Saturday, January 5, 2008

In defense of romance

I have a writer acquaintance... a good soul who is way more famous than I am...a good person... except that she doesn't think much of romance. She belittles it often and very often bewails the fact that people feel compelled to put a love story into a novel.

Well, I tend to think romance is important. All the divorces, all the broken-hearted children of divorce, all the grieving lonely folks out there....all attest to the importance of romance (or the lack of romance) in our lives. A good romance lightens the heart. A sour romance destroys the spirit -- usually temporarily, often permanently.

Romance novels are about the pairings between people. In heterosexual novels, they are about the creation of a family. Jane Austen wrote novels about marriageableness because she felt class, personal idiosyncracies, and intellect all must work together to create a good marriage. And why was Jane so interested in marriage? Ever read her life? Ever studied her flaky mother who had pretensions to gentility and who sent off all her children at birth until they were of age to return home? And didn't accept one particular son because he had a mental and physical defect, sending the kid off forever? Ah, of such a life is a romance writer born!

I write romance because all around me I see the effect of love and weird marital pairings. Generally, my characters are married and involved in very loving, very unhappy marriages. Being American, I was taught by television romance that marriages were either loving and happy or unloving and unhappy. But as I grew up I began to realize there was something very untrue about that. I was surrounded by loving unhappy marriages. People with sick spouses, insane spouses, sick children, sick parents, poor lives. The love and faithfulness they showed each other certainly wasn't mirrored often in the stories I saw on television. On television, people gave as reasons for their divorce: "I've fallen in love with someone else" or "my mother-in-law broke up my marriage" or "we married too young" or "I just couldn't take it (whatever it was) any longer" or "we were poor and that just destroyed our marriage."

Honestly, there were a few divorces in my neighborhood but folks just didn't divorce that quickly. Perhaps because they were poor, perhaps because they were very religious (Orthodox Jewish, Evangelical Christian, and Roman Catholic) but they just kinda endured and created an odd kind of deep enduring love. And it's that enduring that fascinates me. What is that deep part of the human soul that enables them to be faithful to someone throughout all kinds of adversity? Why does a woman stay with a drunk husband because she loves him? Why does a handsome gorgeous husband stay with a fat overweight sickly wife because he loves her? What is that love about? Even now, when I walk around my neighborhood and listen to old women whining about their old husbands, I'm amazed at how much love is present in such hard marriages.

I am also very interested in the decisions -- generally, the small decision that ultimately destroys a life...or makes that life harder than it should be. Young folks are always making bad decisions without quite realizing it. And women, alas, when they marry are often pulled into a strange weird ride by their husbands. That's what happens in Wind Follower. That's what happens in many marriages. You hitch your wagon to that horse (or star) or mule (or dull asteroid) and many people stick it out. Why?

I am also fascinated by inequalities in love. There is a french saying, "There is always one who kisses and one who turns the cheek." Loose translation: "one person often loves more than the other." What's that about? I'm still unsure if my character Satha is even in love with her husband Loic. But I am sure that Loic loves and adores her. Hey, I've seen enough instances of my poor female friends hooking up with rich guys simply because they can get a better life. And what's wrong with that? If a poor woman is pretty and has the opportunity to marry a rich adoring single guy...I say go for it. Not feminism, I know. But many of the feminists I know haven't been as poor or desperate as some of my hood friends who grew up without fathers or without a proper home.

That also dovetails nicely into stories about a character's need for an extended family (or not) affects marital choices. I grew up in an extended family, shunted from family member to family member after my father deserted my mother for another woman. What happened? I married into a large Irish clan. I had a choice between a guy with virtually no family and a guy from a large irish clan. Guess what I chose? Luckily I was lucky. My marriage is a good loving one, but I'd say that health issues etc has made it fall into the category of loving-but-hard marriages. Which I am beginning to see is very common.

So that's what I write about. Not that I believe a romance novel actually enlightens us about who or how we love. But at least, we examine it. And that's what romance is about, isn't it? The examination of love in its deepest most enduring aspects.

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