The Outline of Love is a bildungsroman with a mythic twist. Dramatic and patently allegorical, the novel charts the rousing adventures and missteps of Persephone Triebold, who departs bucolic life in the Highlands for her first year of university in glittering, daunting, mesmeric London. Like her Greek goddess eponym, Persephone is both tempted by and wary of her exotic surroundings, and her story is painted as an epic exploration of amity, passion and self-discovery.
The novel’s mythic conceit, while somewhat heavy-handed, proves a shrewd framework for navigating these themes. Ovid’s version of the legend sees Persephone, a rural-dwelling nature deity, abducted into the alien landscape of Hades. Likewise, McCarthy’s protagonist leaves her remote Scottish homeland and descends into the hazardous underworld of London. Multiple references to classical literature encourage the analogy, and a scholarly metanarrative penned by one of the novel’s own characters precedes each chapter to signpost its development. Indeed, shortly after a flashback detailing one of Persephone’s few formative romantic encounters – a surreal afternoon spent helping an adrift hiker who likens her assistance to that of a fabled damsel – the following passage duly crops up: “Pity Demeter! She knows that the kind of young woman her daughter has become, a maiden with a new face and bare feet and an armful of flowers, is the most irresistible kind of woman for a passing man, or a passing god.”
London makes an intriguing Hades, and McCarthy’s intoxicating illustrations of Persephone’s struggle to reconcile the city’s exoticism with her provincial preconceptions are among the author’s best passages. In her initial impression of London, Persephone ponders its darkness, “which is no longer the soft thick comatose dark of the Assynt, but an electrically charged dark, awake and alive.” The uncharted territory holds “an uneasy excitement at its heart, more felt than seen,” and its promise of anonymity proves irresistible to inconspicuous Persephone: “I am just a wisp in London, an itinerant poltergeist, a curl of smoke, rising in a bar… And yet – there is a freedom in the formlessness. Ghostly I can climb the dirty air to the stars; I can slip upwards, into the place where I want to be.” While the extreme verve of London eventually prompts her to question whether she’s “drowning” in urban toxicity, having so “hastily [immersed] myself,” Persephone clings tightly to her grand designs on city life, particularly the romance she’s certain it holds in store: “His face and body are still vague – his a template only, an outline of love – too indistinct to see properly. If this man is anywhere, he is in London.”
The man in question quickly takes the shape of enigmatic Leo Ford, an indie frontman-cum-literary darling with a notoriously secretive past. McCarthy wastes little time elevating him to godly status: “Finally, I have found my icon; there has never been anyone better than him to covet,” our heroine sighs, and by a series of improbable events, she proficiently manages to parlay her tacit admiration into a romantic relationship. Unfortunately, Leo’s shadowy behaviour and ambiguous brand of affection hinder his capacity for intimacy, and much of the novel’s conflict revolves around Persephone’s powerlessness in the face of fervent desire. “My sympathies are with the humans, battling within the limits set by the inexplicable gods,” Persephone laments. “I can’t help but cast the Ford family as the pantheon, the ones who decide the rules, while I, a human, can only try to guess what they are.” In keeping with McCarthy’s overtness, an acquaintance steps in to sum up Persephone’s veneration of Leo in spite of his faults: “We worship celebrities because they are like the Greek and Roman gods. We want our gods flawed and complex and unfair because life is flawed and complex and unfair.”
The story’s predominant message – a derivative of the Ovidian myth, naturally – is a powerful one. Like her namesake – whose initial refusal to eat the produce of the Underworld, lest it oblige her to stay forever, “is a determined attempt to delay adulthood,” according to the novel’s resident academic – Persephone enters London “childlike,” shedding her “wandering and ignorant” skin only after abandoning her wary self to its temptations. Parochial Persephone, who begins her year naively clinging to the comfort of cliché – “you don’t know a situation is a cliché until it’s over. Up until then you believe it will be different, because there’s always one person it’s different for” – concludes it with startling lucidity: “[Leo] is iconic because he is arranged around one idea, drawn in a simple outline, too simple to fit a real man inside. He is blank because when women look at him all they see is their own idea of him, a thousand different ideas, one for each woman, depending on what she wants him to be: all hopeful, all wrong.” This shift, this metamorphosis into “other,” can be likened to the evolution of the novel as a whole: what begins as a conventional ‘girl on a path to self-discovery’ tale ultimately morphs into something wildly above and beyond this archetype, a veritable “double goddess” like Persephone herself, at once a subtle vehicle for modern quandaries and a resonant reworking of classic themes.