On Loving is a rich novel concerned with what it means to truly love someone.
In Lili Naghdi’s literature-infused novel On Loving, a lonely young Iranian surgeon experiences love, loss, and longing.
Rose, the distant cousin of Persian royalty who was orphaned and adopted by Americans, is a trauma surgeon who works with domestic abuse survivors. New York in the early 1970s is still rough, and its “abandoned” neighborhoods are rife with violent crime. One night, Rose saves Dean, a handsome stranger, from an attempt on his life. Dean has the saddest blue eyes she’s ever seen, and soon she’s lost in them.
The novel is a vibrant peek at New York in a formative period when the city was still affordable. Rose frequents diners and local spots in pre-gentrification neighborhoods. Other scenes, set in Paris and Florida, are drawn in bright colors and with enticing sensory details. Rose’s boot heels squeak on fresh snow; at a cafe in Montparnasse, she revels in the residual presence of literary legends like Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso: “Sitting there, I always feel that I can hear their voices or even smell in the air the tobacco they smoked.”
Literary references—including full poems by Hafiz and quotes from notables including William Faulkner and Oscar Wilde—pack the novel. Rose narrates, but leans on the words of others to express her feelings. This charming habit also deflects her exploration of her emotions and makes her romance seem thin and one-sided. She’s doing science-minded research instead of collecting firsthand knowledge.
Rose takes hesitant steps toward the dramatic, sweeping love that she longs for, but she expresses herself in quips and cliches. This is at odds with her noted intelligence: as a woman physician who is also a minority, she excels at medicine and is at the top of her field. But in matters of the heart, Rose is an amateur. When she meets Dean, she transforms from a smart, capable, self-confident woman to a bumbling teenager. She babbles, falls off her chair, and can’t seem to control her limbs. From spouting elegant odes, she talks in circles. Yet as love takes hold and Rose is drawn to Dean, she begins to find her poise again, growing and adapting in her unpredictable, sometimes frightening relationship.
Supporting characters, including Rose’s friends and family members, are lively and dimensional. Their concerns, hopes, and stories fill out the romance and give insight into Rose’s personality that she’s unable to make plain herself. Dean, magnetic but a risky choice, also suggests that there’s more to Rose than surgery and science.
With its rich historical details, frequent literary quotes and allusions, and high-stakes romance, On Loving is a novel concerned with what it means to truly love someone, and the influence that love has on a woman’s life.
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