Here’s a narrative rule about love stories (but rules are made to be broken) – they usually work in one of two ways:
1.) The romance. Boy meets girl, or man meets woman, but they are separated by apparently insurmountable obstacles: pride and prejudice, for example, or social inequality and a mad wife in the attic. Eventually the obstacles are overcome and the couple are united. Jane Eyre is my favourite example of this kind of story – it’s my Ur-romance, the one I read first.
2.) Is the inverse of 1.) The couple come together some time before the end, and the drive of the story, as it turns out, is towards separation, as insurmountable obstacles come between the lovers and force them apart.
It can be (should be?) hard to tell which kind of story you’re reading till the very last page. Both use your uncertainty and doubt, and the suspense that creates, to hook you in and pull you through. Will they or won’t they?
My second novel, After I Left You, uses two timelines to give the same two people two different love stories. In the present, they meet long after the end of their relationship; many years earlier, they encounter each other for the first time. It’s not will they or won’t they, so much as: why can’t she (or shouldn’t she)? It’s not due to be published till January 2014, though, so if that’s piqued your curiosity, there’s a bit longer to wait to see how it turns out in the end.
Love and un-love, from Casablanca to Gone Girl
I have been told that readers, and viewers, like conclusive endings, and I think that is true, but some stories make a virtue out of uncertainty. Gone with the Wind is an obvious example: will-they-or-won’t-they remains as a final hope, a grace note, conferring a tentative immortality on the sparring lovers by raising the possibility that they may one day rebound together yet again.
Here are some other classic films that fall into the second type (where the lovers fall apart rather than together):
- Casablanca. Here the obstacle is War, the epic backdrop against which the troubles of three people don’t amount to more than a hill of beans. But as far as we’re concerned, of course, the individuals are epic, and the war is reduced to a horizon line, its details smoothed and miniaturised by distance.
- Brief Encounter. Surely one of the most heartbreaking of love stories. Here the lovers are up against not just society and its values, but also their own morality – the imperative to be good and sad rather than bad and briefly, selfishly happy. I agree wholeheartedly with Zadie Smith’s assertion, in a review published in her essay collection Changing My Mind, about what makes this film so distinctively English: when the couple decide they must part, most of their agonising final encounter is given over to politely passing the time of day with a busybody acquaintance. There really is no escaping other people.
- Love Story. Girl meets boy, they fall in love; then she gets sick. There is nothing like definitive loss to define what has been lost.
Every love story needs opposition – whether it’s war, ill health, other people, death – to tell us what love is. But love can be so mixed up with un-love (separation, isolation, anger, fear) that it is difficult to tell them apart. Gone Girl (which might more accurately be called a hate story than a love story) gets plenty of mileage out of our instinctive understanding of this: what possibilities lurk in the un-love we might prefer not to acknowledge?
When I studied Romeo and Juliet at school, our teacher pointed out how shrewd Shakespeare was to introduce a Romeo who professed to be in love with some other random girl, and was teased by his friends for being pathetic about it. When Juliet comes along we are in no doubt that this is suddenly the real thing. It’s mutual, for a start. It’s eloquent (it speaks in sonnets). The lovers are inspired, and transformed… but the odds are stacked up against them, in direct proportion to the strength of their feelings.
A blood feud is certainly an unpromising beginning to in-law relations. Not to mention the dawn that brings the lark and not the nightingale, the charm that works all too well, the message that fails to meet its destination, and, ultimately, mortality, the conclusion that waits to sever all lovers in the end (though in art at least, even that can be overcome).
What do we talk about when we talk about love?
Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a brilliantly concise, and oblique, answer to the questions that all love stories ask: what is love, really, and how do we know when it’s real? The story introduces two couples, who are going to discuss the subject for us by invoking the stories of other couples, all the while knocking back stacks of booze.
First up is Terri, who is, as her husband Mel says, a romantic ‘of the kick-me-so-I’ll-know-you-love-me school’. Terri describes an ex who beat her up one night: ‘He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying, I love you, I love you, you bitch… what do you do with love like that?’ Terri is convinced this was love – ‘he was willing to die for it. He did die for it,’ but Mel is not so sure: ‘I’m not interested in that kind of love… If that’s love, you can have it.’
So then it’s Mel’s chance to have his say. What does he talk about when he talks about love? Well – I urge you to read the whole story to find out (it’s only 13 pages long), but here’s a taster: ‘It seems to me we’re just beginners at love. We say we love each other and we do, I don’t doubt it… But sometimes I have a hard time accounting for the fact that I must have loved my first wife too. But I did. I know I did… How do you explain that? What happened to that love? What happened to it, is what I’d like to know. I wish someone would tell me.’
Also, if you haven’t yet, read (or re-read) James Joyce’s short story The Dead, about another lost love. See where it ends. See where the promise of love can take you. And see if the hairs don’t stand up on the back of your neck.