So, tomorrow is the big day! St. Valentine’s Day, when we can indulge in all sorts of sentiment about love and loving: soppy poetry, vinegary commentary, a wistful look at what was or could have been, and a belly-laugh about what silly old things we humans can be when under the domination of love.
I met up with a friend this week for tea, and she pointed me to “The Ideal Marriage According to Novels” by Adelle Waldman in The New Yorker which talks about the different ways men and women write about romance. Basically, Waldman says that women like Jane Austen or Elena Ferrante have an ideal partner in mind who is the woman’s match in intellect and feeling towards the world. And men tend to describe romance as a mysterious thing, and the ideal partner provokes feelings in the male breast. She’s pretty, and her intelligence is a crowning glory (but what she says isn’t really the point; it’s her fitness to be his partner that is the important thing).
It’s a very interesting article, and you should go read it if you write romance, or read it. I do think she cherry-picks her examples a little bit. I can think of a few books I’ve read where the heroine does prize the man’s handsomeness and fitness (Susan Elizabeth Phillips, for example, and maybe Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels to some extent). I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any books by male writers where the man prizes his darling’s opinions – and states those opinions explicitly. But I’m sure they are out there.
What does come to mind is David Bowie. Oh, sure, he can sing about “Oh, You Pretty Things” with a lot of gusto and insinuation. But his song, “Life on Mars”, contains the line, “She could spit in the eyes of fools” — fools who expect the heroine to be a consumer of mass-produced violence and pap. I’ve read that the song’s “girl with the mousey hair” was a former girlfriend who was an actress. (OK, I read it in The Sun, so take it with a grain of salt. All this paragraph is speculation, really.) It would make sense that she’d have strong opinions about popular culture and the consumption of it, and this could be proof that Bowie was listening to what she had to say.
I don’t know. What I do know is that one of the most romantic things I’ve seen in 2015 was this 3:16 video of novelist Neil Gaiman and musician Amanda Palmer in the early days of being acquainted. They’ve since married and had a child, so maybe something was in the air already. In this clip, it’s 4 a.m. and she’s practicing Radiohead’s “Creep” on the ukulele after a show. I adore the way he listens to her and only has eyes for her. And I love the way that she expresses herself and asserts herself. If only I could capture this vibe, and set it to words on a page . . . .
I suspect that any two individuals are going to bring differing expectations to a partnership. That’s a big part of what any romantic story is about: discovering that the other person is The One, and then altering and adjusting expectations until they can form a partnership that lasts. One of my favorite romantic memes is when the gruff, brusque hero turns out to have a soft side that he feels safe enough (strong enough) to show to the heroine. And the soft, not-so-confident heroine discovers her own inner strength, and the power to show that to the man she loves. I love it when the genders are flipped, too. This sort of romantic trope is not the only game in town, of course, but it’s an important one.
I think that’s what we’re all aiming for in our writing – two people who find each other beautiful, and suitable, and who listen to each other and get each other. A meeting of both minds and hearts.