Tuesday, September 18, 2012

romance, novelistic and otherwise

Since last posting, I did finish The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson. It was an interesting if uneven take on the migration of African-Americans from the South during the twentieth century. Wilkerson focuses on the stories of three specific migrants, and one of them gets far more page space than the other two. Unfortunately, I found him the least interesting, and the chapters about his material success read like the society pages. But she does a good job of explaining her subject matter, and I like her prose style.

I have been meandering through The Solitary House, by Lynn Shepherd, but I'm not going to finish it. Its premise is that Shepherd has taken the characters from Bleak House and written a new story around them, but a) seems like the same story to me, with one extra character thrown in; and b) I didn't know you could just put Dickens' sentences on the page in a slightly different order and say you've written your own book. You can't get that shit past someone who re-reads Bleak House at least once a year; I know those words, and Lynn Shepherd didn't write them. Forget this.

In the first flush of being able to get library books on my Kindle, I went for quantity over quality, and have spent too much time reading stuff I don't like in consequence. I am going to be more discerning in future.

And now for my Deep Thoughts On Romance! Which I am sure you were all dying to read.  

So, my boyfriend. (Of course I'll look like a horse's ass if the relationship ends and I've got all these schmoopy blog posts, but I made peace with the concept of looking like a horse's ass long ago.) I got to see him both days this weekend and both days it was ridiculous: children and dogs were following him around like he was the Pied Piper, and he was hauling heavy ladders and generally being manly, and at a certain point I started silently cracking up, because I felt like I was in a romance novel. Except that the only thirty-five-year-old woman in a romance novel is the heroine's mother (usually described as "still a handsome woman" or, my personal favorite, "remarkably preserved").

And thinking of romance novels made me wonder if you really can be ruined for love by what you read. If all my early time with Austen and the Brontës, not to mention the later romance novels, made me go looking for things I shouldn't be after.

(To do myself justice, I always hated Wuthering Heights with the fire of a thousand suns. And identifying too strongly with Jane Eyre is still not like identifying with, say, Bella from the Twilight books. Which I have not read, but I have read many hilarious bloggers who have read them. I think we can all agree that Jane Eyre would not have put up with any of that "true love means creeping in your window at night and watching you sleep" crap. Jane has boundaries, and expects them to be respected.)

Much of the appeal of romance novels, in addition to the fact that they provided those of us who are ancient some teenage titillation in those days before the internet, is that they play to the fantasy of being special. Of being unique. And when people wonder why smart women could possibly read that trash, I want to explain to them that it is precisely the smart gifted girls who were sold that fantasy, and sold it young. We can be grandiose, to say the least. In my freshman year of college, after a theater performance which was so pretentious that I blush to my toes recalling it, one friend of mine said to another, "[Beatrice] is going to be famous, isn't she?" And when I heard that, I accepted it as no less than my due. Because of course I was going to be famous. I was nineteen, and thought all you needed to be famous was an ability to speak Shakespeare well and a whole lot of angst.

We were all going to be famous. All the smart young women, under-socialized and overflowing with talent we didn't know how to focus or that terrified us with its potential. And some women I know did focus it, and honed it, and are living amazing lives. Some of us stepped back from the more artistic aspects of our skill sets, took different paths for whatever reason, and are living amazing lives. I don't think I'm still in touch with anyone whose life isn't amazing in some way, because I choose not to be in touch with the disappointed or bitter.

But the passion to be unique, to be the one woman who can do such-and-such, doesn't entirely disappear. And what romance novels tap into is that passion, albeit sometimes with an unfortunate dash of all-other-women-are-the-competition. (Good romance novels don't have that dash. In Loretta Chase and Joanna Bourne's books there isn't a Rival With Previous Sexual Experience, as there is in many other ones I've read.) How unique can you be if a man who everyone agrees is a sweetheart falls in love with you? But a man who has a splinter of ice in his heart (to match his icy slate-gray eyes), whose mouth twists cruelly right before he doles out some punishing kisses, who has to be worked over for three hundred cliché-filled pages by the heroine's dizzying spunkiness and virginal innocence before he can grit out the words, "I love you," - if he falls in love with you, against his will and wishes, then you are truly a special snowflake.  

I mock, of course, but I'm mocking myself as well, because I damn well saw the appeal in that, and can still understand it. To be the only woman who can heal a damaged heart is a powerful concept. I still sometimes get mildly panicky because I do not consider myself sufficiently useful, particularly in traditionally feminine arenas. I can cook a little; I hate cleaning; I can't sew or knit; I loathe ironing; I don't garden. The only practical help I can offer a man is to organize his books for him. So it strikes a chord in me, the idea that some intangible quality of mine, my heart or soul or aura or whatever, could be enough to open an otherwise closed heart. Otherwise what good am I?

I thankfully have never dated anyone whose heart I would describe as closed. But I have dated men who were self-destructive or unhappy or simmeringly angry at the world all the time, and however ego-gratifying it may be when they finally break down in your arms and confess their love, the rest of the time it's not a whole lot of fun. And it shouldn't be about your ego in the first place. If it is, by the time it gets to the clenched jaw and the muttered, "I love you," you may be so exhausted by his negativity that your own heart will sink to hear those words. Great, you think. Now I can't leave or he'll kill himself.

An exaggeration, hopefully. But I agree with my namesake who, when Benedick says that he loves her against his will, replies, "In spite of your heart, I think; alas, poor heart! If you spite it for my sake, I will spite it for yours; for I will never love that which my friend hates." I don't want a man to love me if he doesn't want to, if he resents the fact that he does. Resentment, on both sides, entered my marriage and poisoned it to the very roots. If you have to grit your teeth when saying you love me, don't say it at all. Get on your fierce charger and ride off across the moors and find an eighteen-year-old heroine who will have the energy to overcome your angst. Despite being remarkably preserved, I just don't have the strength for that any more.

But some days I still want to read a book the point of which is two people falling in love. And those days I am going to sit down and read a romance novel - a good one, by Chase or Bourne or Julia Quinn - and not feel guilty about it. I might even cry if the ending is done right, and I won't feel guilty about that either. I don't need to be a special snowflake any more, and brooding heroes try my patience, but I don't believe there's anything wrong with a story about love. Or with men who do manly ladder-related things. Nothing wrong with that at all. 

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