabit this poisoned world. Twenty-one-year-old Leah Kempner falls for irresistible, impossibly handsome, heroin-addicted Charlie, who is 10 years her senior. “As soon as I met Charlie I was hooked,” admits Leah. “It didn’t matter who else I met. It didn’t matter who tried to convince me out of it … There was something in me — a part of myself that had been there long before I’d ever met Charlie — that had found something in him that I simply could not let go of.”
Convincingly, Charlie’s tedious cycles of using, sobering and relapsing unfold with prolonged inevitability — as do Leah’s cycles of denial, despair, and, at long last, action on her own behalf. It’s a credit to Halperin’s craft that despite the plot’s true-to-life repetitiveness, the reader is mesmerized by Leah’s stubborn refusal to recognize Charlie’s demons, or her own.
“He’s smart and funny,” Leah describes her boyfriend to her family over Thanksgiving dinner. “Really nice. Also, he’s a recovering heroin addict. He’s been sober for three years.”
“Leah, are you an idiot?” her brother Ben bursts out.
Months later, during a second family vacation, Leah leads her siblings to believe that she and Charlie have broken up. She changes his name to “Cynthia” in her phone, so they don’t know who’s endlessly love-bombing her.
Basking in Charlie’s “love,” blinded to the red flags flashing and snapping in the wind, Leah takes a call from Charlie’s mom, Faye, with whom Leah has built a relationship straight out of a codependence textbook. “We think he’s relapsed,” Faye tells Leah. “He’s not answering our calls. Has he been talking to you?”
“We’ve been talking,” Leah answers. “But Faye, I don’t think he relapsed.”
As devoted codependents often do, Leah marshals most of her energy to help “her” addict stay in denial, then scrapes the bottom of her energetic barrel to keep her own self alive. She’s accepted into a competitive Master of Fine Arts program, makes real relationships with her fellow students, tries and fails to integrate Charlie into her shiny-clean new crowd. She writes and writes and realizes every MFA student’s wildest dream, being graced by the attention of a “New Yorker” editor.
While doing all of this, Leah becomes an expert witness to her boyfriend’s condition. “I googled heroin addiction so often that ads for addiction treatment centers were constantly popping up in my sidebars. I read “Junkie” by William S. Burroughs and “Jesus’ Son” by Denis Johnson. As I watched a 1970s Al Pacino nodding out, I realized how many times I’d watched Charlie nod out. I watched that movie a lot that spring. It soothed me. This was a love story that had been told before.”
Like addiction, and codependence, and internalized misogyny, “I Could Live Here Forever” is a wrenching story that’s been lived and told before. Halperin does us a service by sharing her version of it, entertaining, warning and educating us with her all-too-accurate novel.
Meredith Maran is a journalist, critic and the author of “The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention,” among other books.
“I Could Live Here Forever”
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