Book Review: “More Than You’ll Ever Know,” by Katie Gutierrez

MORE THAN YOU’LL EVER KNOW, by Katie Gutierrez

“Perhaps multiple relationships can illuminate different parts of the self, like a prism turned first this way, then that, toward the light,” writes Katie Gutierrez in her ambitious debut novel. “More Than You’ll Ever Know” encompasses more than 30 years and delves into a love affair that destroyed a woman’s life and helped her to reclaim the sense of self she lost to the “cruel banality of motherhood.” Was it worth it?

In 2017, the aspiring true-crime journalist Cassie Bowman stumbles across the tragic story of Lore Rivera, a woman who secretly married Andres Russo in Mexico City in the 1980s, despite already being a married woman with twin boys back home in Laredo, Texas. Previous news stories have focused on the salacious murder of one husband by the other, but Cassie sees an opportunity to explore what might prompt an ordinary woman to lead a double life. Much to the chagrin of her true-crime-averse fiancé, Duke, she seizes the chance to dive into the story.

Though she’s an unlikely candidate with few credentials, Cassie persuades Lore to grant her a series of interviews that serve as a springboard for a book about Lore’s life. There’s only one catch: Cassie must steer clear of discussing the murder of Lore’s husband. But the phone interviews don’t go according to plan. Instead of keeping the spotlight on her own story, Lore fishes for long-buried information about Cassie’s younger brother and abusive father.

The clear question at the center of Gutierrez’s novel is this: What would possess a woman to betray her seemingly happy family with an arrangement that is so clearly doomed from the start? What was she thinking and what was the grand plan? The explanation begins somewhere in frog-boiling territory — “How could one dance lead to this?” Lore asks at one point when the water is already quite hot — and winds its way into suicide mission. Because, of course, how could the juggling of two families end anywhere but in collision?

In addition to tackling this question, Gutierrez’s story encompasses a global recession, the devaluation of the peso, a devastating earthquake in Mexico City and the 1986 World Cup. By slipping back and forth across borders, alternating between Spanish and English and different points of view, Gutierrez creates the impression of lines easily crossed. The extent to which readers understand Lore’s decision to commit to two men and two families will act as a sort of personality test: How open-minded, how forgiving, how morally pliable are you? I can hear the book club discussions now.

Cassie has her own dark past and carries the weight of decisions that might make others, including her fiancé, think, “I would never. … ” However, Duke does little to try to understand the inner machinations of the woman he loves. At best, he’s dismissive of Cassie’s fascination with true crime, so he thinks little of her ambitions within the genre.

While Gutierrez’s attempt to draw a parallel between Cassie and Duke’s relationship and that of Lore and her first husband, Fabian, feels tenuous, each woman’s desire to be known and understood is undeniably powerful.

And, really, isn’t that one of fiction’s most critical functions — not to make us agree, but to strengthen our empathy muscles? Lore knows how easy it is to hear about her betrayal of two men and conclude she’s heartless, but stories are so much more complicated than that. As Cassie gets to know Lore, she becomes open to a new perspective on the villain of her own past — her father. Some readers may find it uncomfortable to extend compassion to a domestic abuser and, ultimately, to the person who murdered Lore’s husband, but perhaps that’s another tract of fertile ground for this novel’s discussion. Where, exactly, is the line between the forgivable and the unforgivable?

Chandler Baker’s latest novel is “The Husbands.”

MORE THAN YOU’LL EVER KNOW, by Katie Gutierrez | 448 pp. | William Morrow | $28.99

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