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