Tag Archives: love

human by portions and percentages

there’s a new Aussie show on ABC1 that I’m really enjoying for its indulgence and humour. That show is Rake, about a highly flawed, disreputable barrister in Sydney.

A short segment of dialogue from the last episode has stuck with me.


Cleaver Greene, our anti-hero, has just slept with his best friend’s wife. In an effort to unload himself to his ex-wife, he starts talking about a nature documentary he watched about chimpanzees – how they’re 98.7% like humans.

“There’s this 1.3% disparity”, he says, “that apparently has something to do with our ability to program dvd players, but essentially they are us, and we are them.”

Followed by an ode to the chimp way of life: the women in competition, until they go on heat, which pitches the males into out-and-out war with each other. He bemoans the fact that humans are expected to stay married to the same person for a lifetime, no matter how dull it gets. Then:

“98.7% of us is telling us we’re morons, it’s just this 1.3% – the dvd-programming part – telling us we’re doing the right thing.”

This struck me as such a poignant picture of the human condition. And it really is what marriage feels like sometimes – the tiny, cultivated part of the brain at war with tens of thousands of years of biology.

some thoughts about Jane Eyre

eeep! I don’t think this is the best-made trailer, but I can’t wait to watch the film. I was talking with Cat the other day about Jane Eyre, and she was saying that she never particularly got the romance of it.

I have always loved it, since my English teacher gave it to me for my 15th birthday.

*if it’s possible you haven’t read the book, there are spoilers ahead. But, seriously, why haven’t you read it?*

As a teenager I could never quite forgive Bronte for blinding and crippling Rochester, but I feel like the older I get, the more sense the ending makes. He has so much power over Jane – emotional, physical, financial. So in order for them ever to have a good life together, she needs to go and find family who will protect and fight for her and money to support herself. And lastly, his injuries level the physical playing ground.

I also love the decision she’s faced with in the end: To go and “save the world” and give her life to the endeavour, or to be with the one flawed human who needs her – who needs the passionate, personal part of her.

Whenever people question historical romance characters as being too outside their time, or propriety, or the way women would have been, I think of those Bronte girls living on the heath with such passionate romance burning away inside them.

chemical love

occasionally when a hero kisses a heroine and she melts in his arms, I think “Puh-lease”.

But I really don’t have a single leg/toe/molecule to stand on. I am psychologically unable to stay rigidly upright when kissed.

When you think about it objectively this is really weird. A soft bit of my face touches a soft bit of his face and I melt. Hmmm. These are the moments when I wonder what on earth is zipping through my body.

Special k wants to understand the chemistry of coffee roasting and brewing. Maybe I should attempt to understand the chemistry of kisses. And love.

It’s never made sense to me to dismiss love as “just a chemical reaction”. Wouldn’t it be stranger if we felt something so fervent independently to the body? Er, would that be possible? It’s pretty chicken-and-egg stuff.

It reminds me of this amazing video I watched recently. A scientist explains the universe – the weight, shape and life-span of it. And then he more or less says:

We can only understand it this way, because it is the universe we see this way. In another billion years scientists will see a different universe altogether and that is the universe they will describe.

(He takes the simpler (narrower/more cynical/more sensible?) view that because the universe can be explained, religion is discounted. He wouldn’t allow that a chemical reaction is the physical manifestation or expression of love. Probably.)

I don’t think physical phenomena and the myths we tell about them can never be independent of each other.

homoerotics in straight vampire fiction

You may have started picking up on the fact that I’m reading J R Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series. We’re talking a book a day here, but I got some homework done this arvo, so it’s all good.

I just finished the third book, Lover Awakened, which is by far my favourite so far. In fact, I think it would make it onto my top ten romance books list.

It also had by far the most homoerotic vibe so far, and I think it’s so interesting how J R Ward manages to do that in a hetero atmosphere that’s safe enough for leery readers.

Just to get the basic premise out of the way: Six specially bred vampire warriors are part of a mystical brotherhood and they protect their race from extinction. One of them is their blind king, and they are revered but violent and kind of psychotic. But in a good way, I guess.

Ward allows them not only the closeness of loyalty and brotherhood, but also a physical closeness, a physical loyalty. When Zsadist’s mate comes back after 6 weeks of torture and is being checked by the doctor, his brothers hold him up between their two bodies and he hides his face in the king’s mane of black hair.

(There’s a lot of context here: the guy hasn’t let anyone touch him in, like, centuries.)

Another of the brothers feeds his unwitting human roomie/best friend a glass of vamp blood then holds him while his body goes through hell – and climaxes in, er, a climax.

The best thing, I think, is that there’s a lot of ribbing each other about being gay, but not the tiniest hint of judgement or even a great amount of definition between them on the issue. All there is, is their love for each other.

Heady stuff.

It’s the same reason she pulls off the straight relationships too, I think. One particular part stood out for me: There’s a young kid watching his hero get pussy-whipped by the wife on the phone. The guy hangs up, and Ward writes how he respected his wife too much to do any of that rolling-the-eyes crap.

I like this woman.

some brilliant writing

last night my sister came over to watch the New Aussie Drama Offspring. It was pretty meh. But we got suckered into watching the show that comes after it, and that was a revelation.

The show is Married, Single, Other and there are going to be spoilers, so maybe don’t read on if you were thinking about watching it.

The episode started kind of regular-paced, but was good enough to keep us past some ad-breaks. But by the time one of the women found out at the end that she had an inoperable brain tumour and six months to live, I was clutching special k to my chest and trying not to shake the house down with my repressed sobs.

Ok, so I may be slightly premenstrual, but there was also some incredible writing that went into me having that reaction.

Think about it – I didn’t even know these characters before that one episode. I had nothing invested. And really, even in shows you keep up with, you may think “Aw, that’s sad!” but how often are you really, truly moved and made to feel sad?

The dialogue between the woman and her fiance (who she has two teenage boys with) was flawless. Everyday and quirky in a non-contrived/specific-to-them sense (the private language of lovers and life-long friends).

So when the fiance claims that he will punch holes and make the earth spin the other direction before he lets anything happen to his girl, you get why he would say that, and what it means that he does.

(Oooh, getting teary just thinking about it – how lame!)

It’s the very best of that British self-depracating melodrama.

Oh, and another very original description. Today our nephew described special k’s eyes thus: Kind of brown in the middle like they’re rotten, then blue but like cracked glass.

Er, thanks?

in defence of the romance novel

In my last post I made a throwaway comment about romance novels being a “true and concise account of love in real life”. I want to expand on this a bit, because it’s one of the things that fascinates me about the genre.

I don’t agree with people who defend romance novels by saying that everyone needs some escape from the pain of real life. Ok, I don’t disagree either, but I certainly don’t think that’s all there is to it.

I don’t think the way love is portrayed in romance novels is unrealistic.

See, as a society we’re very sceptical about love. People are squeamish talking about love in a direct, non-ironic, non-sarcastic way. And yet, the longing for love, for being cherished, for being someone’s favourite person in the whole world, is fundamental to most people’s lives.

Only, we have to be cynical about that longing, in case it never happens to us.

Some wonderful academic, whose name I have forgotten, pointed out that the only power transformative enough to overcome the Capulet/Montague feud was love. It’s literature, but it’s not unrealistic. I know that in my life, the most transformative moments, when I have truly faced myself and decided to change (very rare moments, they are!), have all been brought about by love (not the fluffy kind – the kind that requires huge amounts of courage).

Most heroes and heroines of romance novels start out being pretty sceptical about love, same as the rest of us. What they get to experience is the same irrational, terrifying and life-altering love that so many people actually experience in real life. Or long for in such private places that they probably keep it even from themselves.

I think it’s a very narrow view that only the grim, “realistic” portrayal of love in literary fiction is a true depiction of love in real life. That is an experience of love that people have – the struggles, the dealing and compromise of flawed individuals – but certainly not the only one.

I think people are scared of looking stupid if they admit how moments of unencumbered love make them feel – as though they are powerful and beautiful and can do anything. As though being treasured by another human being makes the bewildering experience of being alive worth it.

the marriage paradox

as Cheryl pointed out a few days ago in response to my post about love, being in relationship is paradoxical.

Special k encapsulated that very clearly tonight when he said:

You need to do what you need to do, and I need to do what I need to do, and we need to do it together.

Maybe marriage wouldn’t be nearly as attractive if it wasn’t such an impossible equation. There’s something about being human that thrills to the challenge of achieving something that looks impossible.

As Andy Griffiths told my class today, what kids love most is being somewhere familiar (say, the shower) then being put in an impossible situation (you’ve cemented the door so that you can fill the cubicle with water, then you can’t turn the tap off) then figuring out how to get out (climb into the roof, then fall naked on the very important dinner your parents are holding in the dining room next door).

Marriage and psycho bums: one and the same?

love is a crutch/love makes life bearable

to my thoughts about Love I add this:

Last weekend I cleared some things up with special k – one of the effects of which is, I’m not going to mother him anymore. I decided I quite like the idea of us both being grown-ups who can deal with the world when we can and ask for help when we can’t.

And I like still feeling like me – and still being curious about him, because I don’t assume I actually know him at all.

I think when you’re in a long-term relationship with someone the easiest thing in the world is to get lazy – to sag in towards them and the comfort they provide. You start pre-empting each other and you wear grooves into certain familiar conversations.

It’s comfortable and easy, but it leeches personal initiative like nobody’s business.

But then today, when I felt like I was dying of pain (women’s business, probably best not to ask), the only thing in the world that could make me feel better was speaking to special k. I had taken too many painkillers: nothing. I had tried hot water bottle, sleeping, curtains drawn: nothing.

There was not a single safe harbour for me in the world but him. As soon as I heard his voice I could relax, and after speaking to him for ten minutes I passed out.

There’s a strong case for being independent – for still being the responsible, causative, joyful thing that generates your life. I’ve also always been a bit afraid of what would happen if special k died before me, and I didn’t know how to be without him.

But there’s definitely some equation in our society that goes: dependence = bad. Like you shouldn’t grow leaning towards anyone else.

When it’s as obvious to me as it was today that special k is something to me that nothing else on earth can be, I will gladly break my heart every day without him, if that’s what it takes to have this.

The Perils of Pleasure review

I still don’t know what I really think about this book.

The writing was an absolute revelation – beautiful, unique and interesting by any standards, not just “for a romance novel”.

But soon she would be on a ship, a speck ploughing through the Atlantic Ocean, and some weeks after that she would land, tiny and anonymous as a seed, on American soil, and grow her life all over again from the ground up.

I think one reason her writing is so startingly original is her choice of metaphor and simile. Our writing teacher is always telling us to be absolutely critical of our word choice, to interrogate over and over again whether we have used the most precise word to evoke an image.

She asked us to consider the following completions of the sentence “black as

cart grease

her heart

Tommy’s left eye after I kicked his head in

the C minor concerto.

Every version is no more or less a true description of the colour black, but it gives tremendous insight into the character. Julie Anne Long doesn’t resort to the obvious trimmings of Regency life for her metaphors. She reaches for the most precise image to invoke her particular characters. They are wholly unique and themselves.

One effect of this is that the world feels current. I absolutely love when books or films manage to do that – to make you feel like people didn’t live back then with the consciousness that they were living “back then”, in a different time. Her characters think about clubs and parties in a way that I can relate to. They have genuine desires for themselves that have nothing to do with a kind of melancholy self-consciousness.

Another effect was that I believed absolutely in these two falling in love – and in their initial indifference and resistance to it (which is so, so hard to do). And here’s one of the things that confounds me about my reaction to the book: On the one hand the love story is absolutely convincing. On the other, they are so very in love – these two, specific people who couldn’t be replaced with Hero/Heroine figureheads – that it almost felt intrusive to be in there with them. Like I had stumbled on an intensely private moment.

Hey, this isn’t by any means bad. It just meant that at the same time as enjoying what is a curiously unique experience in romance writing, I also didn’t get much of the vicarious thrill of the genre. The obliqueness of character that allows you, as a reader, to fall in love as well.

I also felt that the writing, beautiful and surprising and joyful as it was, was not edited to my tastes. Her style can very easily fall into melodrama – which I absolutely love, but which has to be doled out in just the right amounts, at the very moment of emotional piquancy – and was at times allowed to unravel a bit with word repetitions and sloppy word choices.

I felt that with just a small amount of tightening and interrogation, the writing would serve the story as a whole much better. It is such fresh, talented writing, that I think it’s a shame not to push it that bit further.

Another disconcerting element was the plot, which doesn’t follow the normal genre lines. The narrative is split between a number of voices at different times – not just that of the protagonists. The protagonists themselves don’t even begin to really fall in love until well into the book.

I loved the detail of her plot though: A woman mercenary steals the darling of society from the scaffold on the day of his hanging and they spend the next week running about London and the countryside trying to stay alive and clear his name before his brother marries his sweetheart. Their adventure takes the oddest turns – again, she doesn’t resort to Regency cliches. Among other things they meet a doctor who tries to justify to them his use of stolen cadavers – a world of detail and interest and moral ambiguity arising from the conversation.

The one truly disappointing part of the novel was the moment of capitulation. This is hard for any romance novelist. I know for me it’s by far the hardest part of the book. How do you convincingly have a character who has resisted love as though their very life depended on it decide to risk everything for it? For such a great writer who obviously knows her characters inside-out, Long gave lip-service to the moment in this book. It didn’t really matter though, because all the hard work had been done.

I loved this book while I was reading it, because it surprised and delighted me – and I could respect the characters and felt that my intelligence was respected in the writing of it. But still I can’t declare it one of my favourite romance novels. And I still don’t know why.

what I’ve learnt about writing (and life, probably) from reading Susan Elizabeth Phillips: Part lll

Love insinuates its way into your life, and you only recognise it for what it is when it’s suddenly not there anymore.

SEP has a particular kind of hero/heroine relationship that goes as follows:

hero is super attractive, has more money/fame/women – all the outward signs of a successful life – than he knows what to do with. He has issues with his family/hometown and is struggling with his internal measure of success against the external signs of it.

Enter our oddball heroine. She might be a tomboy, a social disaster or just pretty unlucky in life. Certainly, by all external markers, not at all in our hero’s league. Some circumstance throws them together so that she starts tagging along in his life, despite a huge lack of willingness on both parts.

Then something starts to happen. She takes him by surprise. Makes him laugh more than all the women he’s surrounded himself with have ever been able to. And because she’s tagging along and he isn’t trying to impress her, she’s also witness to the more vulnerable aspects of his life: relationships he’s struggling with, his true relationship to his success etc. She becomes the one person who truly understands him, and can truly give him comfort/support.

Likewise, being with someone like him makes her reach for things she didn’t think were possible, and she regains a sense of her true worth, and a taste for happiness.

Then there’s the inevitable bust-up and she’s not there anymore. But the problem is, he’s gotten so used to relying on her that her absence now leaves a massive hole where he didn’t think there was one before. Realisation of true love not too far behind.

Now the whole geeky girl gets rockstar hero thing is a pretty standard fantasy (works both ways, too) – standard but still highly effective. But the aspect I want to talk about is this gradual build-up of love, to the point where it is still unacknowledged but essential.

It’s such a very seductive idea. I remember in high school having some loose grasp on the concept, and spending a negligible few hours trying to make myself present in the eyes of some boy, so that I could then turn around and be horrible. The theory was that he would then so miss my previous presence in his life that he would come to his senses about me.

Not the most successful tactic.

My point is, like most romantic fantasies, I’m not sure this one really works in real life. Or you can’t make it work, in any case.

The steady build-up of real love is a really difficult thing to do in fiction. Attraction is relatively easy (though also not always successful) – really feeling like those characters know and need and are irrationally committed to each other, not so easy.

I think as writers we can learn a lot from SEP’s method. By being witness to each other’s lives the characters gain great insight into each other – seeing the vulnerable, the bad and underneath. Or the true and good nature under a bad boy exterior, as the case may be. The fact that love is gradual and unlooked-for also works really well here; the characters aren’t on their best behaviour – they’re not acting for each other, so they get to truly see each other.

She uses the bond of shared experience to build a truthful sense of love. So the question is: What does your hero/heroine think they want in a relationship? Who do they think they have to be in the perfect relationship? What part of their lives would they never want their perfect partner to see? What kind of person would react with passion and compassion when they saw beyond the act? And what kind of person would your hero/ine never consider being with?

I think this formula is useful for any kind of relationship within writing, not just the romantic ones. The most interesting part of a relationship is the tension between who we are and who we think we should be, and how we react when fissures appear.

So: 4. Show relationship development through characters’ exposure to each other’s lives and through an abrupt change in the building dynamic.

Go to Part I, Part II

For anyone who’s interested, the three novels I’ve had most in mind writing this are Heaven, Texas (one of my holiday reads!), Natural Born Charmer, and Match Me If You Can (my favourite Chicago Stars book, though it’s a very close call).