For the first 17 years of my life, I felt like everything I knew about love I learned from books. Sure, as a self-conscious 13-year-old I discussed schoolyard crushes with my friends. But this never amounted to anything but a few minutes of gossip, a mere attempt to understand the un-understandable minefield of pre-teen flirtation. Like any good American high schooler, I’d spent my fair share of hours consoling friends after unforeseen break-ups or pepping them up to talk to a new potential suitor. None of this, however, seemed as compelling a conception of love as I encountered in novels. While I could listen to friends regale a first date or even go on one myself, but, at least in my younger years, that didn’t seem to compare to the excitement, adrenaline, or depth of feeling that I associated with real love. You know, the kind of love that drove Mr. Darcy out in the rain, or that impels the protagonists of dystopian Young Adult books to overcome world-ending disasters. Those romances seemed sweeping, all-consuming. Real-life attempts didn’t seem half as compelling.
When I started encountering romantic relationships in novel form, the very idea of dating was abstract to me. In Jeffrey Eugenides’ book The Marriage Plot, he describes the appeal that books hold to a character, writing, “She wanted a book to take her places she couldn’t get to herself.” This gets at why many of us first dive into fictional love stories years before we are ready to actually enter a relationship. I know this was true for me at least. Fictional couples can serve as models in teaching us about love, just as fictional conundrums teach us about morals.
Of course, the usefulness of models is limited. While real-life relationships take on diverse forms, the ones we are fed in mainstream books look incredibly homogenous. They are mostly white, usually heterosexual, and almost always involve two cisgender, conventionally attractive individuals. This constraining image of love arguably does us more damage than good. It makes relationships that deviate from these social norms seem ‘less than’ or illegitimate. Still, they remain pervasive enough to seep into our consciousnesses more and more with every turn of the page.
In recent years, my understanding of love (and the many forms it takes) has moved past the purely abstract. I no longer think of ‘loving’ as a hypothetical act that must look, or feel, any specific, predestined way. Now, love is no longer something relegated to late-night reading or romantic comedies. The highs and lows are my own to experience, not the creation of an author that I can sit back and experience second-hand.
In her book How to be a Heroine, Or What I Learned from Reading Too Much, Samantha Ellis writes, “I’m beginning to think all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need from them at the time.” This is especially true when it comes to love stories. These days, I find myself returning to the books that shaped my view of romance in moments when I need perspective or, perhaps, simply to know that someone else has experienced this too. Fictional love stories serve as analogies of sorts for me, a means through which I can articulate what feels so personal that my own words cannot possibly describe it.
As I try to navigate love’s unpredictable landscape, these books serve as points of reference, reminding me that I am not as adrift and lost as I think. At its most satisfying, love feels like the moment when Lizzy and Mr. Darcy finally profess their feelings for each other at the end of Pride and Prejudice. At its most melancholy, love resembles the relationships shown in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, as ordinary people who have fallen out of love find their way back together. At its lightest, it feels a John Green meet-cute read under the covers as a pre-teen. At its most devastating, love feels like it does for Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights: desperate, disembodying, and world-ending.
Last year when I went through my first break-up, I turned to these fictional romances with a new perspective. Endings that once seemed so cynical seemed fitting now. Heartbreak was not some tragedy, but simply a sometimes necessary part of life. I noticed this change most clearly in regard to one of my old favorites, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Alcott’s protagonist, Jo March, famously rejects the proposal of childhood best friend and kindred spirit, Laurie, in a heart-shattering scene. Instead of settling for a life with Laurie, Jo pursues her own career as a writer and, eventually, marries an unexciting but intellectually engaging older professor years down the line.
When I first read the novel at 10 or 11 years old, I remember being distraught that Laurie and Jo go their separate ways. They seemed so alike, so destined to be together. It took me time (and yes, some heartache) to learn that even the things that appear to be perfect can be deeply flawed or just plain wrong. Now, it is crystal clear to me why Jo can’t – and shouldn’t – bring herself to marry Laurie. They are too alike and, while my younger self may have insisted otherwise, they are not meant to be together. She simply can’t love him like he asks her to. She can’t reign in her ambitions to settle down, even if it means losing the one person who understands her best. How could I, as a reader, fault her for that? How could I want that life for her, when she so clearly desires something else, something bigger?
Love, in both books and real-life, is as messy and complicated as life gets. At its best, it feels simple and straight-forward not because it is, but because the pure goodness of it obscures some of the complexities. The love I have felt personally isn’t that of Lizzy Bennett or Heathcliff. It is more nerve-wrecking, vulnerable, and the stakes feel higher. Still, it is better, more personal, and more intoxicating. The greatest books that deal with the subject celebrate the contradictions and surprises of romantic relationships, instead of flattening them for the sake of consumable perfection.
Image Credit: Louisa May Alcott, Houghton Library
License: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)