Robbie and Emily first meet in Cambridge in 1962. Their attraction is immediate, but they lose touch when Robbie goes home to his native USA. When they next unexpectedly bump into each convention and they elope to America, much to the despair and fury of her parents.
They both lose contact with their birth families. Robbie’s father was lost to alcoholism and Emily’s mother will never speak to her again. Why? When we eventually find out, it’s a real shocker.
Emily and Robbie spend the rest of their lives together, cocooned in a total love which conquers every obstacle and setback. Again, after endless problems, they parent two children – William and Adam – and through them, grandchildren they both adore.
Cohen’s descriptions of seaside Maine (where she herself grew up) are entrancing. She clearly loves the place and the people – especially the grumpy, crusty fishermen with whom Robbie, a skilled boat-maker, works.
As Robbie ages, he is clearly descending into dementia, and in his increasingly rare lucid moments, he knows it. Cohen writes poignantly of Robbie’s mental decline: how the fog fills his mind at times, yet at others recedes, leaving him all too aware of what is happening to him.
His salt-of-the-earth boat-building buddies watch him with increasing pity. Meanwhile Emily still loves and wants to look after him, no matter what. But Robbie breaks her heart when he decides it is time to go.
Together is captivating, compelling, and one of the most tender books either of us has read.
I absolutely love this book. The story it tells, of lifelong love and utter devotion despite dreadful obstacles, will warm your heart as it did mine.
Robbie and Emily have been together for decades. When the novel begins they are old, with all the frailties great age brings. Not least, Robbie is beginning to lose his memory. Alzheimer’s hovers in the couple’s awareness, and one day Robbie decides it’s time to go, leaving Emily bereft without the love of her life.
Their story is told backwards over five decades. Gradually, we spool back through the years to when they first met in their youth. Their time together has been full of joy: they have children, grandchildren, and many friends. A successful life by any standards, you would think. But not so. They have to let their friends go as they come too close to the couple’s secret: behind their lovely life in Maine, USA, lies a story that would have sundered many, if not most, relationships.
Almost from the start, they have been aware that theirs is a love that defies convention. Nevertheless they make the decision to follow their destiny; they make sacrifices and choices, and they stand by them.
This novel is big, sweeping, tender and bold. The twist at the end will take your breath away. And yet despite the inherent sadness of this story, it is uplifting. It’s a paean to love which can survive dark threats that would finish most other relationships.
Read an Extract from Together by Julie Cohen
Clyde Bay, Maine
Robbie woke up when it was still dark outside. They’d slept with the windows open and he could hear the surf on the rocks. It was such a constant sound that he rarely heard it any more, but this morning he did. He could hear Emily’s breathing, too. He lay there in his bed for a few moments, listening to her breath and the water, both steady and familiar, as if both of them could go on forever.
Emily’s face was turned away from him but her body touched his, her backside snug against his hip, her ankle curled around his so her toes rested against the sole of his foot. Most mornings he would roll over on to his side and put his arm around her waist, and she would nestle back against him in her sleep, and they would stay there for a little while, long enough so that when he got up, leaving her asleep in their bed, he would still feel the warmth of her pressed against him and he would go about his morning routine, recalling the scent of her hair.
If things stayed as they were, if they progressed as they would, he knew this would be the one thing that would never change. Not the rhythm of their sleep or the pattern of their touching. They had slept together this way on their first night together, fi fty-four years ago, and every night since then that they hadn’t slept in the same bed was a wasted night as far as he was concerned. Robbie knew his body would remember Emily’s even if he allowed himself to live long enough for his mind to forget her.
It was like the fog that came in silently and out of nowhere, and socked you in so solid you couldn’t see a single thing, not even your own sails.
It would be enough, to live for these moments of touching. For himself, it would be enough. But he had to think of Emily.
Since the day he had met her, over fifty years ago, everything he had done was for Emily, and this was the last thing he needed to do for her. Now, while he could still do it.
Robbie eased himself away from Emily without disturbing her. He sat up on his side of the bed. He was eighty years old, and aside from a twinge from the old wound in his thigh in the rainy weather, he was in pretty good shape, physically. He still more or less recognised himself in the mirror these days, though his hair was almost entirely gone to grey and he had the leathery, ageless skin of a man who had spent most of his time outdoors. His body probably had ten, fifteen more years in it. Preserved by the salt: that was what they said about old sailors.
Without thinking too much, he got dressed in the near-darkness, as he did almost every morning except for some Sundays. He went downstairs trailing his hand over the banister railing he’d carved himself out of a single piece of oak. He’d had to take the front door frame out to get the railing in the house. Back in 1986 – Adam had been ten.
He tested himself on dates like this now, reiterating the facts, so maybe they would stick. Adam married Shelley in 2003. We moved to Clyde Bay in 1977. I met Emily in 1962. I was born in 1936, during the Great Depression. I retired in 19 . . . No, I was seventy, or was I . . . where are we now?
Robbie looked up. He was in the kitchen, where he’d built the cabinets with his own hands. He was filling the pot for coffee. Every morning he did the same thing, while Emily slept upstairs, and soon Adam would come downstairs, yawning, to do his paper round before he went to school.
A dog nudged his leg. ‘Just one minute, Bella,’ he said easily, and he looked down and it wasn’t Bella. This dog had a white patch on his chest, and it wasn’t Bella because Bella was pure black, it was . . . it was Bella’s son, it was . . .
Another dog yawned noisily and got up stiffly from the dog bed in the corner of the kitchen, a black dog with grey on his muzzle and a white patch on his chest. Robbie looked from the old dog to the young dog and the young one nudged his hand and wagged his tail and he was Rocco. It came back to him in a rush. This was Rocco, and the old one was his father, Tybalt, and Bella was Tybalt’s mother and had been dead for thirteen years.
Robbie’s hand shook when he opened the door to let the two dogs out.
It was like the fog that came in silently and out of nowhere, and socked you in so solid you couldn’t see a single thing, not even your own sails. In a fog like that you could only navigate from instruments, not from sight – but with this fog, none of the instruments worked. You were in waters you knew like the back of your hand, but you couldn’t tell where you were. You could strike a rock that you’d avoided a million times before; that you knew like an old friend. Or you could head in completely the wrong direction and never find your way back.
He didn’t finish making the coffee. He found a piece of paper and a pen and he sat right down at the kitchen table and he wrote Emily the letter he had been composing in his head for days now. He wrote it quickly, before the fog came back and stopped him. The words weren’t exactly as eloquent as he wanted them to be. There was so much left unsaid. But then again, he’d always told Emily that he was no poet.
I love you, he wrote. You’re my beginning and my ending, Emily, and every day in between.
And really, that was everything he meant anyway. That summed it all up.
He folded the letter carefully and wrote Emily on the outside of it. The letter safe in his hand, he went out the kitchen door to the yard, where the dogs greeted him with wagging tails and tongues.
There was nothing left to be done here. It was all sound; she should be fine for the winter, when it came. And after that, Adam would help her.
It was the grey light before dawn. Tybalt and Rocco followed him as he walked around the house that he had built for Emily and himself. He checked the windows, the porch steps, the doors, the shingles; he peered up at the roof with its three gables, and the chimney. He’d spent the summer doing repairs. Planning ahead, for this day.
There was nothing left to be done here. It was all sound; she should be fine for the winter, when it came. And after that, Adam would help her. Maybe William would come back and help her, too.
A wild rose bush grew against the cedar shingles on the side of the house. Last month the bush had been ablaze with blossoms; now there were only a few left to face the end of summer. Avoiding the thorns, he picked a rose off the bush. It was bright pink, with a yellow centre. The petals were tender and perfect.
He whistled for the dogs and they came into the house with him. He tipped some food into their dishes and refreshed their water bowls. He stroked their heads and scratched behind their ears.
Then he went upstairs to their bedroom, carrying the letter and the rose.
She was still asleep. She hadn’t moved. He gazed down at her. Her hair had threads of silver and sunshine, her skin was soft in sleep. She was the girl he’d met in 1962; the girl he felt like he’d waited his whole life up till then to meet. He thought about waking her up to see her eyes again. They were the same colour that the sea had been the first time he’d ever seen it, back in 1952, a shade of blue that up till then he had never even been able to imagine.
But if he woke her up to see her eyes for the last time it wouldn’t be the last time, because she would never let him go.
And if he put this off and put this off , one day the fog would surround him. It came in stealthily, but all at once. One minute you could see clear – and the next moment you were blind. And more than blind: you couldn’t even remember what it was like to see.
He placed the letter on her bedside table, next to the glass of water she kept there. It would be the first thing she saw when she woke up. He put the wild rose on top of it. Then he bent and kissed her, gently, on her cheek. He breathed in a lungful of her scent.
‘I’d never have forgotten you,’ he whispered to her, more quietly than the sound of the ocean outside.
He made himself stand up straight and leave her there, sleeping. He’d thought it would be hard but there had been a harder time, once, walking away from her. That first time they had said goodbye.
This time was easier than that. Now, they had so many good years behind them. Every one of the years they’d spent together had been good. It had been worth it, every single bit.
Robbie went through the front door so he didn’t have to see the dogs again. He walked down the porch steps and down the sloping path to the end of their yard. Across the road and along the little path cleared in the brush, the twigs snagging his trousers till he was standing on the rocks on the shore. Grey Maine granite, darkening to black, and when you looked at it closely there were little shining chips of mica like diamonds in it.
Robbie jumped into the water. His body made barely a splash into the waves.
He took off his shoes and socks and left them on a high rock, untouched by spray. He left his shirt and trousers folded up beside them. Then, barefoot, he stepped on to the furthest rock, which was wet with surf and slippery with seaweed.
He’d thought it might be foggy today, but it wasn’t. It was all clear ahead of him and the sun was beginning to rise. It was gold and pink, not far off the colours of that wild rose he’d left beside Emily. It was going to be a good day, the kind of day where you could see Monhegan Island on the horizon. Lobster pots bobbed on the water, blue and white and red. He knew who owned all of them and knew what time they’d be coming in their boats to haul them up. Not for a little while, yet.
He had enough time.
Robbie jumped into the water. His body made barely a splash into the waves.
He had always been a strong swimmer. It was easy for him. Part fish, Emily called him. He kicked through the waves. Even after being warmed all the summer long, the water was cold enough to take your breath away, but if you kept moving you would be all right, for a while, at least until the current took you. Pieces of a boat that was wrecked on Marshall Point, a quarter mile from here to the north, had been found all the way up in Newfoundland.
He swam and he kept his eyes on the horizon. It took him a long time to tire out. Long enough so that he saw the top curve of the sun rising up from the water in front of him, a brilliant light, shining all the way along the water to him. It would shine through the window of the room where Emily slept and it would touch her cheek and her hair.
Robbie kept swimming until he couldn’t swim any more and then he let the water carry him away, into something bigger than himself, more vast than memory.
Book Club Questions for Together
1. This is a love story with a controversial choice at its heart – how did discovering Robbie and Emily’s secret make you feel about their relationship? Did they do the right thing?
2. The structure of Together is a vital part of the novel – what do you think it would be like to read the story forwards, instead of backwards? How does the structure compare to other novels which play with time, such as The Time Traveler’s Wife, Life After Life, or Versions of Us?
3. Robbie and Emily put their love for each other ahead of their families, their partners, and Robbie’s own son. How did this make you feel, and do you think romantic love is the most powerful force in most people’s lives? What would you give up for love?
4. When the truth is revealed about Adam’s adoption, Robbie and Emily are put in another impossible dilemma. Should they have spoken up, and risked losing Adam?