A Closer Look: “The Lovers,” by Nick White
Nick White’s story, “The Lovers,” is the opening story in his collection, Sweet & Low, published in June, 2018. Originally published in The Literary Review, this story masterfully uses a point-of-view that moves back and forth between the two main characters. The ending is both surprising and inevitable, and White achieves this by the use of the two points-of-view and by his use of narrative time.
The story is broken into seven, numbered sections. Rosemary, a middle-aged widow, is the POV character for sections 1, 3, 5, and 7. Hank, a former lover of Rosemary’s dead husband, Arnie, is the POV character for sections 2, 4, and 6. Both POVs are close third person, allowing us access to each character’s thoughts, feelings, and memories. White does not privilege one character over the other, although Rosemary has slightly more room on the page, and she both begins and ends the story. It feels like her story, and yet Hank’s role is never diminished. We believe him, as much as we believe Rosemary, and that belief is key to the way the story unfolds. If White hadn’t done such a wonderful job in creating two believable characters, the story wouldn’t be as successful.
It is interesting to look at how the story moves through the seven sections and its use of narrative time. Written in the present tense, with flashbacks, the story unfolds as follows:
SECTION POV CONTENT 1 Rosemary Recording podcast 2 Hank Listening to podcast 3 Rosemary At the airport 4 Hank Backstory 5 Rosemary At the hospital, driving Hank home 6 Hank At home, then a week later 7 Rosemary At home, then a week later
The present moment time of the story begins with Rosemary in the studio, recording her podcast. Hank’s section picks up with him listening to the same podcast. When we return to Rosemary in section 3, we are again moving forward in time, as she is at the airport, which we learned in the first line of the story would be the following week: “The week before her flight, she records the twenty-fifth episode, this one about Arnie Greenlee.” White is teaching us how to read the story in the way that time works between these sections: time is linear and moving forward, even as we move from Rosemary to Hank and back again.
The fourth section, though, which is the longest section, is all backstory about Hank, and Hank’s relationship with Rosemary’s husband. It is completely removed from the present moment narrative of the story. Because of its placement in the exact middle of the story, when we return to the narrative present in section 6 with Rosemary, we have every reason to believe that the final three sections will operate as the first three sections do; they will work to move the linear moment forward in time. Stories are often symmetrical in their design.
But, instead, sections 6 and 7 cover the same linear time period, and we see the same scene from the two different POVs. This is the first time in the story that White allows the two characters access to the same moment. And, interestingly, he first gives us access to Hank’s POV.
In section 7, Hank goes out with a former lover named Josiah, who was also a lover of Arnie’s. The two men return home and, in the midst of their lovemaking:
Hank feels another person in the room. Ghost eyes watching them. He claws himself from the covers and sees a figure in the doorway. Rosemary, her mouth opening as if to speak. Then Josiah’s mouth finds his, and Hank is taken back to the mattress. When he looks again, she is gone, was never there, and there’s a finality to this absence that he can’t quite understand.
Because we believe Hank, and because we see this scene first through his eyes, we believe Hank when he says that “she is gone, was never there.” This is a figment of his imagination and, now, of ours. We have no reason to believe anything else.
But then, in the final section, with Rosemary, we move back in time to the same moment that section 6 begins, so that the two sections run on parallel tracks. Now in Rosemary’s POV, we see the events unfold through Rosemary’s eyes. We learn much about Rosemary in this section, too, a heartbreaking telling of how she became the woman she is now. And then she is in Hank’s apartment, as she watches Hank and Josiah come home and head down the hallway:
Then they’re in the bedroom, and she’s at the doorway, watching the way their hands drag across each other’s flesh, searching. Always searching. She wants to tell them it’s no use. You’ll never find what you’re after.
This ending, which allows us to see the events from both points of view, would not have worked if we were not invested in both characters equally. It also works because of the way that White plays with narrative time and upends our expectations. An ending that is surprising and inevitable is one that is so satisfying to a reader, and yet one that is often difficult to construct.
All of the stories in Sweet & Low are equally carefully constructed. This is a wonderful collection to study, to see how White uses his craft to create beautiful and moving short stories.
by Laura Spence-Ash