By Tara Ison
Folk wisdom about love proclaims that opposites, like magnets, attract. Tara Ison’s second novel, The List, depicts the obstacles and darkly comic circumstances of two opposites trying repeatedly to tear themselves apart. Isabel, a gifted heart surgeon about to begin her residency, and Al, a video store clerk and director whose only film turned into a cult-classic, are involved in a toxic relationship where neither of them is capable of breaking the cycle of enabling the other’s destructive behavior. In a vain attempt to bring her chaotic personal life into the kind of black and white order her career contains, Isabel and Al create a list of things they always talked about doing together but never got around to, and then proceed to ceremoniously check the activities—a sunset walk on the beach, steamed clams on the Santa Monica Pier—off in order to bring closure to their dysfunctional relationship. But like their every attempt to smooth things over, eventually things take a wrong turn with their final plan. They persist with The List (sometimes with the begrudging notion of completion rather than enjoyment) and destroy a little bit of each other with every item they cross off.
Unlike in many relationship crisis novels, Ison manages to balance strong plot development with an insightful examination of the emotional and psychological rollercoaster that Al and Isabel experience in The List. The narrative voices of both main characters are clearly distinguished as each chapter shifts between their points of view, and decisions that might otherwise seem haphazard are justified as the story is not just told, but experienced through the eyes of both Al and Isabel. The strength of this novel is not in the main characters alone, though. Because of the depth of the minor cast of this novel the audience is able to experience the relationship as intimately as Isabel and Al, and at the same time clearly see how their behavior is comically destructive through the eyes of family and friends.
Anyone who has ever done something seemingly out of character, irrational, or sacrificial because of love will immediately recognize and appreciate the complexity of The List. Emotions and rationalizations don’t fit into any neat little boxes (though, Al and Isabel would argue that their lives can be seen in terms of physiology and classic film), and Ison’s treatment of the down-spiral of a relationship is unapologetic and gritty. In short, it’s real. Readers will certainly find the characters conflicted, but may be surprised by their own shifting allegiances between Al and Isabel, what is healthy and unhealthy, and whether or not they should stay together in the end.
The List is a captivating, nearly voyeuristic look at the reality of a contemporary conflict in love—to stay with a partner for the sake of comfort and the looming ticking of a biological clock and career, or to enter into the frightening world of independence and being single. The journey blends dark humor, vulnerable intimacy, and snapshots of the highs and lows that virtually anyone in the dating world can, perhaps disconcertingly, recognize. With her sharp wit, honesty about love, humor about dysfunction, and her gift for unforgettable characters, Tara Ison crafts an addictive story that leaves the Al or Isabel in us wanting more.
Review by D.M. Papuga