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By the beginning of Don’t You Know I Love You, Angelica Moltisanti has achieved a small amount of freedom, financially and physically, from her abusive father. When a car accident leaves her out of work and unable to afford her new life in D.C., that independence is shattered in an instant. Reluctantly, with a cast on her wrist, she moves back to her parents’ home in suburban Baltimore, to a house and a family that bind her more tightly than the cast does.
That premise gives rise to an admirable first novel, full of fire and electric with emotion, about the realities of domestic abuse. Don’t You Know I Love You includes dramatic scenes of violence, but it’s more interested in the everyday patterns of behavior among survivors, among enablers, and among abusers. Author Laura Bogart alternates perspectives to show readers the breadth of the toxic dynamic, focusing mostly on 21-year-old Angelica but also dipping into the minds of Marie, her mother, who is constantly trying to smooth rough edges and is desperate to treat her family as normal, and of Jack, her ex-mob father, whose pride and love commingle with anger and violence in a poisonous blend. Bogart’s narrative is clear-eyed about every under-discussed aspect of family abuse, especially the way poverty keeps people trapped in the cycle; Angelica is barely making enough to scrape by in a service job before her hours get cut, and through the book, potential settlement money from the accident is both a beacon of hope and a tool that her father uses to control her, as he stalls and constantly claims he’s trying to negotiate it higher for her own good.
As a result, the beating heart of the novel is its depiction of the inner world of an abuse survivor. Angelica hates her father; she also loves him in her own way, or at least the idea of who he could be. She finds herself instinctively bending to his will, reacting in the ways she’s learned will keep her safe—flinching when she hears loud noises far from her father’s house, or choosing “dumb instinct over rational fact” the second her parents call. But the book is clear, too, about how those self-preservation instincts fail her outside of her abusive family dynamic. And Bogart isn’t afraid to allow Angelica space in the narrative to be unlikable, petulant, and especially angry. The same rage her father used on her is present in her interactions with others, including her girlfriend, Janet. The effect of the close-up on her rough edges is that Angelica is fully realized, not just a cipher of a noble survivor. She’s immature as much as she is brave, and angry as much as she is hurt. Likewise, another triumph is the realism of the other characters. Angelica’s parents are not stock villains, but the narration from their perspectives doesn’t, and isn’t meant to, absolve them. Jack is not a man who hates his daughter, yet he still hurts her unforgivably. Marie wants to protect her child but is unable or unwilling to muster the fortitude to leave Jack.
But despite the fact that Bogart grew up in Baltimore and went to graduate school in D.C., the novel’s sense of place can fall flat. For every specificity, like Angelica’s car crash coming down 16th Street NW or a drive up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, there’s a reference that’s slightly off, like Angelica musing about “the Black Cat Club” or a motel located “just far enough away from anything ever filmed on The Wire” instead of placed in an actual neighborhood. There are some nostalgic quirks: In Angelica’s world, Baltimore City Paper still exists (and has a robust Style section that takes interns). The prose has some other faults, too—namely that instead of letting action and dialogue convey characters’ emotions, Bogart constantly relies on describing feelings as legible on people’s faces: “her eyes must’ve emanated the heat that flushed her neck and face,” “her face forming a quick rictus of surprise and dismay,” “coltish vulnerability played quickly across her face before she cleared it with a cough.”
Don’t You Know I Love You has a few overlapping love stories—Jack and Marie, Angelica and Janet, even Angelica and the dog she saves, Valentina—but at its heart is the story of a young woman healing and learning to love herself as best she can, and especially learning that anger is not the only source of power and strength. Bogart’s ambitious debut has some weak spots, but successfully knits itself together, not unlike Angelica’s wrist and heart.
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