In many books and movies, romantic love—that mysterious mix of sexual attraction, infatuation and genuine affection—is the territory of the very young. I’m not sure if that's because of the large element of vulnerability (or the risk of appearing foolish) that goes along with swept-away, romantic, lustful love, that people over a certain age are loathe to succumb to, or the general ageism of our culture. But I think the evidence bears me out.
Of course, there is something irresistibly compelling about young lovers, their physical beauty and their emotional innocence--even if they are sexually experienced, in books or on the screen. (Although I’m very fond of Mr. Bates and Anna—Downton Abbey viewers, you know who I mean—and I’m glad they finally got to spend the night together)
|The Kiss by Auguste Rodin (1889)|
For a long time, the love stories that appealed to me most were obsessive ones: Endless Love by Scott Spencer, for example. I still find the final pages haunting, in which David, now “recovered” from the destructive passion that led him to set his beloved’s house on fire, imagines himself on a stage in an auditorium. When he looks out at the imaginary crowd, the seats are all filled and every face is hers. I was also enamored by Of Human Bondage by the wonderful Somerset Maugham, and fascinated by the appeal crude and cruel Mildred had for Philip, the earnest medical student. Whether it’s by virtue of age and experience, motherhood or marriage, I’m less drawn to stories of this kind, though I suspect I would still enjoy Of Human Bondage.
|Romeo and Juliet by Frank Bernard Dicksee (1884)|
In a more classical vein, of course, Romeo and Juliet, never loses its appeal. Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, are all wonderful novels with romantic plots and clever repartee, but the passion is deferred, I believe, until after the books have ended. Although they are sometimes dismissed for their romanticism, I think the novels of the Brontes actual depict a more realistic mix of love and physical longing. There definitely seems to be a sexual charge between Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and even Jane Eyre, who describes herself as little and plain, seems to harbor great passion for the brooding Rochester. There is still something so satisfying to me in the simple lines at the end of the book—when the two are reunited, “Reader, I married him.” Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, with its tragic twist, is another favorite of mine.
What is a good love story? One in which you can relate to the characters? Does the love have to be thwarted and then consummated to be satisfying? In movies, I’m moved by love that overcomes adversity, by devotion, and to those in it for the long haul. This may not sound romantic to younger readers, but I think there can be a kind of sexiness here, too, one borne of deep, compassionate knowledge of the other.
In the film, Love Actually, which I know some will dismiss as a piece of fluff, or worse, there is a storyline I particularly like. Alan Rickman, who is married to clever, loving (but middle-aged) Emma Thompson, has a fling with a pretty young woman in his office who makes it extremely easy for him to commit adultery--basically all he has to do is show up. Ms. Thompson’s pain on discovering the infidelity is extraordinarily well-portrayed. The movie is full of happy endings and theirs is one of them. She forgives him, though you feel the marriage will never be quite the same, and in the hands of less skilful actors, the storyline might not have worked. But, with Rickman and Thompson in the roles, it does. All of which is not to say that more transgressive love stories don’t appeal as well—but perhaps that is a topic for another day.
Among the books I’ve read recently, I would have to say the love story I enjoyed most is Antonia Fraser’s Must You Go?, in which she recounts her relationship with playwright Harold Pinter. Fraser and Pinter seemed to have found in each other an intellectual and romantic soulmate. Together, they enjoyed a life filled with literary successes, brilliant and interesting friends, and enduring devotion Although not dwelt on in the book, their love came at the expense of Pinter’s first wife, who eventually drank herself to death, and seems to have had a devastating effect on at least one of their children. (Pinter’s only son changed his last name and did not speak to his father for many years before his death. Fraser’s six children seem to have fared better.)
Ultimately, I believe that with the exception of the first euphoric months of a new relationship--especially if you are somewhere between the ages of 16 and 20—romantic love is a bit like happiness: that is, not the steady state in life, but rather made up of lovely and often unexpected moments. (The love and friendship of long-term relationships is another matter.) But that doesn’t necessarily make for compelling fiction.
By way of example, very early this morning, right on cue, I saw a boy of 17 or so standing outside an apartment building on our block. He was holding a large bouquet wrapped in cellophane. He was not dressed warmly enough for the weather, wearing only what appeared to be a school uniform, and shifted from foot to foot, from the cold or nerves or both. On my way back from my brief errand he was still waiting. I hope his sweetheart showed up.