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The Behavior of Love

A Novel

About The Book

An incredibly compulsive, poignant exploration of marriage, lust, and ambition from one of America's great young literary talents, the Man-Booker Prize longlisted author of Work Like Any Other.

Doctor Ed Malinowski believes he has realized most of his dreams. A passionate, ambitious behavioral psychiatrist, he is now the superintendent of a mental institution and finally turning the previously crumbling hospital around. He also has a home he can be proud of, and a fiercely independent, artistic wife Laura, whom he hopes will soon be pregnant.

But into this perfect vision of his life comes Penelope, a beautiful, young epileptic who should never have been placed in his institution and whose only chance at getting out is Ed. She is intelligent, charming, and slowly falling in love with her charismatic, compassionate doctor. As their relationship grows more complicated, and Laura stubbornly starts working at his hospital, Ed must weigh his professional responsibilities against his personal ones, and find a way to save both his job and his family.

A love triangle set in one of the most chaotic, combustible settings imaginable, The Behavior of Love is wise, riveting, and deeply resonant.


The Behavior of Love Chapter 1
Ed’s work keeps him late. Yesterday’s pile of incomplete tasks awaits him in his office, and today’s begins the moment he steps from his car. He never knows what the first thing will be, but it always meets him here in the dirt parking lot. Yesterday, it was Margaret wandering toward the Boulder River, whose waters have already drowned one patient. The day before, it was a six-year-old named Devin eating gravel. Today, it’s a young man bursting out the front doors of Griffin Hall, a white plastic chair over his head, a denim-clad orderly close behind. The orderly’s rubber club is raised. The boy drops to the ground and curls himself into a ball. The chair topples down the stairs and scatters a group of patients.

Orderlies are to use the clubs only if they feel physically endangered. Ed made this clear the day he became superintendent of the Boulder River School and Hospital. He’s been there every day for over a year now, and the clubs are still there every day, too.

The orderly is dragging the boy to his feet, pulling him back toward the doors. Ed doesn’t recognize either of them. He’s been doing his best to learn everyone’s names, but there are 750 patients in his care, and the staff turns over constantly.

Ed lights a cigarette and walks over. “I’ll take the patient from here,” he says.

The boy’s face is averted, chin cast down toward his left shoulder, teeth mouthing tongue. He holds his hands in fists at his chest. Ed can see grime on the boy’s neck, the stuff of weeks.

“All yours, Doc.” The orderly drops the boy’s arm. “If he runs again, you’re chasing him.”

The boy makes no move to run.

Ed should reprimand the orderly. He should get his name, at least, so he can write him up. But there are five cases in front of this one, all of them more severe, and the hospital is operating with only twenty-five percent of its needed staff. Plus, what with the regular turnover, Ed may never see this orderly again.

“The average tenure is seven weeks,” Sheila told him his first day. She’s one of the few long-term employees, a nurse who loves her patients. Single and dowdy and invested, Sheila doesn’t seem to mind the poor pay or long hours or isolated location. She lives in a small apartment in Boulder’s only brick apartment building, just up the road, wears bright red lipstick, styles her short hair into a feathered halo around her head. “What do I need extra money for?” she said. “It’s just me and the cat.”

Ed wants a hundred more Sheilas.

“Seven weeks?” he’d asked.

“Long enough to get ’em halfway trained.”

Ed looks at the boy in front of him. He knows not to touch him; touch is associated with violence now, with punishment. Running and its accompanying freedom and joy are associated with that, too. This is what behaviorism is—equations. The boy is simple; his equations are simple. Running = beating.

“What’s your name, son?”

The boy flinches but lifts his head. “George,” he says, a two-syllable word in his deep voice. “Jor-Ja.”

“It’s nice to meet you, George. I’m Edmund. I like to shake people’s hands when I meet them. You want to shake hands?”

George looks at Ed’s extended hand, then back at his face. Down and up a couple times before shaking his head.

“That’s fine. We’ll try again later, all right?”

George unclenches one of his fists in a wave, open-closed, and Ed lets himself smile at the small success. None of his friends from med school understood why he wanted to work with the developmentally disabled as opposed to the mentally ill. “You’ve got no chance of fixing them, Malinowski,” a pal once said. “No cure for those issues.” But Ed has always been more taken with an example of progress like George’s than with a decrease in psychoses. Maybe it’s the innocence of mental disability, or the misunderstanding, but Ed would take this hospital over the mental institution at Warm Springs any day.

“You play outside, now,” Ed says to George and leaves the boy on the steps.

Inside the building, the day disappears—the sun, the sky, mountains, trees, muddy play yard/parking lot. The confines of the building are the only reality, the edges and walls. All institutions share this in some way—a miniaturization of space, a shuttering of time—but Boulder’s compact isolation feels stronger than that of any institution Ed has previously worked in. Chairs line the hallway, and he fights the urge to hold one over his own head and flee.

Through the windowed doors of the dining room, Ed sees patients at different stages of eating, in terms of both progress and ability. Some are nearly finished, the meal a mess covering their faces and hair, clothes and hands. Some are just starting, their focus intent on the spoon or fork, its slow, shaky rise to the mouth. Table etiquette is part of their therapy—table etiquette and toilet training and self-dressing and shoe tying.

The din of the room makes its way to Ed—restless as the ocean, swelling and receding. A man in his twenties drops a green bean into the pocket of his shirt. Why are they serving green beans for breakfast? A woman feeds toast to a man twice her age. A boy scoops porridge into the curled claw of his fingers and rubs it across the bald head of the man next to him. Ed sees only one aide for the whole room but nothing that needs his immediate attention.

The year before Ed came, the staff went on strike. The National Guard was called in to man the hospital until the state raised pay a token amount and agreed to extra compensation for overtime. It was enough to stop the strike but not the deterioration.

“Whatever you need to get us out of this mess,” the director of institutions told Ed when he took the job. “Name it, and it’s yours.”

He should’ve known the word money wasn’t one they wanted him to name.

He makes his way down the east hallway toward his office. He isn’t one to believe in ghosts, but he always feels something both more and less than human as he walks these corridors, his shoes just another click and tap along the linoleum, mixing with the squeak of sneakers and clogs, the scuff of chairs pushed and repositioned. The hall is full of hapless patients, their voices mostly guttural, wide wordless sounds that nevertheless have a current tripping along underneath, a tendon of intellect.

“What’re you hearing today, Dr. Ed?” Penelope asks. She sits in a chair, a journal in her lap. She is his favorite patient, one of the few bright spots in the entire hospital.

She was sitting in the same spot a year ago when he was interviewing for the position, and she caught him listening to the institution’s sounds then, too. “You hear that?” she said. “It’s like a song when you listen right.” Ed had been taken by her voice first, its lucidity, and then the straightforward beauty of her face, her composed smile, her tall neck. “I try to write lyrics to it sometimes.” She held out her hand and introduced herself.

“What brought you here?” he asked.

“Take the job and you’ll find out.”

He shouldn’t have taken it. He works endless days and effects no change, not even for Penelope.

He sits down in the chair next to her. “I’m tired, Pen.”

“?‘If thus to sleep is sweeter than to wake, / To die were surely sweeter than to live.’?”

“Just because I’m tired doesn’t mean I want to die. That’s the problem with all your poems. They lack logic.”

“It’s perfectly logical. Sleep is a lack of consciousness, and if that temporary lack of consciousness is sweet, then death—the permanent lack of consciousness—must be even sweeter. It’s not the logic you have a problem with. It’s the fact that you don’t follow it.”

“Quit showing off.” He would like to stay next to her all day, listening to the hallway’s sounds, but there’s work waiting in his office. “See you this afternoon,” he says.

Individual therapy isn’t part of his job, but Ed makes an exception for Penelope. “It’ll keep me from becoming all admin,” he’d told his buddy Pete when he first started. “Keep me on the side of my staff.”

Pete is one of the resident psychiatrists, and they’d been drinking at the Tavern, Boulder’s one bar.

“Tell yourself what you want,” Pete had said, raising his glass. “We survive this place however we can.”

— —

In his office, Ed turns to the pile of paperwork on his desk: misconduct reports to write, phone calls to return, patients to follow up with in regard to the misconduct. He wants to work on the proposal more than any of it. The proposal is why he was hired. “Fix this place,” the director said. “Hell, deinstitutionalize it if you have to. Just get us out of the hot seat.”

Ed was on the deinstitutionalization team at Howell, and it was that work—much more than the psychiatric treatment of the residents—that made him pursue this position in the first place. He oversaw innumerable transfers to group homes and assisted living facilities, even a few independent apartments for higher-functioning individuals. For the vast majority of his patients, the institutional model has become irrelevant. Penelope is an obvious example, but many of her peers are as well—Chip and Dorothy, Frank and Gillie. Really, only the severely handicapped necessitate institutionalization—the nonambulatory and comatose. The rest should be part of their communities, as regular as senior citizens and children.

Of course, the proposal is the thing Ed has to prioritize last. He’s been tasked with fixing the place at the procedural level, but the institution is such a damn mess on the ground that he can’t step away long enough to rewrite the policy governing it.

He reaches into the pocket of his coat and rubs an arrowhead he found earlier in the week along the bank of the river. He’s trying to get it smooth before he gives it to his wife, but the motion is about more than polishing now. He’s grown accustomed to it—something to occupy the worry in his fingers.

Ed works through the morning and early afternoon, takes a late lunch in the cafeteria, where he polices more than he eats, then returns to his office to work through dusk. At six, Pete knocks on his door and drags him to the Tavern, where they drink themselves into a dull enough stupor to allow them both to climb into their cars and return to their wives in Helena, forty minutes away. Working in an institution requires distance, six cigarettes, several beers, and a decompression chamber called a car. Also, a drive that lasts long enough for thoughts to rise that haven’t yet risen, for drowned thoughts to rise again, and for events to write themselves over. Like police officers and firemen and soldiers, state psychiatrists teach themselves to separate experiences—home versus hospital. The in-between times are for parsing.

Ed sips a beer from the six-pack he took to go. He cracks the window to ash his cigarette, and the lingering cold from the mountains chills his hand. Other than Pete’s taillights up ahead, there are no cars on the road. Everything is quiet and grand. He reminds himself that—even with the trials of his work—he is in love with this place. When he came for the interview, he marveled at the mountains that rose up around him, the valleys sweeping out golden tan, the sky so big and blue he couldn’t describe it. “Like Lake Michigan,” he told Laura when he returned, “but greater, deeper.”

“We can’t move somewhere just for the sky.”

“I married you for your eyes.”

“No, you didn’t.”

— —

The kitchen is dark, and there are no leftovers to reheat. The counters are clean, the stove cold. Ed walks to the patch of light pouring from their bedroom and finds Laura in bed reading. He sits at her feet and loosens his tie.

“Did you have dinner?” he asks.

“I’m not hungry.” She speaks without looking up.

“You have to eat.” Ed rubs her leg through the covers, then pulls the arrowhead out of his coat. “I have something for you.”

She sets her book down and cradles the rock in her right hand, inspecting its gray-green symmetry. She turns it and flips it, grasping the base in her fist, pressing her thumb into its point. “How hard do you think I’d need to push to draw blood?”

“Jesus, Laura.”

She smiles and moves her thumb away. “It’s lovely, Ed.” She sets the stone and book on her nightstand, then slides down and turns out the light. In the dark of their room, she murmurs, “What are you going to do when you run out of pretty stones, Dr. Malinowski?”

He wants to tell her there is no end to the stones he can find. He has moved them to the Rocky Mountains, cliffs and peaks and riverbeds of stone. He’ll gather every rock in Montana and lay each one at her feet in offering. His work is hard and encompassing now, but it will get easier. The stones are promises for a future he knows they’ll have—big family dinners, the two of them surrounded by hordes of children. He wants to tell her the stones will last until then, and by then they won’t need them.

But Laura’s eyes are closed, and her back is turned, so Ed goes to the kitchen for another beer.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Behavior of Love includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Dr. Ed Malinowski believes he has realized most of his dreams. A passionate, ambitious behavioral psychologist, he is now the superintendent of a mental institution and finally turning the previously crumbling hospital around. He also has a home he can be proud of and a fiercely independent, artistic wife, Laura, whom he hopes will soon be pregnant.

But into this perfect vision of his life comes Penelope, a beautiful, young epileptic who should never have been placed in this institution and whose only chance at getting out is Ed. She is intelligent, charming, and slowly falling in love with her charismatic, compassionate doctor. As their relationship grows more complicated, Laura also starts working at his hospital, and Ed must weigh his professional responsibilities against his personal ones and find a way to save both his job and his family.

A love triangle in one of the most chaotic, compustible settings imaginable, The Behavior of Love is an incredibly compulsive, poignant exploration of marriage, lust, and ambition from one of America’s great young literary talents.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. The epigraph is a portion of Robert Frost’s poem “The Oven Bird.” What meaning can we extract from this? Why do you think the author selected it to preface this novel?

2. This novel is set in Montana in the 1970s. In what ways, can the reader perceive the Montana landscape throughout the novel? How does the sense of time and place affect this story?

3. The novel alternates in perspective between Ed and Laura. How does this affect how the story is told? How does it reveal each character’s interiority and their understanding of their spouse? Does seeing both perspectives help the reader see more deeply into their marriage?

4. Penelope describes her first seizure on page 27 and explains that her family thought of her as “sick.” What does this reveal about societal understandings of illness in the 1970s? What does it say of the era that Penelope was institutionalized in the first place?

5. On page 54, Laura proclaims that she thinks it is easy for him to choose “patient over wife.” How do you think Laura conceives of Penelope? Does she think of her primarily as a patient? What are other ways that Laura thinks of her initially? How does this perception alter over time?

6. Laura classifies Ed’s relationship with Penelope as a betrayal, “whether or not it was physical” (page 94). We, the readers, know the extent of their relationship. In what ways would you say has Ed betrayed Laura? How do you think Ed would consider that he has transgressed, or if he has transgressed?

7. After she is transferred, Ed notes that Penelope has since turned eighteen and that their relationship “wouldn’t be celebrated, but it wouldn’t be illegal either” (page 120). It is one of the few times Ed fully acknowledges their age difference and the threat of either legal action or social judgment. How do you think Ed conceives of the power dynamics between the two of them, both in terms of age and in terms of their original doctor-patient relationship? How are we, the readers, meant to understand their relationship?

8. After Laura has left him and Penelope has found a boyfriend, Ed mentions that he misses what he calls “the complicated days when he had both Laura and Penelope. Wife at home. Patient at work” (page 170). What does this say about the sort of love Ed is looking for from women? What does this say about how Ed views the women in his life?

9. On page 237, after they are separated, Laura is told that she must stop taking Ed’s calls. Her friends tell her: “We have to retrain him. You can’t indulge this behavior.” In what ways, does this suggest there is a science to relationships? How do we see Ed and Laura train each other to be together? How to be apart?

10. In the end, Laura reflects on Tim and Ed and her very different partnerships with each. She says of her love of Tim: “It has none of the gutted need, but it is love the same” (page 285). How is Laura’s relationship with Tim different from her relationship with Ed? How does the author want us to understand her two marriages? What do you think the author suggests makes a successful marriage?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Poetry is a central component of Ed and Penelope’s connection, and Penelope eventually takes a class on Eliot, Auden, and Thomas, specifically citing Thomas’s “Before I Knocked” as her favorite. Share one of your favorite poems by the many poets admired in this novel.

2. Read Work Like Any Other, Virginia Reeves’s debut novel, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize.

About The Author

Photograph by Suzanne Koet

Virginia Reeves is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. Her debut novel, Work Like Any Other, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and Booklist named it to their Top 10 First Novels of 2016. Virginia lives with her husband and daughters in Helena, Montana, where she teaches writing and speech at Helena College. The Behavior of Love is her second novel.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (May 14, 2019)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501183508

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Raves and Reviews

Praise for The Behavior of Love

“Marital emotion boils within a cool experimental framework... the theme is carefully developed, pulling the reader toward the incomprehensible, the unintelligible...I won’t spoil the twist, but suffice it to say that Reeves wants to discover her characters’ stony places. She wants to explore what it feels like when the mind breaks, when language becomes a door swinging closed on meaning, and yet she is never so supple or interesting a writer as when she is tracing a character’s fugitive shreds of consciousness…But there is not just suffering here—there is also a deep saturation and beauty of experience.”

– The New Yorker

“A sensitive examination of love, responsibility, and compassion.”

– Kirkus

"Enhanced by its particular time and place, this unique and uniquely compelling novel explores love, marriage, health, and agency in shifting phases."

– Booklist

“Readers who enjoy complex depictions of the lingering commitments of relationships will be swept away by Reeves’s crisp, powerful novel.”

– Publishers Weekly

“Reeves alternates between Ed and Laura’s perspectives in cunning ways, creating the rippling effect of a rushing river, as love flows and ebbs over a decade. With exquisite craft, she traces a connection that transcends divorce and Ed’s own mental decline from an aneurysm to that point when he ‘stands in every place, all those doors in his head thrown wide open.’”

– Entertainment Weekly

“Even-handed and sensitive, this psychologically acute novel is a compassionate reflection on the commitments we make, both professional and personal.”

– Esquire

"Is love all in our heads or is there such a thing as chemistry? Can we control our desires? Should we? Virginia Reeves toys with commitment and lust in another compelling novel. The Behavior of Love is quietly surprising and will make you catch your breath more than once."

– Helen Ellis, author of American Housewife

"The Behavior of Love gripped me from its opening pages and never let go. As compelling, psychologically complex and unpredictable as a real-life love affair, this book is also a profound statement on the limits of rationality and our societal institutions. Virginia Reeves made waves with her first novel, and rightfully so. This one is even better."

– Brian Van Reet, author of Spoils

The Behavior of Love is an extraordinarily moving novel. The way it takes such unexpected leaps into the mysteries of the human mind, doing so with remarkable insight and compassion, is breathtaking. A truly impressive feat of the imagination.”

– Fiona McFarlane, author of The Night Guest

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