In Couri Johnson’s debut collection I’ll Tell You A Love Story, love can be magnetic, grim, and tumorous. Lovers come together as boy meets girl, Bear eats Witch-Girl, Ocean Goddess kidnaps a married man, two souls reincarnate again and again. Lovers romance with their past heartbreaks in mind, hoping to cultivate a better love—true love even. Some past heartbreaks survive as train brochures and schedules to analyze like in “This is Where You Leave Me.” While in “Anatomist,” past heartbreak echoes through unearthed talking skeletons. However fantastical and otherworldly the situation, there’s an underlying desire to be the center of someone’s affection in each tale. And although not all are bright-eyed lovers here, Johnson’s characters strive for a fairy tale love’s perseverance—one where partners choose each other every day despite the tests that “flay you to the bone.”
I’ll Tell You A Love Story is a collection that aches and sparkles at the same time. Johnson’s characters continuously pick around the shadowy details of the fairy tale canon. They remain blind-sighted from the idea that love shouldn’t be so battering, that love shouldn’t always be an endurance test. The avid fairy tale reader in the opening story “Tale Telling” isn’t an exception. Despite recognizing Stockholm Syndrome in the classic “Beauty and the Beast,” she tends to tolerate abuse in her own life believing it’ll lead to sweet companionship:
And maybe there’s a part of me that never really learned love wasn’t about being brutal and ugly. About being isolating. About being a little terrifying.
This blind spot is paralleled by the melancholy thrift store/post office museum the character visits while on a date. In this retired branch of the postal service, people send letters to lost beloveds—soldiers taken in battle, partners gone to disease, exes. It’s a fruitless sentiment that in some ways prolongs denial of life’s reality. Just as the main character yearns for love in damaging circumstances, writers hope that somehow their letters are received. They are calls made to the universe with fingers crossed that it answers back. Both are sad pursuits, pulsing with hope.
The stories that follow reveal even more shapes of longing. Though there aren’t any reoccurring characters in this collection, several stories uphold “sense” as the solution to fairy tale disillusion. Sense, in Johnson’s love stories, is the awareness of consequence, the acceptance of loss. In “My Darling, Where Have You Gone?” the forest creatures rely on Witch-Girl to resolve their issues. They visit Witch-Girl with mangled limbs expecting her to perfect them. But a crutch is the extent of her aid. She replaces Scorpion and Cat’s shattered tail and teeth with fragile glass substitutes. She asks all of her visitors the same question:
Have you tried accepting that they’re gone?
This question bleeds into the entire book. It’s a question that could’ve saved several characters from heartbreak. It’s a question that could’ve saved characters from going the exhaustive mile for love.
The title story “I’ll Tell You A Love Story” is the most captivating in its brevity and message. A husband and wife lead a perfect marriage. Their love is an easy love, one where they could go from talking endlessly to sharing silence without doubting their bond. But one day the husband saves a turtle from some punk kids. This good deed enchants the Ocean Goddess, compelling her to kidnap the husband and bring him to her aquatic kingdom. For 100 years, the husband would swim until he reaches the shore where his wife waited her entire mortality. They’d share a precious reunion until the Ocean Goddess takes him back in one swift movement. Then 100 more years pass for the same thing to happen, again and again.
They’re still at it right now. Still swimming, still waiting, still dying, still loving, still working. Because love takes work, right?
The husband and wife in this story don’t even entertain the idea of moving on. They don’t even consider Witch-Girl’s trademark question for a second. Their love story defies time and space; it does not need sense or make sense. It’s an absurd tale that ignores how much time the wife wasted by the shore. It doesn’t bother explaining how the husband was able to breathe underwater.
Johnson frames tragedy in such magical scenarios so readers grasp the most relatable truth: “Love takes work. You just have to want to do it.” The narrator of “I’ll Tell You A Love Story” who has been whispering the tale to their sleeping lover, confesses they no longer want to do it. Other characters in the collection like Stargazer and Miloslav, a dancing bear who abandons performing to become humanlike, do not see giving up as an option. These characters desperately change themselves to fit their lovers’ ideals until they are unrecognizable and ultimately rejected. From extreme devotion to extreme sacrifice, Johnson’s flawed love scenarios empathize the significance of sense to recognize one-sided love, abusive love, tired love, forced love, performative love. Love is not only work; it involves compatibility, patience, realism, and respect, too.
I’ll Tell You A Love Story is an extraordinary read exploring love’s complexity and all its odd shapes. In this collection, Johnson takes the dough scraps from the cookie cutter fairy tales and finds love bereft of happily-ever-after. Each story is colored with enviable imagination and deep yearning. Johnson uncovers the tenderness of even the most loveless situations, like spiders biting a woman in her sleep. Though characters rarely exchange the three-word confession, it is love that motivates them to make efforts. Whether those efforts are warranted or not, I’ll Tell You A Love Story challenges our own expectations of romantic love, familial love, casual love, and so on. We read about mourning a playboy’s death and wonder how much hurt is fair in love. How perfect does true love need to be? Should loving your soulmate be effortless? We can only gauge for ourselves what makes love worth it, take these fallible protagonists and their situations as lessons learned, emulate their good qualities, try to dodge similar missteps, persevere beyond the page. We could also reread these stories time and time again, simply because they’re just so good.
Shannon Pulusan is a writer and illustrator based in Jacksonville, Florida. She reviews poetry as an editorial assistant for Flock, manages her blog quiet planet, and draws round-faced characters with triangle noses and pepperoni cheeks under the name moonmemo. Her poetry has been featured in Hour of Writes, Bridge Eight, The Talon Review, and elsewhere.