Tag Archives: this american life

the problem with love at first sight

This American Life ran a Valentine’s day episode called ‘What I did for love‘. I love that show whatever the theme, but this episode was particularly wonderful. I encourage you all to listen to it, if you haven’t already, so that you can shake your head and marvel at what human beings do when they are emotionally rabid.

The love story that sticks out in my mind, though, is from the episode ‘Conventions‘ that ran the week before. In Act Three: When worlds collide, a man recounts how he saw a woman across the room at a convention, and something inexplicable happened to him. He laughs a little awkwardly at the idea of love at first sight, but it’s the only way he can understand what happened, when he and this woman caught sight of each other.

Listening to him, I have absolutely no trouble believing him. That once in a while love at first sight really does happen. (The first boy I ever fell in love with told me that he experienced a small explosion/implosion the first time he saw me. I was seventeen, and I had no reason in the world to doubt him.)

Part of what makes it so believable is that it wasn’t an entirely comfortable experience. He felt like he was on drugs – felt that particular loss of control and overwhelm. He couldn’t even name it, to begin with.

I finished reading Courtney Milan’s Unveiled the other day, which given my reading ennui is testament enough to my enjoyment of it. But there was something about the love-at-first-sight trope that bothered me.

Her hero Ash, as I’ve mentioned, is so charming he’s practically superhuman. Because he can’t read (oh god, I love a dyslexic hero: Hello, inner pain!) he has always relied on his animal instincts to guide him – and they have never let him down. So when he sees Margaret and knows, he doesn’t question the feeling. He just gets on with winning her over.

I didn’t mind him knowing. It was an integral part of his character, after all. But considering it was the first time he’d know this particular thing – i.e. true love – surely he would feel a little of that overwhelm that the man on the radio described? That man was sure as well. In fact, he had more than a little alpha romance hero about him. But that didn’t stop the feeling from bowling him over a little. Even scaring him a little.

The effect of the unquestioned love at first sight in Unveiled was that I never quite got a handle on the heroine. By the end of the book I liked her a lot – she was strong and had a particular, individual flavour about her. She was flawed but strived to be good. But all of that seemed somehow erased – made inconsequential by Ash’s certainty. He was certain before he knew her, and he remained certain throughout the book, no matter what he learned about her (more on that later when I talk about the opposite of a Big Misunderstanding).

The characters address this in the book – sort of. And there are a couple of nice moments when they’ve come to know each other, come close, and Ash knows that this intimacy is what he felt when he first saw her, in premonition. But I think for it to really work for me, the narrative would have to address it.

By which I mean: I want his surety to become a player in the narrative. I want it to be used against him so that he has to question himself. I want it to force the characters into awkward, or unnatural situations they wouldn’t otherwise be in that are neither comfortable nor nice. I want his love to create something that’s a bit the opposite of love.

But maybe I’m just a little narrative-psychotic.