Review: Alone: A Love Story by Michelle Parise

A few weeks ago I discovered the CBC podcast Alone: A Love Story. I know that I’m late to the party. The podcast wrapped up after three seasons earlier this year, but ever since I discovered it I’ve binged listened to every episode of this brilliant, incisive, heartbreaking, awe-inspiring podcast. Quite frankly the work of Michelle Parise and her story editors and co-producers Veronica Simmonds and Marc Apollonio has been just one of the very best parts of my days in recent weeks. Over three seasons Parise recounts how she met her husband and their marriage, the birth of their daughter, and then, the bomb. After that, Parise rebuilds her life, begins dating again, reconsiders her life all the while putting her daughter first and trying to keep it all together. Throughout the three seasons there were moments where Parise was able to capture such vivid moments of joy, of pain, of longing.

It’s the longing I think that has stayed with me the most. Or maybe that says more about me than her and the series. But it’s those scenes where she’s conveying the overwhelming joy that her daughter brings her even while every other aspect of her life feels in free fall, the walls closing in on her. Those moments of being good at her job, of knowing her daughter is spending time with her father, the ex, and unable to stay alone in her apartment. Of the sheer bliss that comes from those long fun nights of dancing with her friends and then going home with a younger boy, and then pivoting to being a mom with a very different purse. And doing that knowing about what she’s missing out on, what she wants her life to be, what she used to have.

Or that scene in the second season – episode 14, maybe? – where she spend more than a minute listing off all the things she wants from a partner like looking up from her book to see him looking at her, singing in the car, all these small mundane moments. These ordinary things that have brought her such joy in the past, moments that she hopes to find again. That she knows are possible.

It’s the way that she’s able to move between joy and sadness, having built a life that may not have been perfect but meant so much, only to have someone destroy it and having to rebuild. Admittedly I kept thinking of myself at those ages, or where I might be at those ages. Of what was and what might be and what it meant.

I also heard Parise’s surgically incisive takedown of Peter Pans, 30 and 40 something men, and it was hard not to see myself in some of her critique. It was also hard not to argue that she’s right.

I’m not just heaping praise on her because she knows what the best Springsteen album is and thinks it’s obvious. (Seriously, anyone who claims it’s not Darkness is suspect)

Partway through listening to the series I realized that it’s just Parise in front of a microphone talking. Yes, there’s music and sound effects added and woven in, but it’s such a beautiful and simple effect. Not all simplistic, because how hard is it to find one person with a voice (and a voice) who could carry this many hours of radio. But it is something that when listening for it, makes it all the more impressive.

One reason it jumped out at me is because I’m working on a radio piece that’s the same format and I tried for the next day or two to pay more attention and note the ways Alone used music and sound cues for storytelling effect, many of which are so subtle and beautifully done. But for the most part I got lost in the story and I’ll have to listen to it again to catch all those technical elements.

Because I did get lost in the story. Again and again I kept coming back to Parise and pulled through the narrative’s twists and turns, and the ways that she managed to ground the story in so many mundane ways. Over the course of years, not a lot happens. They get married and have a baby, he cheats and the marriage ends, she dates while balancing everything, there are a few vacations, some serious relationships, but very little happens, and it’s so compelling. Maybe because Parise finds that right balance of deep analysis of her own thinking and a casual tone of what happened in her day.

What is it about the narrative that grabbed me? I’m still not entirely sure. Listening to her voice through headphones day after day no doubt was a big part of it. But I don’t tend to read a memoir, even if it’s someone roughly may age or who has had similar experiences, and think, the next time I’m in Toronto, I need to get coffee with the person to see how things are going. I don’t think I’ve ever thought that. But that is what I caught myself thinking the other day, a couple days after listening to the final episode. This combination of missing her voice and her presence in my life. The way there are people I know, who I’m not especially close to or have their numbers, but we’ve spent time together, we know each other, and I care about how they’re doing.

Since the final season dropped, Parise announced that she will have a book published which will cover these events of the bomb and the aftermath. Which I will read, of course. How could I not? I’m curious as well since storytelling on radio functions differently than it does on the page. There was also news that CBC is developing the show into a possible TV show. Which I think could be a great idea. But we’ll see.

“I don’t have a happily ever ending for you. Sorry,” Parise says near the end of the final episode. Maybe it’s my own aloneness speaking, but I didn’t expect that or what that out of the narrative. Though I understand of course that some people would like such a narrative wrapping up. There’s a reason why it’s such a common storytelling device. But this isn’t really a story about relationships, or about love or marriage. I man some of it is in the title – Alone – but this is a story about Michelle Parise. It’s a story about life. It’s a story about hope.

“There’s only the truth about life, which is that it keeps on going. And most days in very boring, regular ways.”

Yes, it does. Which is both a philosophical statement, a pessimistic statement, and a truism. And it is hard fought knowledge to understand that within the context of our lives. Here’s to Michelle Parise and Alone: A Love Story. Here’s to being alone, but not lonely. Not when her voice echoes in our ears. Not when we’re here to remind her that she’s not alone. Not as we walk down the street, both the streets she knows intimately and those she’s never walked, through her city and our cities, listening to her words echo from one corner of the globe to another, filtered through hearts that are bursting with love and broken in pieces and somewhere in between, alone, tethered together by the hope that leads us to the next day.