“First Comes Love” by Sean Bernard is a story that completely surprised me with its careful mixture of aching questions and fresh humor. It follows the married life of Kevin and Kate, who have just found out that they are unable to have children. Kevin spontaneously surprises Kate with a kitten right before they take off to Philly to visit his stepbrother and his stepbrother’s wife and daughter.
The hope for the trip seems to be that the change of scenery and the time with family will help distract the couple from the reality that their year of intense and exhausting efforts to conceive with medical assistance have failed. In many wonderfully quirky scenes we see Kevin and Kate attempting to be, and being, happy together. They receive well intended advice from Kevin’s family and through different new experiences smartly reveal to readers their unique personalities and chemistry.
One of the most interesting activities they do is tour a coal mine. When the lights go out underground, the divide between Kevin and Kate is suddenly thrown into stark light. Under the earth in total black they think they can hear all of existence. Kevin’s reaction to this is to wonder what it means to be. In that moment, he is both grateful and comfortable and finds that comfort holding the hand of his stepbrother’s daughter. Kate instead spends the time thinking there is too much life in the world and how she doesn’t really care about children. In the dark, she feels totally alone. This way that Bernard has chosen to reveal the characters’ sharp contrast to each other feels both real and raw and is altogether moving.
This is ultimately a story of emotional pain and healing. The sudden tensions over things like tick bites and Lyme disease all serve to help Kevin and Kate better understand themselves and their life together. The story reaches painful depths at times, like when Kevin comes to the conclusion that worry is a strange thing that easily vanishes, “Sort of, he thought, like hope.” But it is the balance and the range of the emotions reached that is really so compelling.
In the end, Kevin tells Kate his idea for a novel that never ends, that when its characters die it just switches to someone else and goes on and on. Through these kinds of moments in the story, Kevin’s view of life and his answers for what it means to live and be a family are shown beautifully. Readers are invited as well to ponder their own answers.
Somehow Bernard has found a way to pose huge questions of life and love through his characters without making them feel overt and heavy. I think this is achieved in no small part by the truly engaging narrative voice at work throughout this story. It is altogether a delightful mix of humor and heartbreak. It is a story about nature and hardship and loss, but it is also a story about making the best and about persevering in love through adversity. It is a story of failure, yes, but through failure, hope. These poignant and powerful ideas truly leave an enjoyable and lasting impression on readers long after the story is over.
“First Comes Love” can be found in Issue 104 of The Greensboro Review.
Cortney Esco is a second-year MFA candidate in fiction at UNC Greensboro and Managing Editor for The Greensboro Review.