Book review: Louis & Louise by Julie Cohen

Saturday, January 26, 2019 Permalink

I very much enjoyed Julie Cohen’s last novel, Together. In fact it was one of my favourite books of 2017 and Cohen unfurled a complex and sad story in a clever and creative way.

I requested Louis and Louise based on my enjoyment of Together (a life story told in reverse) but wasn’t sure what to expect from the backcover blurb.

Book review: Louis & Louise by Julie CohenLouis & Louise
by Julie Cohen
Published by Orion
on January 29th 2019
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: General Fiction
ISBN: 1409179826, 9781409179832
Pages: 304

If you could look at one life in two different ways, what would you see?

Louis and Louise are separated by a single moment in time, a strike of chance that decided their future. The day they were born is when their story began.

In one, Louis David Alder is born a male.In the other, Louise Dawn Alder is born a female.

Louis and Louise are the same in many ways - they have the same best friends, the same parents, the same dream of being a writer and leaving their hometown in Maine as soon as they can. But because of their gender, everything looks different. Certain things will happen in their lives to shape them, hurt them, build them back up again. But what will bring them back home?

So… I initially thought it was going to be about a transgender child and their struggle with identity and acceptance and / or tolerance from those around them. It felt a little fraught so I braced myself for what was to come, but what Cohen offered was completely different. In a Sliding Doors kinda way.

In fact, she gives us two stories for the price of one. In one we follow Louis (a male) and in the other Louise (a female), both born to Irving and Peggy Alder. Cohen alternates chapters as we meet both Louis and Louise (in the present) at 31yrs of age, occasionally slipping backwards to Lou’s (though I guess that should plural possessive…. Lous’?!)  experiences growing up. Some belong to Louis and some to Louise. And some they share – as Lou.

From the get-go we realise – as is so often the case (though stereotypes are probably less prevalent now) – Lou x 2 are treated differently… from the types of toys they’re given, to the clothes they wear, to the expectations of those around them.

Lou – both of them – is/are best friends with twins Benny and Allie, though Louis is closer to Benny and dates Allie whereas Louise is besties with Allie.

Life intervenes as it is wont to however,  and Louis and Louise’s paths diverge.

Thirteen years later a family member’s illness calls Lou (x 2) home. It’s interesting to see how their relationships with their parents (and friends) have changed and we soon discover that events (that took place) as they finished high school changed their lives forever, impacting on those around them and keeping them awash in secrets since.

The return back to Casablanca then is confronting for Lou x 2 – and for those they’ve left behind – as they’re forced to confront those secrets.

I really liked both Louis and Louise as well as the support characters – Lou’s parents and the twins (their childhood BFFs).

This structure of this book is really really clever and Cohen effortlessly sustains the two plots. Both are really strong and addictive. It could easily be confusing. But I didn’t find it so at all… once I realised how the stories were being told.

It’s a complex story (or two) and Cohen really doesn’t shy away from sensitive, controversial and uncomfortable subject matter.

There are lessons here: an obvious one around gender and its fluidity. And one around fate and whether we’re doomed (or destined) to make the same decisions  no matter how our lives unfold. Is our life foretold when we’re born? Cohen believes not…

Male and female, large brushstrokes and small. Neither of these stories are true, or both of them are. We can’t depend on absolutes or definitions. Destiny isn’t written indelibly on our bodies, or at least not every part of every destiny is. All we have is people with their messy indefinites, their changes and inconsistencies, their desires and fears, their acts that echo down the years and change the world. p 293

In many ways it’s also a coming-of-age story… just not of the usual adolescent variety. Adult Lou (x 2) are confronted by their changing relationship with their parents. There’s anger and bitterness about past mistakes and actions; but ultimately they’re forced to wonder if there’s any benefit in reviving them now. And of course, it’s not uncommon that those involved remember things differently anyway; and / or the fact we’re shaped by other events in our lives as well as other beliefs and perceptions.

Like Together, this is a book that will very much stay with me for some time. I know I keep using the word ‘clever’ in relation to the narrative and structure but it is. Ingenious. Confronting. Complex. And because of that, and the themes within, I’d definitely recommend it… particularly to bookclubs looking for their next read.

Louis and Louise by Julie Cohen will be published in Australia by Hachette and available from 29 January 2019.


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