In honor of Valentine’s Day, Vol. 1 today presents a special Monday edition of Indexing, in which our editors talk about their favorite examples of literary love, sex, and romances doomed and enduring from a variety of great books.
Coming of age, I took many a life lesson from the books, music, and movies around me — everything from punk records to Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of The Age of Innocence. More recently, I’ve learned that most of these lessons were emphatically, wildly, horrifically wrong. (Stay tuned for my upcoming chapbook Dating Advice From the Descendents (And Other Bad Ideas).)
So thinking about romances in books I’ve loved has been a difficult task. In picking something for this, I didn’t want to go the route of doomed or star-crossed love (hence the absence of Alice Munro’s story “Tricks”). And so trying to find something that had both resonated with me and encompassed a healthy, realistic relationship was, as they say, not so easy.
And thus, I am left at a loss. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is floating through my brain right now, as is Camden Joy’s Boy Island. Neither, though, is exactly what I’d call a resonant literary romance; and I’m left worrying whether, perhaps, what I’m looking for isn’t something that can be found on my shelves. Alternately, I’m tempted to come up with some sort of literary equivalent to the lament in High Fidelity about sad songs and general melancholy. Or, for the time being I’ll stick with the bittersweet romances, missed opportunities, and star-crossed lovers that appear to line my shelves.
You know what time it is. That’s right. It’s Valentine’s Day, bitches. Today, we celebrate St. Valentine, who allegedly secretly married young men, who were ordered to remain single by Roman Emperor Claudius II because dudes in love make for terrible soldiers. Claudius wasn’t too keen on this, so he shot St. Valentine full of arrows. Adorable? No, not really. Here are a few books about love that aren’t so adorable, for your pleasure.
Best Example of an Abusive Relationship with an Inanimate Object: The Giving Tree. Man, this is a tear-jerker. Nothing says I love you like literally stripping the object of your affection of every single thing it has to offer.
Classic Example of Literary Love That’s Actually Super Disturbing: Can I just say that Romeo and Juliet is an enormous bummer? The only thing more powerful than love is unbelievably controlling parents. Thanks mom and dad, for naming me after the most tragic heroine in literature.
Craziest Trip Taken in the Name of Love by a Robot: Awesome, by Jack Pendarvis, in which the titular character–a huge robot–falls in love with a reasonably-sized woman and walks across the earth collecting objects to win her affection. Things don’t turn out so awesome for Awesome, but lovers: read this book, because it’s hilarious.
Best Realistic Romance Among Goth Teenagers: Andromeda Klein, by Frank Portman a.k.a. Doctor Frank of MTX, in which the titular character goes on a wild goose chase involving tarot cards, her alter ego and a clueless teenage boy called Byron whom she picks up while trying to find her not-boyfriend St. Steve.
Second Biggest Romantic Bummer in Possibly the Saddest Book of Short Stories Ever Written: I’d have to go with Brokeback Mountain, by Annie Proulx. Annie Proulx is a wordsmith, to be sure, who has a way with crafting the most depressing, affecting, devastating short stories ever. Brokeback Mountain is a perfect example, in which two cowboys fall in love but can’t really be together, and then *spoiler alert!* one is brutally murdered. I’m not kidding: this is maybe one of the most upsetting short stories ever written. Also, she’s a genius.
Going into this I was surprised by how often I misremembered the romances of certain books as either being a) more fun or b) sexier than they really were. To second Toby’s notion of learning the wrong life lessons from art, I can think of no better example than The Great Gatsby, a book I read early in high school and then made the grave mistake of unfairly holding up as some kind of tragicomic mirror to every romantic relationship I had, no matter how casual or ill-fitting. Even more absurd was how in these fantastic scenarios, I cast myself as Jay Gatsby, with the presumption that despite being an outcast, I was the kind of outcast who was going to become independently wealthy by rum-running during prohibition. This delusion caused me to glorify women who were perfectly nice but entirely wrong for me, and envision my now-obvious immaturity as “we come from different worlds!” style star-crossing. If I have to pick a Lost Generation duo whose relationship I now like a lot more, I’ll take the imperfect portrayal of Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises: perpetually drunk, always bailing each other out of self-induced messes, but still possessing genuine wit and ardor for one another. We’re left with the possibility that these two might right for each other even if he’s wrong for himself and she’s wrong for herself.
But if I were to pick two of my favorite romances of recent literary memory, I’d first take Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, for it’s portrayal of an aging, sardonic man trying to get by after the sudden death his lover Jim suddenly dies. Isherwood’s recollections and beautiful grasp of nostalgia cut extraordinarily close to the heart, at once responding to our greatest fears of being left alone while urging that to give ourselves to other people is the only way to carry on.
My second and perhaps ultimate choice, if you’re looking for a literary couple who make it out of their book(s) alive and still together, would be married private eyes Nick and Nora Charles, from Dashiell Hammett’s 1934 zinger The Thin Man. Now here are two people from different worlds. Yet their flux in background (he a retired working-class cop from upstate New York, she a wealthy California heiress) is something that they are able to laugh about, and which does not cripple them. The Thin Man also proves a pretty fantastic case for fidelity: it begins with a man who is not certain that he married the right woman, and seems to be showing some remorse. Yet by the end, it is clear to both him and the dear reader that she is both a courageous, independent woman and a superb motivator to her husband. Nora not only loves this lug, but loves most of all to see him doing the things that makes him who he is. Despite their differences, they want nothing less than to change each other, for each learns that the other is what inspires them most of all. I can think of no sounder ambition for us all to pursue on this holiday of chocolate fingerprints and afternoon stampedes upon florists than to appreciate a lover who light a fire under us, make us more inquisitive, and know when it’s time for a glass of rye.
Favorite literary marriage ended by suicide: Seymour and Muriel Glass in the story, “Perfect Day for Bananafish” by Salinger.
Favorite house of a Fitzgerald love interest I once lived by: Ginevra King AKA Daisy Buchanan in Lake Forest, Il.
Best Bromance Title Ever: “Hero, Captain, and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville”
Favorite thing I see when I Google “Sexual Hemingway”: Hemingway Sexual Harassment Attorneys.
Most disappointing thing ever: Lack of interesting Google images when I search the term, “nelson algren simone de beauvoir sex.”