Love is a Mixtape Worth Living For in “I Love You So Much It’s Killing Us Both” – Chicago Review of Books

Love is a dangerous and frustrating emotion for Mariah Stovall’s main characters in her novel, I Love You So Much It’s Killing Us Both. Khaki Oliver is a socially awkward Black woman who was born punk. She mostly interacts with the world through the lens of music as evidenced by the book’s title, which shares its name with that of a song from the band Jawbreaker. When Khaki receives an invitation from her estranged best friend Fiona, who is having a celebration for her adopted daughter, the letter sends Khaki spiraling into a litany of lovely, horrifying, and frustrating memories. She belabors the decision of whether to attend and bides her time by creating a mixtape, a common practice of friends and lovers of a certain age who wish to show each other they care. The exercise proves to be Khaki’s way of working through her emotions toward the girl who betrayed her many years ago.

Stovall spends the better part of the book pulling readers through Khaki’s thoughts and memories, beginning with her intense want to be desired. Since adolescence, she has been obsessed with her body and craves to know what it feels like to be wanted by someone. Enter: Fiona. During their chance meeting in the high school library, Fiona seems to immediately understand Khaki’s awkwardness and “diagnoses” her anxiety based on her own experiences with mental health issues. From then on, their relationship is symbiotic and delves into parasitic territory as they come of age. 

As Fiona struggles with an eating disorder and other means of self-harm that warrant institutionalization, Khaki begins to think their relationship is part of the cure. Furthermore, Khaki is drawn to Fiona because Fiona says that she can’t live without Khaki—Khaki has become the ultimate object of desire. Unfortunately, their love is platonic, and Khaki wants to be desired physically and sexually as well. When Khaki begins a romantic relationship with someone else, tensions rise. The situation worsens as the clock counts down to Khaki’s college sendoff. Fiona then goes to rehab three states away and the long distance, plus Khaki’s discovery of a betrayal, causes the strands of the relationship to all but break. The relationship is emotionally dangerous for Khaki and physically dangerous for Fiona, though the two carry on making a series of poor decisions (they are teens, after all) that create an uncomfortable ebb and flow to their connection.

Despite the difficult subject matter she covers, Stovall’s writing is captivating. She manages to make Khaki’s decisions, though maddening, compelling enough to want to see the outcome. Even though it’s fairly clear that Khaki’s self-destructing in the absence of her friend, it’s not painted in a glowing light that makes the reader root for failure. In fact, it’s the opposite—it’s frustrating how often she appears to fail. Khaki threatens to read the invitation in its entirety but instead waits until she’s with an abusive old flame who is now married, and asks him to read it to her. She has to put herself back in a “bad place” before she can engage with Fiona on any level, presumably because Fiona represents a “bad place” for Khaki. What’s frustrating is that Khaki calls herself out on it internally, yet still makes the bad choice. That frustration may have everything to do with not sharing the experience of anxiety or womanhood with Khaki, but readers on the outside looking in will want more for her and be disappointed.

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It isn’t clear whether Khaki or Fiona have learned from their mistakes. But at one point during her college days, Khaki is upset at Fiona for apparently getting better and moving on in life without her. Khaki takes this disloyalty to heart. Later, as an adult, Khaki selects songs for Fiona’s playlist and considers the possibility for personal growth for both of them. Perhaps Stovall seeks a simpler achievement with the representation of this friendship: to illustrate what it looks like for these characters to give themselves room to exist. They were so dependent on each other that they picked up each other’s bad habits and, in Khaki’s case, disorders. But when Khaki finally makes her decision about the invitation, Stovall writes with hope, reminding us and her characters that forgiveness is a song worth playing on repeat.

I Love You So Much It’s Killing Us Both
by Mariah Stovall
Soft Skull Press
Published February 13, 2024

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