I feel like I should be ashamed saying it: I love stories about, well . . . love. Modern, educated women do not admit such things—we’re supposed to love stories about the triumph of the soul and the tragedy of the human condition. And we do. We just like a little romance thrown in there too. Often, in fact, the triumph and tragedy and love are one and the same. The Religion professor Donna Freitas admits in her introduction to Becoming a Goddess of Inner Poise (Jossey-Bass, 2005) that on her first encounter with the contemporary, romantic genre ‘chick lit’: “I assumed the book was probably fluff and sounded anti-feminist (as many critics claim) and therefore an unbecoming read for a graduate student.” But she then goes on to conclude that romance is not only acceptable as a subject for serious readers, it can actually be (get this) spiritually enlightening. I couldn’t agree more.
The love story is a pervasive and unifying element of our culture. The romance novel genre, for instance, is a $1.4 billion-dollar-a-year business, making up nearly 50 percent of all fiction sold. The love story crosses cultural genre and media. There is a reason it’s the subject of most songs, and why most movies have a romantic thread: We, as a culture, are in love with love.
It starts young. My affinity for romantic elements in books and movies started well before adolescence, which was when I first began to think about and long for actual romance. From a very young age, I learned, along with Cinderella and Belle and Snow White, that love will rescue us. The books I read as a child reinforced this message. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women involved several messy romantic entanglements and ended with Jo’s finally acknowledging her love for Professor Baer. The girls of Ann M. Martin’s Babysitter’s Club were constantly thinking about boys. The best parts of Judy Blume‘s novels were the bits about discovering the opposite sex. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series ended when Laura grew up and got married. Even Nancy Drew had her dashing Ned to help her and save her from dangerous situations.
Considering my early influences, it’s no wonder that I love Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in all its literary and cinematic forms. I was trained well. Although I wouldn’t consider myself a “romance” reader (I’ve never read Danielle Steele or Nora Roberts, nor am I a fan of the books you get in the checkout line in the supermarket), many of the books I read still, somehow have a romantic subplot. I’ll even admit a certain fondness for chick flicks: Love, Actually, Sleepless in Seattle, and Pretty Woman are classic films of my generation. They are fun and entertaining, and they explore the premise that love can bloom against all odds.
Love stories don’t even need to end happily. Gone with the Wind packs such a powerful emotional punch because the book ends with Rhett Butler’s leaving Scarlett. I loved Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina because they show what happens when love can’t win.
Driven to identify
In her dated but insightful book Reading the Romance (University of North Carolina Press, 1984), Janice Radway looks at the fascinating and much-maligned world of romance novels, trying to understand what it is that makes them so appealing. She examines the rise of the genre by studying a group of women who frequent a particular bookstore in “Smithton,” a residential suburban town in the U.S. Midwest, in the early ’80s. In her interviews with the Smithton women, it becomes clear that one of the primary reasons women turn to romance novels is to escape from their daily lives. The women tell her they read because, as one character puts it: “I feel like there is enough reality in the world and reading is a means of escape for me,” or “It is an Escape and we can dream and pretend it is our life.” The women want to get lost in a story. They want to identify with the heroine and become involved with a story that takes them away from their lives so they can enjoy living the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of another woman in a more interesting and emotional life. Although Radway is quick to point out that reading as escapism is not limited to romance novels or to women, she does emphasize that reading a romantic story is a particular kind of escape which takes these women away from their everyday emotional lives and vicariously offers them exciting fantasy lives populated by virile, young men who fight for and win their love. In short, they—we—read romantic stories because we like to identify with characters, to put ourselves emotionally in their places, and to experience the euphoria of falling in love.
In the twenty-odd years since Reading the Romance was published, a lot has changed in the world of romance books. The traditional romance novel has fallen out of vogue while newcomers to the genre have multiplied:
- chick lit (snarky, witty books about young urban women finding love; think Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada or Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series),
- Mommy Lit (like Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It),
- lad lit (chick lit for men, pioneered and dominated by Nick Hornby), and
- general romantic popular fiction on the order of Nicholas Sparks and Nicholas Evans—have grown exponentially.
Yet the basic motivations for reading romantic books have not changed, nor has the actual experience of reading a romantic story. The reader still wants to identify with the main character and to experience the love story as if it were her own. It is because they engage the individual that these books are so broadly appealing. “Hurrah!” writes Donna Freitas, about the experience of reading the iconic chick lit novel Bridget Jones’ Diary for the first time. “I realized . . . that instead of being a lonely, tragic spinster, I was boldly participating in the creation of an international community of Bridget-like women.”
Rooted in transformation
While the passionate kiss is ostensibly the element that ties all love stories, reducing the huge body of work to a singular theme is a sure way to miss the structure that underlies them. A good story is not just about hormones or soul-mates. On the most basic level, it is about how characters change. As an editor, one of the things I look for in any book is character development. How is the character at the end of the book different from the person we met on the first page? In a love story, it’s not just the characters themselves but also their relationship that must shift. As situations change, characters react and their connections with each other alter. The adjusting and correcting is what creates the drama and gives the stories substance. That is also why these stories speak so deeply to us. We find meaning in these subtle shifts since, ultimately, love stories are about transformation.
Take, for instance, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie Bennett and Mr. Darcy dislike each other from the start. Darcy is thoroughly unimpressed with Lizzie and her circle: “Darcy . . . had seen a collection of people in whom there was little beauty and no fashion, for none of whom he had felt the slightest interest, and from none received either attention of pleasure.” Lizzie finds him extremely proud and remarks, quite unironically, “I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.” And yet, through a series of encounters, miscommunications, and kindnesses, their feelings do begin to change. By the end of the book, “[Elizabeth] gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change . . . as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced was such as he had probably never felt before,” and Darcy admits “By you I was properly humbled . . . you showed how insufficient were all my pretensions.” The book begins with a quest for love and ends with its fulfillment, but the story is not so much about love as it is about changing perceptions. It’s as much about the transformation of the characters’ attitudes as it is about their burgeoning romance.
The characters in romance stories are transformed and fall in love. We put ourselves in their place; as they are transformed, so, too, are we. When Jo in Little Women overcomes her pride and accepts the love of the professor, we recognize that true love often comes in unexpected forms. When Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind recognizes and acknowledges the love that has lurked in her heart all along, we are reminded that it shouldn’t be taken for granted. Anna Karenina’s tragic end teaches us that love, misappropriated, has consequences. With Lizzie Bennett’s change of heart, we see the value of honesty and humility. When Bridget Jones accepts that she has read Mark Darcy wrong all along, we see there is always potential for a change of heart.
All of this sounds remarkably like love as we find it in Christ himself.
We love stories about love because we are designed to. The Bible is full of people doing crazy things for love: Samson gave up his hair and his strength for Delilah; David committed murder for Bathsheba; Jacob worked for fourteen years (and married Leah) so that he could have Rachel. If the revered men and women of the Bible fell under love’s spell, it’s no surprise that we do too. After all, it’s how we’re made.
Humans understand love and long for it because the God who created the concept also created us. The heart-pounding, throat-catching, sweat-inducing thrill of adoration reminds us that our physical bodies are created capable of experiencing powerful emotions. The deep emotional bond of full-blown love—of becoming entirely vulnerable to another—is in itself an act of faith. The experience of love is as close as we can come to understanding why Christ would sacrifice his very self for us.
It should be no surprise then that I—that we all—love love. Reading about and singing about and thinking about love are ways of working out the transforming love of Christ in our lives. “The value of seeing the divine in the Bridgets of Chick Lit . . . ” writes Freitas, “is that, once we find it there, it is only a short path to seeing it in ourselves.”
I’m not saying reading romance novels will save your soul. But they may help direct your thoughts to the ultimate love, and that, in itself, can be transforming.