Tag Archives: love

Love is selfish

Here’s where I admit that I look down on the kind of hero who stays away from a heroine “for her own good”. As far as I’m concerned, the species of human love that romance novels deal with is a selfish beast. I find it much more romantic if a hero knows he should stay away, and comes closer anyway.

This is a personal preference – and in no way “how romantic love is”. But it’s a rather strongly held preference.

It comes partly from the experience of dating a budding Buddhist (ha!) in my early 20s. He was attempting to let strong emotions wash by without attaching to them, and I was attempting to grab onto passion with both hands. His goal was to love everyone  on earth equally, and I wanted to be loved the most, reason be damned.

Needless to say, we did not last. My vague annoyance with Eastern religions lasted, though, as did my less vague sense that it is not a good or selfless thing to say, “You. Above everyone else, you”, but it was the only kind of love I was going to settle for.

And I don’t think it was only a histrionic, vain kind of a wish. Because there are days when knowing that I matter the most to this one person gives me something to hold on to. It makes me necessary. It enforces meaning onto what can sometimes seem painfully arbitrary.

So. That’s my take on romantic love, and I have no time for heroes who stay away.

Now to qualify that statement, though, because I’m not a maniac. Heroes who stay away because of some condescending belief that they know what’s best: No. But of course there are good reasons to stay away.

If the heroine is in actual physical danger because of her association with the hero, staying away seems reasonable. And I like the more nuanced approach of a hero who hasn’t yet made up his mind what he’s prepared to give up for the heroine, or what he’s prepared to take on. This is a variation of selfish love. It’s more like, “I stay away for my own good. For now.”

At the end of my novel my heroine stays away from my hero, but only because she’s building certain assets for herself so that when they meet again she’ll be able to fully claim him. She knows she’ll do more harm than good if she claims him too early, so in a sense it’s for his own good – but she’s busy making up the difference. She’s not off somewhere wallowing in how bad for him she is.

The eternally moving last paragraph of The Thorn Birds says all this better than I can. I’m literally going to quote the last paragraph of the book, and it’s the best ending I’ve ever read, so if you haven’t yet read the book DO NOT READ ON! (And if you haven’t yet read the book, get cracking.)

The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.

wedding vows in action

We wrote our own wedding vows. Contrary to what you might expect, mine were full of well-considered guidelines of behaviour for our future, and special k vowed to love me beneath a mountain, by a forest, under a moon.

One of my vows was this:

I will not mistake success or failure in our lives for the success or failure of our marriage.

Today I went for an interview at the Big Issue for a part-time editorial position. I didn’t get the job.

When special k came home, he cuddled me for a while. He told me that it isn’t nice to have someone say, “No. Not you.” Then we cooked dinner together. We carefully planned how we would stuff the zucchini flowers with mozzarella then dip them in beer batter and deep fry them. I watched with admiration as he added the pasta to mushrooms and tomato cooked in shallots and garlic, and he cheered me on as I fried the prawns.

We were closed in the kitchen in the kind of warm camaraderie that autumn brings. I tentatively allowed myself to think, “At least I still have this,” which was when I remembered my wedding vow.

It’s an odd feeling, an odd equation that the human heart makes. I did not succeed today, it says. Therefore I do not deserve the unreserved comfort and enjoyment of home.

I knew, when I wrote that vow, that it would be a hard one to live by. But today I did, and I feel triumphant.

THIS is why I read romance

I love Jennifer Crusie. She is so many of those words that don’t mean much one after the other, like wise, funny, insightful, sympathetic, sexy and incredibly human. Or rather, her writing is. I don’t know the woman personally.

I just read Bet Me, which Crusie says she wrote in ’92, but couldn’t get anyone to publish till ’04. “Editors were universally unenthusiastic about it, which was just inexplicable to me.” To me too. I loved this book, and I see people calling it their favourite Crusie all the time.

I don’t really want to do a review so much as say: This book is an affirmation. And not in a new agey way, where you’re saying something over and over, like “I am a successful writer” and feeling more fearful every time you say it, because someone somewhere is sure to notice how unconvinced you are.

This book is affirming in the kind of way that makes me feel braver about being alive.

Not a feeling I get when I read Peter Temple and I’m stuck in a car with his displaced detective who’s looking at the grey gobs of fat on the cold hamburger he’s about to eat. Truth did grow on me more the more I read, but it never once made me feel this internal glow.

My aversion to reading gritty “realist” fiction has given me hours of introspection. Do I read romance just to escape, is that a bad thing, and is it wrong to look to fiction for this feeling of encouragement and hope? (And is that feeling synonymous with escape? And is that just about the most depressing thing in the world if it is?)

I don’t want to give the impression that Bet Me is all sunshine and rainbows. Funny thing, but when characters and their surroundings are too peachy, a romance novel just leaves me with a hollow, itchy feeling. I think it portrays love in just about the most realistic way possible: the terror when you face actual love, and the courage it takes to believe in it. (You can go here for my impassioned argument that romance novels depict a realistic experience of love. Ah, bless.)

I’ve been brainstorming the second half of my novel, and am completely daunted by the task of making sure my characters’ potential pays off. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is: Why romance? What am I actually trying to say about love? I’ve come to a general conclusion which is that, for me, love gives life meaning.

The more specific expression of this is starting to come through in my heroine’s emotional evolution. She goes from: life = surviving to: even though life is all about surviving I will live as though it’s not.


I’ve just launched into Elizabeth Gilbert’s book about marriage, Committed. I didn’t get very far with Eat, Pray, Love, because her experience didn’t speak to me, so the shabby use of tense annoyed me.

This book is more interesting to me so far, for obvious reasons. I will most likely have a lot to say about marriage in the next couple of days.

For tonight, after an argument with special k (which between us tends to be a tense, rational conversation full of ominous silences), there’s this: Marriage isn’t conducted to some cosmic scale of weights and balances. “Unfair” is simply irrelevant. You try and figure out what’s important and you do whatever it takes.

True Grit

given who I am, and what I write, it may not surprise you that what I took from the Coen brothers’ remake of the Western True Grit was that it’s a love story between a fourteen-year-old girl and a fifty-something-year-old man.

Go figure.

I guess Mr Le Boeuf (played by Matt Damon) had some part of the emotional configuration, but for me Cogburn was, without a doubt, the romantic hero.

Oh dear. I wonder if I sound a little, er, crazy.

I was forming a theory that artists are given license, in portraying less pc times, to be less pc. See the line where Maddy’s naming her horse Little Blackie and the little black boy helping her out says “Good name!” See any number of sexist overtures and gratuitous drinking in Mad Men.

In a way, as a viewer, it’s kind of relaxing. There’s some allowance, because it’s not you thinking or enjoying those things, it’s just a true expression of the times.

Then I thought of Leon, the film about a French assassin who is saddled with and finally falls in love with a young girl. It is (or at least, was) a contemporary film.

I found then, and True Grit has confirmed me in this opinion, that it’s a deeply moving, deeply interesting romance to explore when all the elements are put together right. In both cases – though more so in True Grit, I would say – there is no possibility of romantic expression. He is far too old, she is far too young.

But all the things that belong to love, they have.

It’s a construction much more often found where sexual deviancy is also found. Maybe people who are already thinking outside the square are open to exploring what transverses a fine and dangerous line.

It just proves to me that those lines are worth travelling, and exploring, even if we terrify ourselves a little in the process.

Lymond 4: some great writing

I haven’t posted for a few days, because I am lost in Checkmate, the sixth and final book in the chronicles. I got off the tram today just as I finished reading a hugely dramatic scene, and walked all the way down the wrong street in 40-degree sun.

So I thought I’d just share two of my favourite pieces of writing from this book:

Nostradamus giving romantic advice to Philippa: “Here you have a hawk of the lure, not of the fist. He will not come to you. If you would have him, you must lay your heart upon your hawking-glove; and feed it to him.”

Aside from just being a very evocative statement, this makes me smile, because it’s so typical of the books. Love and passion, but love that risks everything and is inextricably bound to death.

A lie is a broad and spacious and glittering thing, sweeping belief before it from its very grandeur. But the truth fits, like an old man cutting cloth in an attic.

I love this image. An old man cutting cloth in an attic doesn’t have anything to do with telling the truth, but it feels absolutely right, and describes a feeling I immediately understand.

It reminds me a little of the image at the end of Banville’s The Sea, of the waves moving along the beach like the ripple of material falling from a seamstress’s machine. (I am baldly paraphrasing, by the way. I’m sure Banville would disapprove from the literary heights.)

special edition with special k #2

The city without walls

an anthology setting forth the drama of human life

arranged by Margaret Cushing Osgood.

Published 1933 by Macmillan in New York .

Written in English.

Have you ever heard of this book? No? Well I’m not surprised. I had little to no success finding anything about it on the internet, but I did used to own a copy.

Let me tell you about it.

The book is an anthology of quotes and excerpts by almost every infamous literary or theological figure you can think of. The contents is divided into historical figures (Napoleon, Gandhi, etc.), religious figureheads (Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, etc.), famous authors (Wordsworth, Rumi, etc.) and then by theme (Love, Sorrow, Twilight, Gypsy, Death and, of course, Romance.)

Now we know you haven’t read the romance section of The City Without Walls unless you somehow manage to have a copy gathering dust on your bookshelf. So we don’t know what’s in it. And so I would like to create our own section right here!

I’ll go first:

I remember Paris perfectly. The Germans wore grey, you wore blue. Rick Blaine, Casablanca.

My contribution is limited by my lack of romance literature prowess. So I expect your contributions to be much better. Once I have sufficient contributions I will post them all in special k’s next edition.




Lymond 3: love is cryptonite

Lymond has fallen in love. It was possibly the best fictional moment ever.

Some thoughts about how the most superior, restrained, unreachable character I have ever read managed to fall in love believably. (And this is a useful thing to look at, given how often a great, tortured hero is made void by falling in love.)

I had no idea how Dunnett would have him fall in love with Philippa, given that he is superior to everyone he meets – and they always want him more than he wants them, which always gives him the upper hand.

It seemed to be a two-armed approach – though I’m sure the beast really has at least ten arms, and I’m just missing all the subtleties, as usual.

1. Philippa doesn’t give in to Lymond’s bullying, where everyone else in his life, at some point or other, does. The worst threat he can hold above her is to deny himself the friendship of she and her mother, which he can’t afford to do (as this halves the friends he has in the world, poor old Lymond). And even then she won’t be turned aside.

2. She is as inquisitive as him, quicksilver intelligent, and courageous in a human, error-filled way that he is not. So whilst the fact that she can stand up to him has some fascination, it is tempered by the way that her brain sparks his alight, and by the ways she surprises him – and most of all by the fact that she made him laugh.

Here is a brilliant moment: Dunnett has spent five books plumbing the depths of Lymond’s restraint and, particularly in the fifth book, paring away all the human sentiment in him that holds him back from greatness. And then Philippa makes him laugh, by hitting him with a costume axe.

Then, when the realisation that he’s in love strikes, he walks around in a daze all evening, not aware of what’s going on around him.

It reminds of an anecdote an old boyfriend told me: He saw a guy jump the curb on a skateboard. The skater didn’t land the jump and stood there, staring at his board, for a whole minute. By the fact that he was so put out by misjudging such a simple trick, said boyfriend knew he was a pro.

So here’s how I think Dunnett pulls off the ultimate anti-hero in love: With his great powers of intellect and restraint, he doesn’t let that knowledge affect his life, or the way he conducts his life. But he is unable to control his actions quite so well as before, and an element of unpredictability has entered the life he is used to controlling down to every last expression.

I have some thoughts about heroes and their heroine-as-kryptonite that you can read here.

2 years of marriage

last night me and special k went out to celebrate our 2-year wedding anniversary. Though it’s not long in the scheme of a whole lifetime, I am insanely proud.

(My mother, whose husband takes her out every sunday and languishes when she has to go away for work, is always prepared for the possibility that he’ll find a much younger, more energetic woman to leave her for. She’s very philosophical about it.

My sister recently told her she’s just going to have to come to terms with the fact that Dad’s never going to leave her. I may have inherited some of her matter-of-fact weirdness about the future – in light of which, every day my marriage is still real and lasting is a success.)

I asked special k, “So, how do you feel, two years down the line?”

He pulled a bunch of faces at me, and I thought: Here we go, he’s gone into awkward boy mode, in the face of an intimate, searching question. “Are you going to answer?”

“It’s a big question!” he said. Then he looked at me, loving and vulnerable and said, “Complete,” with a lack of self-consciousness that only love, I think, can utter and hear.

I said, “I think it’s still the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.”

Then we drank a bunch of cocktails that tasted like Old Spice.

plot jealousy

me and Cat were talking today about how when a character falls in love, the object of their affection has to become their greatest weakness. I re-watched Hancock tonight, and that premise is so beautifully written into the film that I really, really wish I’d thought of it first.

*spoilers ahead, people!*

Hancock is the only superhero on earth, and he’s a lonely, drunken asshole. Until a PR guy takes him on, and dares him to face the fact that he’s running, and that he will never be happy until he accepts his role as hero and saviour.

That guy’s wife also just happens to be Hancock’s other half – his wife, before he had his head bashed in 80 years earlier and forgot everything.

They are angels, gods – superheroes. They are immortal until they are close to their other half. Then they are graced with mortality, with the ability to live, and love, and die. Dying being the operative part.

Unfortunately, the universe wants to keep Hancock alive, i.e. keep he and his wife apart, so any time they come close, she is wounded to get to him.

I think my favourite scene is after he’s been shot and admitted to hospital and his wife comes to see him and to explain. She shows him the scars on his own body – each a testament to his saving her throughout history. She knows his body intimately, and his scars are signs of a deep and selfless love, in a life where he thought he had no one.

Then he has to fly as far from her as he can go, to save her life.

It’s a tragic love story in the best possible way. The wife stays with her human husband – who is equally heroic in his quieter, more human way. She exercises her free will. But watching over her, and eternal with her, is her other half.

Ah sigh. Plot jealousy.