Tomcat in Love is a great book because Tim O’Brien is a great author. He can pull off just about anything, and here he’s pulling off a romantic comedy. I say, “pulling off,” because creating a legitimately funny romance is hard to do, we haven’t made much progress since Shakespeare. The pursuer is Thomas H. Chippering, an Abe Lincoln look-a-like who has convinced himself that he is God’s gift to women. His ex-wife, Lorna Sue, is the pursued. To Thomas, she is female perfection, and he has to win her back while enacting revenge on the man who stole her away, “the tycoon.” He is assisted by Mrs. Robert Kooshof (her husband is in prison), who finds him crying in her backyard one afternoon, and decides to take him in.
What makes this novel great is O’Brien’s style. He creates a novel that theoretically could happen, there are no fantastical creatures or alien overlords, but it’s a story that would never happen. O’Brien’s novels are hyperrealistic, everything seems real until you look a little closer and you realize the details are exaggerated and what’s there is just representative of something real. O’Brien could write the same story about love and passion as an ordinary drama, but what makes Tomcat in Love so enjoyable to read is that it’s so darn strange. When characters are punished, it’s an event. When revenge is carried out, it’s war. When a character falls in love they’re in it for good.
Chippering is the first person narrator of the story, and through him we perceive everything that is wrong with a man in love. He idealizes his mate, gives himself too much credit, and spends too much time focusing on what he lost. We slowly learn that Lorna Sue, who is at first held up as womanly perfection, is just as imperfect as Thomas. By creating these exaggerated characters, O’Brien is able to get at some truths about romance. We too often look at our mates and ourselves through a veil of perfection. Love can’t actually exist until we understand that by our very nature, humans are not perfect. Mrs. Robert Kooshof’s undying belief in Thomas Chippering represents that perfect love that comes when the veil is pulled back and we still love whatever we find.
The only reason I’m notching this book down from five stars is because of O’Brien’s insistence on using an army soldier/vet as one of his characters. This is my sixth O’Brien novel, and he has yet to divert from this pattern. His knack for creating a fascinating war story is what drew me to his writing in the first place. I understand that as a former vet himself, O’Brien is tempted to write what he knows. However, part of me thinks that he knows about things other than war, and while it may be safe to create a character he can relate to, Thomas Chippering didn’t need to be a war veteran to make the story work, and in doing so I’m forced to think that O’Brien is limiting his talent. For someone as talented as O’Brien, he doesn’t need to play it safe.