I am quite an omnivorous reader, but one genre that I very seldom touch is ‘romance’. Except that, of course, love is a perennial subject in literature, so you can’t really avoid it. I suppose a very broadbrush way to distinguish romance as a genre is that in ‘literary’ fiction (or crime) the love usually ends badly (or leads to endless ruminations and shame and guilt), while in romantic novels there is usually a happy end.
Perhaps I don’t believe in happy ends? You will say, no doubt, that this comes from bitter personal experience. And yet… I can’t wait to attend the Silver Wedding Anniversary of some friends from my student days, which will be organised over Zoom next weekend by their four children, who have been collecting pictures, anecdotes etc. from their friends scattered all over the world!
A funny incident over the Bank Holiday weekend provided me with the occasion to wonder at what point I got cynical about long-lasting happy relationships. Some friends of mine invited me to a BBQ and, unbeknownst to me, also invited a divorced father of roughly my age as well, possibly in the hope that they might act as matchmakers. Not only did the penny not drop until I was on my way home, but I also realised that I simply do not have it in me to make polite conversation and show an interest in a man’s job, hobbies, outlook on life, when he just drones on about himself and doesn’t even pretend to ask any questions in exchange. My years of gently drawing out, encouraging and smiling in all the right places, and trying not to rebuke self-centred egoists are over. Of course, not all men are like that: I’ve had many a fascinating conversation with happily married men, or younger men, or gay men. Men, in other words, who are more interested in my brains and wit rather than my looks.
Of course, as a teenager, I was very passionate and had several boyfriends on the go at once (and was madly in love with every one of them – for different reasons). But even back then, I did not like the books or films that ended in picturesque weddings. I adored love poetry, especially the suffering and sighing bits, like any self-respecting emo teen (although there was a cheery streak in me which got bored with all the pining after a while). I suppose what I considered romantic back then was something full of lust and overwrought emotions, but so wrong, so doomed to failure. Works such as Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Lady of the Camellias. But it wasn’t just the classics I read – aged about 10-14 I was obsessed with the slightly fictionalised historical novels of Jean Plaidy, or the Gothic romances of her alter ego Victoria Holt, as well as Jane Austen and her ‘lighter cousin’ Georgette Heyer. But, with the exception of Jane Austen, I haven’t reread any of them since.
It occurs to me that the ‘happy ending, feel-good’ romances do not seem to occur very often in the literatures I like to read (or maybe they just do not get translated much). Japanese love stories are twisted and strange for the most part; Romanian, Italian Brazilian and Spanish writers seem to be full of romantic gestures at first sight, but there’s a manipulative machismo underlying it; while the French seem to be as cynical and jaded as me. (That also seems to be the case for many of the films from the above-mentioned countries).
I am probably far too ignorant of the genre, but it feels to me like the Harlequin Romance/Mills and Boon type of novels are very much a product of the English-speaking world. And, while they are translated and read elsewhere, the rest of the world seems to prefer the grittiness of soap operas, with affairs, betrayals and illegitimate children galore. Another quick observation here: foreign soap operas tend to feature wealthy people, so there’s a good dose of escapism and oogling at beautiful homes. So I don’t quite understand the success of East Enders and Coronation Street here in the UK, I have to admit.
Of the books I’ve read over the past few years, are there any love stories that are believable, do not end badly and do not bring the cynic out in me? Here are some books that struck me as very romantic, although perhaps not in the conventional sense of the word:
- Brigid Brophy: The Snow Ball
- Penelope Fitzgerald: The Gate of Angels
- Alison Anderson: The Summer Guest
- Maggie O’Farrell: Hamnet
- Cora Sandel: Alberta Alone
- Julian Barnes: The Only Story
- Monique Schwitter: One Another
29 thoughts on “Romantic Or Not?”
I tend to say that I don’t really like stories where the romance is the main point, but I can be tricked into caring about a romantic relationship if it’s snuck in around plot or other themes. Though I had a look through my most recent reads and I don’t think I’ve read a book in that category for a while.
Yes, I struggled to find some and had to go back 2.5 years or so…
How refreshing it is to hear such honesty about men!
I’ve paid my dues at the altar of male greatness… (even where it was only self-annointed greatness)
BTW, it is so disappointing to think that The Summer Guest is out of print. Maybe if Alison publishes another, The Summer Guest will be resuscitated…
Oh, no, I didn’t realise it was out of print…. What a shame. It’s such a beautiful book!
I’m the same as you I think in that I would avoid like the plague a book which was *only* about a romance. I need more from a book, although I have no issues if a relationship is integral to the plot. I mean, plenty of the Russian greats have passion, but that’s not the only point of the book. Mills and Boon? Not for me!
I know what you mean about happy endings, Marina Sofia. They have to be done really well for me to buy into the story. In real life, I think most love stories are more complicated than that, even the successful ones. My story hasn’t been all sweetness and light, and I’ve been happily married for almost 37 years. Life’s not like that, and I like my books to reflect life.
Yes, I like a well-seasoned, realistic view of love, rather than fairytale style. Having said that, some of the modern retellings/reworkings of fairytales are brilliant!
Romance novels – absolutely not for me. Those books which have pastel coloured covers and some wistful looking girl are the ones I walk right past in the bookshop.
Relationship novels I’m much more comfortable with – but I don’t need them to have a happy ever after ending in order to enjoy them.
It was a bit embarrassing at some point because a couple of old friends were writing these kind of novels and asking for my feedback. I had to admit that my feedback would probably not be very useful for them, because I don’t read enough of them to have an informed opinion.
Reminds me of that line in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity: “What came first – the music or the misery? Did I listen to the music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to the music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?”
It’s like that but with books!
I think you would like Keiichiro Hirano’s books if you haven’t already read them, I was struck by the very my-time-of-life attitudes to love and romance…
Ooh, I’ve heard of After the Matinee, but haven’t read it (is there a film too?) I see he has also published something more thrillerish, A Man, or at least, it’s been translated into English. Hmmm, might investigate.
There was a film of Matinee last year! A Man is more of a thriller/mystery with some social comment too. I loved it! At the End of the Matinee is a romance, but also lots about creativity and approaching middle age as well. The aftermath of 2011 features in both (here’s my review in case it’s useful! https://10mh.net/2021/06/03/at-the-end-of-the-matinee-review-keiichiro-hirano-tackles-21st-century-love/)
I rather like books that end at the proposal, like Austen and Heyer. One can pretend then that they all lived happily ever after. I suspect that’s the appeal of the Mills and Boon type of book, though I’ve only ever read one and that was many decades ago. I feel a book that showed a happily married couple who never wavered in their commitment to each other would cross my credibility line… 😉
I have personally known a few of these devoted couples – although I don’t think they ever claimed to not be frustrated by each other at times, but they could joke about it. I recently saw Elsa la Rose, about Louise Aragon and Elsa Triolet, by Agnes Varda, and it was so sweet, so poignant. It’s that kind of connection that warms the cockles of my heart!
If a book is only a standard ‘courtship/marriage’ story, forget it. I’ve tried Georgette Heyer several times through the years and haven’t been able to finish one, I end getting thoroughly annoyed or bored with the characters.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that I was prone to read those when I was 10-14 and had little notion of love, still believed in the more fairytale elements of it. Having said that, I do remember Heyer being quite funny in parts.
I remember thinking about doing a Valentine’s post, looking on my shelves for suitable books and realising there weren’t any! It’s just not very interesting to me, and often I think the relationship portrayed isn’t very healthy or romantic at all. I do love stories about friendship though.
And thank goodness there are more books about friendships coming out recently…
For me, there’s a very small handful of books that function as literary fiction with a romance that ends well: The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall, for instance, probably the only book I’ve ever read where a woman gets to keep being exactly who she is, with no seismic, fundamental character change, after having a child, and where a romantic relationship grows very much in relation to her work as a wildlife biologist, the stuff that *really* matters to her. There’s also Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection, which is a happy-ending love story featuring two supremely unphotogenic and awkward people. Perhaps also AS Byatt’s Possession, which does have the grand, sweeping, tragic love story in one strand but also a romance in which two people discover their love for each other through a shared love of the same work and an attempt to solve the same academic puzzle?
Yes, I loved Possession because it was exactly what my nerdy self craved for… I should have gone back in time to some other satisfying depictions of love, but I tried to stick to just the last 2 years of reading.
I had a long-lasting romantic relationship and I truly dislike classic romance books. My problem is that they always make it seem like the woman has nothing else in her life besides getting or keeping a man. How insane! That’s just not how the world works.
Interesting you thought Hamnet was somewhat romantic. Now that I think about it, yes, it does have some romance there, but not as a be-all and end-all of Agnes’ life.
I rather liked the way that both Agnes and William are portrayed as very independent, strong characters, who are growing apart in a way, but then those scenes of watching Hamlet being performed and realising their parental unity and love… that’s the kind of romance I can be on board with.
The classic fairytale romance has a lot to answer for, doesn’t it? I’m happy to watch the odd romcom but they’re simply another version of the archetypal romantic novel, a plot which can be summarised as boy-meets-girl (or variations thereof), things go pear-shaped, then it’s all ironed out. If it’s done wittily it’s tolerable, otherwise it’s all just so much ho-hum humdrum hokum.
But in the greater scheme of things is not the Happy Ending devoutly to be wished? What Tolkien termed eucatastrophe — when success was snatched from the jaws of defeat — as opposed to dyscatastrophe: surely hope is what drives us on rather than the tragic Othello- or Tosca-like ending? Or is it that trite endings put us off as being just a little too pat and unrealistic? (Oh bugger, I seem to have gone into full mansplaining mode, which I was desperately trying to avoid.)
Anyway, I shall just say that I concur: romance as a genre is fine in its place, but just doesn’t appeal to me—if there’s to be romance as the main plot in a conventional novel I prefer it to be both messy and realistic.
Not a fan of rom coms either, I’m afraid – and I think the problem is that often in those kind of books or films, women are portrayed as only finding fulfilment in a relationship, no matter how prickly or successful or independent or witty or whatever they might be at the outset. Something is always missing… and that missing piece often turns out to be a man.
I prefer reading these days to men. However, Kent Haruf’s final novel – Our Souls at Night was beautiful, quiet and very romantic with its older central couple. By contrast I have read Riders and Polo by Jilly Cooper and they were such fun! But I don’t need to read any more of them.
The only Romance books I’ve read are Georgette Heyer, which I devoured in my teens. What I loved most was the witty dialogue, but I don’t know I could re read them now. Regarding the French, a recent popular book was Changer l’eau des fleurs, about a woman who looks after a cemetery. It had a feel-good, happy ending. It is available in English, but I forget the title.
Relationships – yes. Nice Romance – no. That seems to be the consensus round here.