They say romance is dead. Well, you wouldn’t know it by looking at the shelves in the local bookshop. I’ve never seen so many bared manly chests and swoony-looking young women.
Or do they mean, romance in reality is dead?
Well, if they do, then that indicates an extreme lack of effort on the part of those who are complaining of romantic insufficiency. Where do they think it comes from? Do they think it falls from the sky like rain? Or that the fairies bring it? Romance is like toast: if you want some, you have to make it yourself.
Or are they complaining about the lack of suitable partners?
Well, if you’re waiting for a knight in shining armour to come and sweep you off your feet, it’ll probably be a long wait. With the weather the way it is, any sensible knight is staying at home keeping his armour out of the rain – that stuff rusts like you wouldn’t believe. If you want to meet him, you have to track him down. Then you get to the hard part.
As I mentioned, romance – or at least sex – is all over the place in books. But it comes in different forms, and the partners are chosen more, or less, well.
My favourite literary couple is the pair who are friends as well as lovers – their relationship isn’t based just on mutual physical attractiveness and lust, but also on shared interests and outlook. You can tell that when they finally get it together, they’ll be happy. Think Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Intellectually and emotionally, they’re well matched. They respect each other’s opinions and they can stand up to each other when needed. They think similarly – although not necessarily identically – on important issues. Miles Vorkosigan and Ekaterin Vorsoisson in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Komarr and Civil Campaign are another match-made-in-heaven. The path of true love may not be smooth, but you can tell that they’ll be happy together, and anyone who tries to interfere is going to get annihilated. And not just by Miles.
Sometimes, though, authors are clearly trying to set up the match-made-in-heaven, but they don’t quite achieve it. I saw the film of Sense and Sensibility, but I haven’t read the book – partly because I didn’t like the film. It left me feeling that Jane Austen had got the couples the wrong way round – I thought that Elinor would have been far happier with the intelligent, mature Colonel Brandon than with the weak and ineffectual Edward Ferrars. Equally, Marianne would bore the Colonel, who would soon regret tying himself to a silly child, and she herself would become equally bored with the Colonel’s calm and measured approach to life, but would likely be more in tune with Edward Ferrars. Possibly I ought to read the book to see if the film skewed the characters.
Vicki Pettersson’s The Taken is another example: Griffin is a 1950s PI; almost a caricature of everything you think a 1950s PI ought to be (strong, silent, tough but protective of women). Kat is a reporter on her family’s newspaper, endlessly bubbly and cheerful, and who lives the ‘rockabilly’ lifestyle. You find yourself wondering whether Griffin is only attracted to Kat because she measures up to his 1950s-era yardstick of feminine beauty, and he is so taken in by her 1950s-retro lifestyle that he fails to appreciate that she is, in reality, a 21st century woman who is unlikely to fit in with his 1950s mores. Equally, is Kat attracted to Griffin because he is everything she thinks she wants – good-looking, strong, masterful, honourable. But will she find that such a man is compatible with her outgoing nature and independence of spirit? In some ways, for me, this mismatch between the two main characters who were obviously (right from the off) supposed to become a couple, spoiled the book for me. Maybe, however, Ms Pettersson will pull off a save and have them develop to be more compatible in future books in the series.
Then, of course, there’s the unfortunately increasingly common story of the career woman who is unhappy with her successful career and life, and wants A Man to achieve fulfilment. This makes me want to throw the book across the room for two reasons:
1. It assumes that no woman can be happy and/or truly successful unless she has a boyfriend/husband. In this type of book, there is no hint that the heroine is lonely, or that she misses the companionship of a soulmate. No, she just wants ‘a man’ because once she has that box ticked, she will feel validated. How depressing – take away all the modern trappings, and you have the message that a woman’s job is to be a wife and mother, and no woman is successful unless she has achieved these roles.
2. This is equally disrespectful to men. The heroine might be seeking validation in society’s eyes rather than true love, but she is also treating men as a commodity, like shoes or handbags. She simply wishes to possess A Man; it doesn’t really matter which man, as long as he’s presentable and she can show him off to her friends. Even worse are the books where the ‘heroine’ is not even really seeking a man – what she really wants is A Baby (another fashion accessory) but finding A Man is only a preparatory step to acquiring A Baby. This is man-as-sperm-donor.
Sex is easy; romance is hard. A durable relationship is beyond hard. But when an author manages to write a pair of characters whom you can imagine still being in love fifty years in their future, you know she’s got it right.