REVIEW: Louis and Louise by Julie Cohen

In brief: Louis and Louise – the same child born to the same parents in two different lives. One night will shape both their futures but the past must be dealt with when they return home years later.

The good: Very interesting concept executed well.

The not-so-good: I occasionally forgot some of the minor details of each person’s life/surroundings.

Why I chose it: I love a good ‘what if’ theme – thanks to Hachette for the copy.

Year: 2019

Pages: 296

Publisher: Orion (Hachette)

Setting: Small town America

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

The ‘Sliding Doors‘ concept is something I really like to read about in fiction – exploring both sides of a decision and how it can drastically affect major life outcomes. Louis and Louise takes this one step further – what if a child was born as a boy in one life and a girl in another? How does it affect what happens as the child grows up, how others interact with them and life changing events? Louis and Louise explores this so well, including themes of family, friendships, relationships and forgiveness.

It starts with the birth of the child, then explores Louis and Louise’s lives (both known as Lou) separately in the present with flashbacks to the past. Louise is a teacher and single mother in Brooklyn, having left the small Maine town of Casablanca quickly after high school graduation. Louis is an author on his first book tour. Both find out that their mother has cancer and is dying. Reluctantly, they must go home to Casablanca and make peace with the demons of the past. Louis’ marriage is ending and his book tour hasn’t been as successful as he had hoped. Louise has barely spoken with her mother except for necessities since she left Casablanca. In the same town, in two different lives, things have diverged. In Louise’s life, the paper mill has closed down and her former best friend Allie is an oncologist. Louis’ Casablanca is still fragrant with paper mill smells and Allie is a nurse. One life has their father present, one doesn’t. But both boil down to repairing the fractured relationship with Allie and her twin Benny.

As the novel progresses, more is revealed about the one night that changed Louis and Louise’s lives. The events building up to it are the same, but the outcomes are very different. Up until this point Louis and Louise have never wholly been defined by their gender, but now their fates depend on it. It brings up questions on sexuality, gender and the roles society automatically assigns to people. It’s also subtly marked in the book with role reversals – Louis is much more natural at caring and cooking for his mother but Louise actively dislikes it. Allie is a nurse or a doctor based on family events.

The story is told in a sensitive, very natural way. It’s simple stuff, explained well. But the topics are big with Louis and Louise having secrets that need to be explained and past decisions that now need to be analysed. Did they do the right thing? If you can’t change the past, can you work through it? This is explored in the relationships with Allie and Louis and Louise’s parents. There are very emotive scenes and others that are just quietly beautiful. Julie Cohen really nails the idea for Louis & Louise, creating a strong exploration of family and relationships hindered by the past.

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