Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Every now and again, a novel comes along that is so different, so affecting and so unforgettable, that you simply must tell everyone you know to read it…you will never forget this one – for all the right reasons. — Heat magazine
The novel Together by Julie Cohen is one of the most unusual, powerful, and moving stories I have read in quite a while. This is not just because of some of the issues the story highlights but also because of the structure she has used to tell her story, her use of symbolism, and I loved the wonderful thought-provoking gems that appeared throughout the story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and when I had completed it I felt like I wanted to go back and re-read it now that I was equipped with the knowledge I had gleaned along the way.
We first meet Emily and Robbie in their twilight years as they share their idyllic lives in the beautiful area of Maine USA. It is obvious right from the beginning that there is a very strong bond between them. Robbie’s own words describe the depth of their relationship. “I love you. You’re my beginning and my ending, Emily, and every day in between” (5). But this is not a traditional love story.
Julie Cohen has chosen to write this story back to front. Early in the book we learn that Robbie leaves Emily a note with a freshly picked rose, goes to the beach, swims out until he cannot swim any more then lets the water carry him away. But before this happens we establish a deep connection to Emily and Robbie and can empathise with the latter when he discovers that a fog has begun to cloud a part of his life: a different part every day. “It moved in without warning and left him lost” (25).
The remainder of the book is divided into discrete parts which address significant times in their relationship, working backwards till we discover how they first met. As each new part of their life is exposed we become aware of well-hidden secrets which have had a profound effect on their lives and on those around them. We develop preconceived ideas as to the substance of these secrets but readjust these ideas as we gain more intimate knowledge of their lives.
I loved the way the author linked their relationship to the unusual Italian ring Robbie gave to Emily. It was a gold band in the shape of two clasped hands- ‘one hand turns into another one and then they hold on to each other’ (10). ‘round and round in a circle…[it was] self-contained …and complete’(48).The author also used Bach’s The Goldberg Variations, as a powerful symbol for the story as it begins and ends the same way. ‘Both have “hello and goodbye – and in between …an incredible range of emotions and beauty. It’s a metaphor of a full life, well lived, and the connection between birth and death” (336).
A couple of the gems of wisdom emanating from the dialogue and personal thoughts that I loved were when Robbie says, “I sort of think – maybe this is crazy – that one moment of pure happiness … might make everything else worth it” (281); and when Emily realizes: “He built boats, he sailed them, he lived on them. This was his world, as, she supposed hers had been Cambridge and Bach and heavy textbooks. When you met a person you only saw the flat edges of them, their appearance and the scant facts you could glean from their conversation. You never really know them until you’d entered the sphere where they lived and been surrounded by it” (286).
Julie Cohen grew up in the western mountains of Maine so she has an intimate knowledge of the setting for this book. She has a background in literature having studied at both Brown University and Cambridge University. She is a popular speaker and teacher of creative writing. Her books have won or been short listed for the Romantic Novelists’ Associations Award, the National Readers’ Choice Award and the HOLT Medallion. Of this novel, Together, she has said “I didn’t write the story backwards to make it more shocking; it was more so you could see the truly good life they had together, so you could understand that their love transcended their circumstances” (331) and “I wanted the reader, discovering their secret, to question what they think they know about morality and love” (333).
I would thoroughly recommend this book to all readers. The Questions to Readers included after the story would also make this a valuable resource for study and discussion.
By Julie Cohen