Treat Yourself to the AAR Bookbag!
March 15, 2003 – Issue #157Robin and Anne lead discussions in this issue of At the Back Fence on “When Love Hurts,” a look at heartache in romance, and “Negative Awards – Necessity or Abomination?” Both topics feature a great deal of reader/author input, and Anne’s segment on negative awards, which grew out of an AARList thread, which in turn grew out of the categories in our annual reader poll, is particularly lively. Enjoy!
When Love Hurts size>(Robin Uncapher)
There is a scene early on in Marian Keyes’ Watermelon where Claire, the heroine, whose husband has left her for another woman, wakes in the night to begin one of those long internal conversations that only a heartbroken woman in love will recognize. It’s the “If-I-call-him-maybe-it-will-fix-things,” conversation. You know the one I mean. He’s dumped you. It’s one in the morning (seldom a time when a man is open to having a deep, life changing conversation). You know you are going to wake him from a sound sleep. You are breaking all The Rules. You know that calling him like this will make it worse, much worse and make you look like the pathetic, miserable person that you are (so attractive to men – that image). But you are not rational. You are in so much pain that even a fight with him sounds better than continuing to sit alone in the dark.
In this state Claire calls her husband at their old apartment:I started to dial the number of my apartment in London. There were a couple of clicks as the phone in Dublin connected with the phone in an empty apartment in a city four hundred miles away.
I let it ring. It might have been a hundred times. It might have been a thousand times.
It rang and rang, calling our to a cold dark, empty apartment. I could imagine the phone ringing and ringing beside the smooth, unruffled, unslept-in-bed, shadows from the window thrown on it as the lights from the street streamed in through the open curtains. Open, because there was no one there to close them.
And still I let it ring and ring. And slowly hope left me.
James wasn’t answering.
Because James wasn’t there. James was in another apartment. In another bed.
With another woman.
I was crazy to think that I could have got him back just because I wanted him back. Temporary Insanity had come a-calling and I had shouted “Come in, door is open.” Luckily Reality had come home unexpectedly and found Temporary Insanity roaming the corridors of my mind unchecked, going into rooms, opening cupboards, reading my letters, looking in my underwear drawer, that kind of thing. Reality had to throw out Temporary Insanity and slammed the door in his face. Temporary Insanity now lay in the gravel in the driveway of my mind, panting and furious, shouting, “She invited me in, you know. She asked me in. She wanted me there.”
We can call it Temporary Insanity, as Marian Keyes does, or depression, or a myriad of other things. But what it really is, at the center of all the pain, is old fashioned heartache. Loving hurts when the person you love doesn’t love you back.
Poetry is full of heartache. For many of us it’s heartache that brought us to poetry in the first place, much in the same way that people in love start listening more closely to songs on the radio because they suddenly make sense. My favorite poem, A Broken Appointment, by Thomas Hardy, begins:You did not come,
And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb.
Yet less for loss of your dear presence there
Than that I thus found lacking in your make
That high compassion which can overbear
Reluctance for pure loving kindness’ sake
Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,
You did not come.
Heartache is more than just feeling sad that we are not loved. It is also feeling crazy that we could love someone who is callous enough to have loved us once and then stopped. We think they are wonderful, important, critical to our happiness while at the same time we think they must be awful not to love us back.
In spite of the fact that Shakespeare, Hardy, Wordsworth and a million song writers have produced great art to express heartache, there is surprisingly little of it in romance novels. Most romance heroes and heroines seem to know deep down that everything will be okay. If they don’t know that the relationship will be okay, they know that they will be okay. They don’t experience that black inability to see the future without the loved one which is fairly common when people are really in love. There is however, some heartache in romance, and I often find that my very favorite romance novels are the ones where the heroine experiences some kind of fierce heartache.
Watermelon is Chick Lit, not a romance novel, and this gives the author more freedom with her characters. LLB didn’t care much for the book mainly because the husband (the same man Claire tries to call in the passage above) Claire thought was terrific and spent five years loving turned out to be a complete jerk. Worse, though, as LLB explains in her review, is that the book reminded her “of phone calls with friends married to good men who, seemingly overnight, turn into bad men. Perhaps because this happened fairly recently to a friend and colleague, this bit of reality ruined the fantasy of Claire finding her soul mate in Adam. And though there’s much to recommend about this novel, it may leave a sour taste in the mouth.”
I liked Watermelon very much, though I had many of the same thoughts about it that Laurie had. My feeling is that Keyes made a mistake in her early descriptions of the marriage. This is not a book where the heroine has misgivings about her husband which prove true. It is also not a book where the reader can see past the heroine’s mistaken appraisal of her husband’s character. No, the reader of Watermelon falls in love with James and becomes as bitter as Claire when he turns out to have clay feet.
Like Laurie, I wanted Claire’s marriage to James to work out. But the book’s structure made that tough to imagine happening. The husband abandoned Claire and their baby on the day she gave birth. Two months later he still had not bothered to learn her name. There were five years of marriage to consider, but the reason James had cheated was so flimsy that it was very hard to imagine him not doing it again.
I wanted it to work. I wanted the heartache to magically be mended. I wanted James to love Clarie and be sorry. No going to another man was going to be quite a satisfying to me as the reconciliation of the original couple. And yet, as a reader I could see that was impossible. Why? Because what heartache wants is for the impossible to happen. It wants that Temporary Insanity in the middle of the night to be right. It was all a mistake. He really loves me.
The list of romance novels that have evoked very strong feelings of heartache isn’t all that long. Yes, there’s a lot of angst. Many heroes have tragic backstories that are told in a few paragraphs at the start of a book. Some have excellent sad backstories woven into the story itself. But there are surprisingly few convincing broken hearts when the source of the heartache is the other half of the couple. There are few big ones, however. The Bronze Horseman, which includes a long period where the heroine doubts the hero’s love (for excellent reasons), is a masterpiece of heartbreak.
I posted on our Potpourri Message Board to discover whether other romance readers have a similar fondness for serious heartbreak in Romance and Chick Lit. There are indeed some, and many of their favorite books are also my favorites. Here’s Di’s response:
“Diana Gabaldon ruined me and made me need severe angst for the hero and heroine before they finally get together and even while they’re together. That’s also why Paullina Simons’ Tatiana and Alex stories are among my favorites. The only (other) authors who really did it for me were Marsha Canham and Kathleen Givens. While not as severe emotionally as the above mentioned but it’s there, and very realistic.”color>
In talking with readers about heartache in romance The Bronze Horseman and the Outlander series came up a lot. One thing that readers stressed was that not just any heartache would do. To be a special book the heartache had to be unusually well written and believable. Kaija explained this when she wrote:
“I don’t find heartache a requisite in a romance novel but when it’s well done, I appreciate it. One author who can do it very well is Elizabeth Lowell. I don’t like all her books by any means, but the two that I adore (Only His and Untamed) have very painful inner conflict for hero, heroine or both. It’s especially well done in Untamed. Meg sees the good qualities in Dominic but she also sees him very clearly, all his ambitions, his plans and his inability to really trust anyone but Simon