Fans of Helena author Virginia Reeves have been patiently waiting for her new novel, ever since devouring her 2016 debut “Work Like Any Other,” was longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.
“The Behavior of Love” is a story of a young couple moving from Michigan to Helena in 1971 to start their new lives in the mountains.
Dr. Ed Malinowski is an idealistic, ambitious behavioral psychiatrist and the newly appointed superintendent at the Boulder River School and Hospital. His wife Laura dreams of pursuing a career in art.
But their lives and love soon take unexpected turns.
The much-troubled, chronically underfunded Boulder institution for the developmentally disabled saps hours and hours of Ed’s time and energy, yet he loves the work and his patients.
He is proud of the great strides he’s making in turning the institution around as he begins the process of deinstitutionalizing residents.
But into this picture enters Penelope, a beautiful patient with epilepsy, who has been wrongly placed in the Boulder facility by her parents.
Reliant on Dr. Ed as her psychiatrist and advocate, Penelope begins to become more and more romantically attracted to him.
While Ed dotes on his successful, model patient, he seems oblivious of the dynamics he has set in motion.
None of this, however, escapes the ever-observant eye of Laura.
For most writers, these events and undercurrents would provide plenty of complexity to orchestrate into a gripping novel.
But there’s more here than meets the reader’s eye.
Beneath the surface is really a very different kind of love story, which is Reeves’ deep affection and admiration for her late father-in-law, Mike Muszkiewicz, who initially inspired this novel and the character of Edmund.
Muszkiewicz was a behavioral psychologist at Boulder River School and Hospital in the late 1970s, a few years later than the setting of this book.
Over the 24 book drafts Reeves wrote, there’s very little remaining of Mike’s personality, character and life. He was a dramatically different person than the book’s protagonist, Ed.
However, both Mike and Ed have in common a tragic and life-altering turn of events.
It will lead to an ending, Reeves describes as “an inevitable surprise.”
“Mike was the inspiration,” Reeves says, “but Edmund is not Mike. They share a Polish heritage, but they are very different men.
“All my characters are amalgamations of the real and the fabricated.
“I steal bits and pieces. I am a thief, I will admit. I steal from everyone and everything.” While plot points might be similar, the characters’ inner landscapes are completely imagined.
“Penelope … is completely fabricated,” as is much of Laura, although she was initially inspired by Reeves’ mother-in-law Linda Compton.
Reeves definitely chafed for months at the publishers calling the book a love story.
“Even though I resisted the word love and the idea of love, it is a love story,” she admits, adding that it’s about many different types of love.
However, she sees it more as “a book of changing roles. Everybody is cast in a different role at a different time.
“Just when you think you know who you are, something changes. Sometimes the roles are chosen. Sometimes the choice is made for us.”
“I knew I wanted to write about Boulder River School and Hospital,” she says. “It was a pretty devastating scene … an incredible setting. The institution was a character in and of itself.”
She dove into researching the institution, gleaning facts from the school’s annual reports, its newsletter, “The Boulder Behaviorist,” and newspapers.
“The institution never had the intention of not serving its patients well,” says Reeves, “but they were operating at 25% of the staffing they needed at one point. There was a rash of deaths — that’s historically true. There was a year when nine patients died out at Boulder,” including two drownings and a boy choking on a green bean.
In addition to Boulder River School as a character, there’s also Helena and the surrounding mountains.
Ed and Laura walk down Last Chance Gulch and frequent such familiar Helena haunts — as Big Dorothy’s, and the Gold Bar and shop at Thriftway.
Ed and Laura fall in love with Helena, its hills and nearby creeks.
Here they are borrowing very much from Reeves’ own passion.
She grew up in the Helena area, fell in love with writing here and earned an English writing degree at Carroll College in 2000.
When she was away at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, she passionately missed Helena and Montana.
“There is a sense of belonging here in this setting, in these mountains in the air,” she says. “So, it was really wonderful to write this story and steep myself in Montana.”
Much as she loved the culture and cuisine of Austin, she’s happy she and her family returned to Helena, where she balances her writing with teaching at Helena College.
“I’m very introverted,” she says of her time writing.
“I’m also incredibly extroverted,” which she channels into her teaching.
“I realized teaching really balances me,” she says. “I love my students.”
Early reviews praise the book.
“Readers who enjoy complex depictions of the lingering commitments of relationships will be swept away by Reeves’s crisp, powerful novel,” writes Publishers Weekly.
While Kirkus Review writes that it moves beyond cliché, “to become a sensitive examination of love, responsibility, and compassion.”
Carroll English Professor Loren Graham and Reeves’ mentor, calls her new book “wonderful.”
“I think her particular gift is her insight into characters. She just understands human motivations in a way that not everybody does.
“Sometimes her characters are not altogether savory, but we still sympathize with them. We still care what happens to them.”
They are “imminently believable.”