Can people really change? To hear Ed Malinowski, a behaviorist in the mold of John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, tell it, the answer must be yes. Ed is one of the central characters in Virginia Reeves’ beguiling sophomore novel, The Behavior of Love. “People are malleable,” he says, “as are their behaviors, and behavior is really the only thing of interest and import.” (98)
For the charming and innovative superintendent of Montana’s Boulder River School and Hospital, behavioral change is the key to the 1970s movement to deinstitutionalize the developmentally disabled patients who have been languishing in places like Boulder. “When behaviors meet societal norms, people need to reenter society,” Malinowski’s script says. (98)
But despite his groundbreaking work, Ed’s own behaviors remain stubbornly resistant to change. His young wife, Laura, unhappily relocated with Ed from Michigan, sees through his romanticism. He’s a marvel at “helping broken people and broken places—broken things that do not include him.” (73) But he has trouble seeing her and her need to be acknowledged.
Ed invites Laura to teach a painting class at the institution and she does, flourishing as she opens the lives of patients who also need to be known. Meanwhile Ed drinks himself to a “dull enough stupor” each night before driving home, occasionally visits a prostitute, and grows dangerously close to Penelope, a 16-year-old patient with epilepsy who has a preternatural gift for poetry.
“If Ed has taught me anything about human behavior, it’s that we repeat what we have previously done,” Laura notes in one of her self-narrated chapters. “‘And if someone changes their behavior,’ he told me once, ‘it’s because they’ve been forced to. Something has happened to make them alter their habits, and whatever it is, it’s big. Great loss, usually, or the threat of great loss.’” (73)
Great loss does come for Ed. Penelope leaves—something he arranges after she acts on his barely disguised desire for her. His marriage falters despite the birth of a son, Benjy. Laura leaves.
“I can change,” Ed promises on the night she leaves. “I’m a behaviorist. If I can change other people, I can change myself.” (145) But they both know it’s a hollow claim. Laura files for divorce. She gets Benjy. He gets the dog. Ed declines, regains some footing and professional success, then is stopped cold again by tragedy.
Ed and Laura’s relationship doesn’t end, however, despite Laura’s moving on to a new marriage. Their own behaviors are too engrained and, however pale a thing their love is, it is nothing if not persistent. Something endures despite the brokenness. “Listen, little one,” Laura tells her second child at birth, reflecting on her own sense of loss, “you have more people to love you, and that is a wonderful thing, but nothing in your life will ever be whole. Understand me: You will live a life of pieces.” (186)
Virginia Reeves is a rare writer who can combine such stories of realistic human relationships with larger narratives of institutions. Her first novel, Work Like Any Other, which made the Man Booker Prize long list, was a masterful story of a troubled marriage in 1920s Alabama set against a larger story of Alabama prisons and rural electrification. Here she has moved to her home state of Montana, but her characters are still rich and complex. They are resilient and they find humanity even in the disappointing and damaging institutions that loom over them.
Reeves also has a remarkable ability to capture the inner lives of men. When I asked her about this in a Heartlands interview two years ago she said, “I’m part adolescent boy and 80-year-old man mixed into a 38-year-old woman.” She has done it again with Ed Malinowski, who, despite his roguish ways, comes across as a sympathetic dreamer, nurtured along by his fantasy versions of Penelope and Laura, even as the real versions of these women recognize and attend to his frailties.
The Behavior of Love begins with a quote from Robert Frost:
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
In the light of our highest visions of what could be, we are all diminished things. Reeves helps us imagine what to do when faced with that stark realization. She does not demand that we relinquish the dream. How could we? Some things about us never change. But she does celebrate the behaviors that allow us to go on. And to see the diminished things of this world as a broken form of Love.