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Virginia Reeves Explores 'The Behavior Of Love'

Sep 25, 2019

Doctor Ed Malinowski believes he has realized most of his dreams. A passionate, ambitious behavioral psychologist, he is now the superintendent of a mental institution and finally turning the previously crumbling hospital around. He also has a home he can be proud of, and a fiercely independent, artistic wife Laura, whom he hopes will soon be pregnant. But into this perfect vision of his life comes Penelope, a beautiful, young epileptic who should never have been placed in his institution and whose only chance at getting out is Ed. She is intelligent, charming, and slowly falling in love with her charismatic, compassionate doctor. As their relationship grows more complicated, and Laura stubbornly starts working at his hospital, Ed must weigh his professional responsibilities against his personal ones, and find a way to save both his job and his family. A love triangle set in one of the most chaotic, combustible settings imaginable, The Behavior of Love is an incredibly compulsive, poignant exploration of marriage, lust, and ambition.

The Behavior of Love

The following highlights are from a conversation with Virginia Reeves about her novel, "The Behavior of Love." To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.

Sarah Aronson: Love and marriage and love and work. How do you distinguish the two?

Virginia Reeves: That is a great question. We could spend the whole time talking about just that, but I think that the mistake often is assuming we can love the same in those vastly different relationships, and sometimes I think we can. Sometimes the love that we bring to a relationship is the same kind of love that will make us successful in our work and vice versa. But in my personal experience, and I would say in the experience of my characters, that is probably at least Ed, my main character's, greatest mistake is assuming he can apply the same techniques in love to both of those situations.

Break

One of the ways I understand your bodies of work is that you don't fancy tidy endings. You don't go towards wrapping things up in a nice little bow. I want to know about your instinct to resist that. . .

I'm going to go back a little bit further. My first novel actually had an even less tidy ending. And I'll still say I am 95% sure that Work Like Any Other ends where it should. But there's this remaining little 5% of me that thinks it should have ended in that even much worse way. So I don't know what that is. I mean, we could do some digging into my own psyche to try to figure out some of that. But I think that I, when I read things, I crave happy endings, when I'm watching in shows, in movies and books. But I also always doubt them.

I'm like, "Oh, tell me everything's okay. I'd love to hear that it is." And then I don't believe them, because it's so rare that anything is tidy. And I think that that's one of my greatest goals, I think, in my writing, is to resist the polarity of good and bad, of safe and unsafe.

I think the tidy ending is an extreme. It's let us wrap it up, let us make it tidy, let us assure everyone that it's all okay. And I really think we need assurances, do not get me wrong. Especially right now in our world, we need assurances. They're very helpful. But I think if we only look to assurances and only look to be safe and okay and end in this beautiful place, then we're denying half of the story, at least half if not more.

My endings are not tidy in any way, and what I hope is that there's beauty in them at least.  I believe that beauty is tragic and wonderful simultaneously. The most beautiful things I think I've found in my life are the ones that have the capacity to cause great harm and great joy.

Speaking of tragedy, I'm just thinking about grief. Virginia, will you end by talking about your late father-in-law and what you imagine he would think of this book?

Yeah,  absolutely. My late father-in-law, Mike Muszkiewicz, was the original inspiration for this novel, in that he was a behavioral psychologist out in Boulder. I always need to say when this book came out in Helena, where I live, where my late father-in-law lived, where my husband lives, where his family lives, I felt the need to say, "Okay, inspired by my late father-in-law. Not his story." This is not a biography. Penelope is a complete fabrication. The pieces, though, that I gleaned from Mike, in some similar ways to Ed, some of the pieces I stole, was that he was like masculine charisma distilled into this...

You know, the stories of Mike from his early days are just like, he quieted the room, he walked in and he was funny and he was a man's man, but everyone, all the women fell in love with them and he was great with kids and he loved dogs. I mean, he was just kind of this unbelievable character.

Then he suffered an aneurysm and then a subsequent stroke when he was 39, very young. My husband was nine at the time that that happened. So I, of course, never knew that version of my father-in-law. He existed in stories, and I think when somebody exists in stories, they can become even bigger, right? The myth becomes even larger. I spent so much of my time knowing Mike, which was 18 years at least, in this second life of his. There was a lot of that time that I was envious of everyone who knew him before.

I missed that person and I thought about what a great relationship we'd have, this gregarious father-in-law of mine. And it was only in my later years of knowing Mike, I mean, I would say much too late and then much, much too late in reflecting on his life after his death, that I realized that by missing this man I never knew I was failing to see and appreciate this man I did. When I think about some of the ideas that I really want this book to explore, like love and appreciation and loyalty and presence, I would say Mike taught me all of that.

I say this in the acknowledgements, but he could find joy in the everyday in a way that I think we so rarely can. So the idea of taking assurance in the present, in I have a pack of smokes, I have 20 bucks in my pocket, I have a beautiful Montana day, I have a full tank of gas, I'm going to have coffee with my son or his daughter or my grandchildren, and that was a beautiful day for him. I think we get so wrapped up in bigger things that we of course fail to see those moments of joy and beauty. And Mike, he taught me that. If there's anything that is true to him in this novel, I hope it's that.

About the Book:

Doctor Ed Malinowski believes he has realized most of his dreams. A passionate, ambitious behavioral psychologist, he is now the superintendent of a mental institution and finally turning the previously crumbling hospital around. He also has a home he can be proud of, and a fiercely independent, artistic wife Laura, whom he hopes will soon be pregnant. But into this perfect vision of his life comes Penelope, a beautiful, young epileptic who should never have been placed in his institution and whose only chance at getting out is Ed. She is intelligent, charming, and slowly falling in love with her charismatic, compassionate doctor. As their relationship grows more complicated, and Laura stubbornly starts working at his hospital, Ed must weigh his professional responsibilities against his personal ones, and find a way to save both his job and his family. A love triangle set in one of the most chaotic, combustible settings imaginable, The Behavior of Love is an incredibly compulsive, poignant exploration of marriage, lust, and ambition.

Virginia Reeves
Credit Susan Koett

About the Author:

Virginia Reeves is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at UT-Austin. She is the author of The Behavior of Love (Scriber, 2019) and Work Like Any Other (Scriber, 2016). Work Like Any Other was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize, and Booklist named it to their Top 10 First Novels of 2016. She teaches writing, communication, and literature at Helena College and lives with her husband, two daughters, and three-legged Pit Bull in a house that has survived a major earthquake and a fire.