I’m a sucker for good ekphrastic writing (writing that describes works of art), so Maine-based writer and University of Maine at Farmington professor Amy Neswald’s debut book, “I Know You Love Me, Too,” hooked me from the first page. A novel in stories or a linked story collection (depending on your definitions), the debut explores the intersecting lives of two half-sisters, Ingrid and Kate, over the course of several decades.

We’re introduced to Ingrid first, in the opening story, “Things I Never Told You,” which begins with a description of one of her paintings, the first that she sold: “a young girl sits cross-legged on a lawn. In her lap, a crow arches its neck, one wing spread, the other tucked, paralyzed, at its side.” The description goes on to evoke the odd juxtaposition in the ways the girl and bird are painted: she looks flat, like a cut-out doll, while the crow is textured and vibrant. This is indicative of Ingrid’s point of view throughout the book. She sees the world around her with the eye of an artist, certainly, but believes that she is somehow unlovable, maybe incapable of love herself.

Kate is in the peripheries of this story, an afterthought. Ingrid goes to lunch with Kate sometimes; Kate helps Ingrid try on dresses for the gallery opening; Kate’s favorite painting is Thrust, which depicts eight-year-old Ingrid looking terrified and disgusted while baby Kate sits on her lap. It seems like Kate is a nuisance that Ingrid must tolerate, at least at first.

The sisters’ psychologies are slowly spooled out over the stories, which aren’t chronological. Some of the stories focus on Ingrid, some on Kate, and some explore other characters entirely who only briefly come into contact with one or both of the sisters.

We learn early on that both sisters have been deeply impacted by their father, who left Ingrid’s mother for Kate’s around the time of Kate’s birth, and by his subsequent death when Kate was 12 and Ingrid was 20. So much is unresolved, so many questions that the sisters don’t dare ask themselves: How did their father’s affair with Kate’s mom start? How did he learn she was pregnant? When did he decide he was going to choose Kate’s mom over Ingrid’s mom? Why did he have to die at age 47, before they got to ask him any of these questions? While these questions are never in the text itself, they echo in the sisters’ distinct but related fears — Ingrid’s that she can’t love, Kate’s that Ingrid doesn’t love her. “Love is like that,” the art collector who buys Ingrid’s crow painting tells her, “it’s hard to get the measurements right.”

Indeed, Kate’s love for Ingrid always feels like that of a small child wishing for her older sister’s approval, even when the two women are adults. When Kate is pregnant, in the story “The Darling Dempsini Sisters,” she and her husband visit his mother in Ohio. Terrified that he’s going to ask her to move there, Kate wonders, “What would Ingrid do? She’d run. Ingrid would run.” The ambivalence of impending motherhood, the fear of leaving New York City for the Midwest, and an uncertainty about living a conventional life – husband, child, white picket fence – weigh heavily on Kate. But instead of telling us so, Neswald shows this by Kate’s recurring thoughts about her sister: “Impatient, enigmatic, never-waits-for-anyone Ingrid doesn’t want the things other people want. But Kate wants to be like her.”

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Ingrid, who often feels suffocated by her little sister, the product of her father’s infidelity, also has a deeply flawed understanding of Kate. In “Sweet Jesus,” Ingrid thinks, “Kate was born under a bright star, as beautiful as she is smart. She married well and moved through life with grace that inspired both awe and envy.” Again and again, Ingrid believes that Kate is just fine, whereas Kate is often unsatisfied with herself, her life’s trajectory, and especially her relationship with Ingrid.

Neswald rounds out the collection with a story about a widowed woman living in Ingrid’s building as well as three stories about different men: one in the process of getting divorced, another a minister recalling a former lover and an old friend, the third a 70-year-old who isn’t sure whether he loves his much younger wife and their young son. These stories include the sisters but aren’t directly about them, and they work not only because they give us a glimpse at other people’s perceptions of Ingrid and Kate, but also because they’re about men grappling with a failure to love and be loved. In other words, each man serves as a kind of proxy for the sisters’ own enigmatic, mysterious and forever-out-of-reach father.

In addition to the deceptively simple and beautiful language, it’s the varied competing viewpoints that make “I Know You Love Me, Too” especially gripping, as it becomes ever more evident that Ingrid and Kate, while different, ultimately live with the same wound: A dead father whom they never knew as well as they wished they could and whose memory is fading.

Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic, PhD candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and author of the novel “All My Mother’s Lovers.”


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