What does it mean to love a family member? Ideally, it's an unconditional love based on more than genetics and forced proximity. Catherine Ryan Hyde's latest novel, Love in the Present Tense (Flying Dolphin, 272 pages, $21.95), questions just how unconditional that love can be—can it come from a young man who finds a son forced upon him? Can it come from a mother even after she's dead?

Hyde's writing is highly emotional—she's also the author of Pay It Forward, the novel about the triumph of good deeds that became a feel-good movie. She tells Love in the Present Tense from three points of view: a young mother named Pearl; her son, Leonard; and 25-year-old Mitch, the closest thing to a father Leonard knows. The novel begins as Pearl tells the story of her 13th birthday, when she becomes pregnant with Leonard and kills his father. Pearl spends the next five years running from her past, eventually living next door to Mitch, an entrepreneur. Mitch begins taking care of Leonard as a favor to Pearl, a situation that becomes permanent when Pearl never comes back for her son.

Mitch and the 5-year-old boy form a makeshift family, and the remainder of the story is told from their perspectives. As they grow closer, their voices blur together and their individual characteristics start to disappear. While it's possible Hyde erases this distinction to demonstrate how intertwined these characters become, it seems more likely she has trouble creating characters that do not all think and feel the same. Developing two characters equally is a complicated trick Hyde can't quite pull off.

But she does succeed at depicting a growing boy too subconsciously damaged by his mother's disappearance to even realize it. What Leonard remembers most about Pearl is "forever love." Leonard defines it to Mitch: "It's when you love somebody so much that no matter what happens that'll never change. ... Even if you die." Over the 25 years of Hyde's story, even Mitch comes to accept and return the forever love that Leonard relies on.

But is forever love believable? While Hyde does recognize that tragedy is an inescapable part of life, she has an uncanny ability to put a positive, if not sappy, spin on things (like Pearl's love being so great that it continues on after she disappears). Such optimism is hard to swallow at times—who among us has really known a love that incredible?—but it's still a nice idea.

Catherine Ryan Hyde reads from

Love in the Present Tense

on Thursday, June 8, at Powell's on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 238-1668. 7:30 pm. Free.