Four New Words For Love tells the story of Gina, a single mother from Glasgow, who during the course of the novel becomes homeless, and of her meeting with Jonathan, a recent widower from London, who invites her to live with him. The narrative focuses on Gina and Jonathan’s lives before their meeting, and the effect each has on the other subsequently. Their mutual but platonic entanglement is refreshing because it concerns the common humanity between two people from very different backgrounds.
The novel’s four parts have different focalisers. Some of the narratives overlap while others are linked only by passing references and retrospective accounts. The first part is told in Gina’s Glaswegian voice. Her description of life in the rougher part of Glasgow, with no education, an alcoholic father and absentee mother, is candid and unromanticised. The relationship between Gina and her best friend Lolly is beautifully described and with all the annoyances and quirks that such friends tolerate. As Gina deals with pregnancy and motherhood, she finds a job which shows her a middle-class version of Glasgow. Parenthood forces Gina to conduct a re-evaluation of her life.
The novel’s focus then moves abruptly to Jonathan; these sections transport the reader to middle class suburban London. An omniscient narrator describes Jonathan’s confusion at growing old:
When he wakes these mornings Christopher can feel the weight of his organs. When he has time to reflect… Christopher has contemplated the aggregate weight of his parts, and concluded that he is mediaeval.
Such descriptions are compelling and give Jonathan a solidity that goes beyond mere stereotype. His personality is revealed by inches as the conditions of his loveless marriage are described. Jonathan’s world had been organised by his wife; he realises that he is scared to open himself up to the possibilities that his wife closed off. The conflict between wanting more out of life and accepting his situation connects him with Gina. Foreshadowing his offering Gina a home, Jonathan’s adoption of a stray dog encourages him to make changes and to reconnect with his neighbours; later, Gina’s presence will also help him to take responsibility for his life, and to engage with people whether he is scared of emotional connections or not.
The relationship between the two is not without its problems, however, and Jonathan’s attempts to help Gina reconnect with her mother wreak havoc. When Gina takes off unexpectedly, Jonathan goes to Glasgow to find her, but instead finds Lolly. Lolly fills in the blanks concerning Gina’s baby and her disappearance, and we are told how Gina’s discontentment and her subsequent disappearance have moved Lolly to take action to better her own life. Gina’s influence has helped not only Jonathan but Lolly too. Eventually, Jonathan and Gina are reunited.
While the characters and their relationships make Four New Words For Love an uplifting read, the absence of a backstory on how Gina became homeless is a problem. Explanations are brief and a touch flat compared with other emotional confessions in the narrative. The loss of Gina’s voice is especially noticeable when these revelations are made. Jonathan listens with a sympathetic ear but, in focusing on Jonathan and his failing body, the novel detracts from the importance of Gina’s revelations.
Overall, the book deals with aspects of life often ignored: platonic friendships, aging, and marginalised lower class voices. The characters are largely believable and loveable. But Four New Words For Love’s shortcomings indicate the difficulties of those without direct experience of these situations truly conveying their gravity.