Louis & Louise is a satisfying exploration of gender and identity

by Brigid Feehan / 19 April, 2019

Author Julie Cohen. Photo/Supplied

In her latest novel, Julie Cohen traces the parallel male and female lives of a single character.

Louis & Louise is a good pick if you like the sort of premise of movie Sliding Doors – a bit of structural trickiness to keep you on your toes. At the start, author Julie Cohen asks readers: what would happen if I changed one thing about the protagonist – their gender? What happens is an enjoyable yarn.

In alternating chapters, Cohen gives us two versions of the same story. In one, Louis is an only child born in 1978 to Peggy and Irving in Casablanca, a thriving Maine mill town. In the other, Louise is an only child born in 1978 to the same couple.

Louis and Louise are bespectacled redheads who want to be writers. They have the same best friends: twins Allie (academic, ambitious) and Benny (sporty, quick-tempered). Something terrible happens on the night of their high-school graduation and Louise/Louis flee town. They both become teachers in New York. Louis publishes a book, whereas Louise, now a single mother, fills notebooks and hides them under her bed. Thirteen years later, they return to a rundown Casablanca because their mother is dying. It’s also time for them to deal with the past.

The book isn’t quite an unpacking of meaty questions about whether gender is destiny. Anything here about the different experiences of the genders could have been dealt with by making Louis and Louise siblings. Having two versions is a fun device, though, and works because Cohen is skilful at the changeovers. The characters and the small-town setting are believable and interesting, so you get a “two for one” satisfaction in reading both versions.

Louise’s relationships with her mother and daughter are realistically challenging. Louise/Louis’s father, Irving, is endearing. I can imagine him being played by Jimmy Stewart; a little awkward, but a good, decent man. Louis/Louise’s friendships with the troubled Benny and the super-bright but achingly dutiful Allie also feel true. As Louis/Louise realises, when parents die, the value of your old friends becomes apparent, as they are the only people left who have always known you.

It’s the plot that keeps you turning the pages, though. The fateful events of graduation night are revealed slowly, with plenty of red herrings. And after the big reveal, the surprises keep coming. Suffice it to say that Peggy’s inevitable death is only one of this book’s genuinely moving moments.

Louis & Louise, by Julie Cohen (Hachette, $34.99)

This article was first published in the March 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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