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All There Is

These love stories recorded by StoryCorps remind us what matters most.

By Heller McAlpin / February 14, 2012

All There Is: Love Stories from Storycorps By Dave Isay Penguin Group 176 pp.

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Love got you down? There’s encouragement aplenty in All There Is, Dave Isay’s compilation of personal tales of true love recorded by the StoryCorps initiative. This book is sweeter – and occasionally gooier – than a box of chocolates.

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One salient impression from these generally uplifting testimonials is the strong correlation between avid communication and long-term romantic happiness. In story after story, couples meet – usually by chance – and end up talking for hours, often all night. Then – and here’s the rich center of these sweet relationships – they continue the conversation through decades, right up to their recorded interview. (Granted, StoryCorps, which seeks out people willing to articulate their life narratives for the record, probably attracts a self-selected, more naturally loquacious sampling of the population. There are no doubt plenty of successful relationships with a less verbal core.)

Since it was launched in 2003, StoryCorps has collected the personal stories of some 75,000 people, focusing on those “who are often excluded from the historical record.” Isay notes that “Almost all of the interviews we collect touch on the great themes of human existence, and ... there can be no question that the greatest of these themes is love.” “All There Is” includes more than three dozen tales of romantic love, each rigorously edited down to a few pages from 40 minutes of tape. They are divided into three categories: love found, love lost, and love at last.

Like Isay’s 2010 volume, “Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps,” the focus is positive – these are mainly heartwarming celebrations. I assume there are bitter tales in the archives, or angrier, more intense interchanges, but you won’t find them here. If it’s irony or edginess you’re after, look elsewhere.

“All There Is” has been assembled with an eye toward diversity and inclusiveness over literary prowess. Cleverness and originality are not the point. The point is earnestness, feelings spoken from the heart. True love, alas, often comes across as trite – though never, I dare say, to those lucky enough to experience it.

Eighty-four-year-old Jane Bloom, who went back to school and became a doctor after having 10 children, reminisces with her husband of 64 years: “We’ve come through some hard times, but we’ve had lots of rewards – lots.” Twenty years into their marriage, Karen Huang tells her husband, Paul Chou, “You were one of the happiest people I have ever come across.” Leroy A. Morgan remembers a sign listing six thoughtful things to say if you want a successful marriage, tips by which he and his much-missed late wife, Vivian, lived: You look great. Can I help? Let’s eat out. I was wrong. I am sorry. I love you.

There are stories about prejudice-defying interracial unions, long-distance relationships, and same-sex marriages at long last capping decades together. There are stories about losing spouses to sudden accidents or illness. There’s a couple who divorce and then remarry. There’s a Slovakian medical student visiting Wisconsin who, on his first date with his future wife, tells her that he’s sick of her – his mistranslation of lovesick.

The most moving story is Beverly Eckert’s beautiful description of her husband Sean Rooney’s last phone call from the 105th floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11. They’d been together for 34 years, since they met at a high school dance. She describes how they hung on the line rasping “I love you”s even as the smoke overcame him and the floor fell out from beneath him. “I think about that last half hour with Sean all the time,” she concludes in the recording she made in 2006. “It traumatized me to the core of my being, but it was also a gift. My last memory that I have of Sean isn’t about pain or fear, but it’s about bravery and selflessness and, most of all, about love.” This astonishing evocation of a couple’s final communication is followed by a devastating editorial note: “Beverly Eckert died when Continental flight 3407 crashed near Buffalo on February 12, 2009.”

In reminding us what really matters most, “All There Is” is sure to spark renewed reassessments of readers’ own relationships and priorities.

Heller McAlpin, a frequent contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, reviews books regularly for NPR.org and The Washington Post, among other publications.

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