Love is a many splendored thing

A little over a week ago, I blogged about how what works in fiction for one person may totally turn off or even offend another. Since I wrote that, I’ve been thinking that one of the places that applies most is romance.
More than many fiction elements, I think, romantic actions and gestures are something we respond to on a personal, YMMV level. What’s sexy or charming for one person is overbearing and obnoxious for another. What looks like true love in one era seems sexist or passionless in later decades.
For example, I’ve mentioned before, I dislike rom-coms that give us a bright, talented, career-minded woman, then assume she’s going to give all that up as soon as she finds a man. But much as I thought Reese Witherspoon should have gotten that divorce and stuck with Patrick Dempsey in Sweet Home Alabama, I know several people who think her dropping her career goals to become a stay-at-home mom with her first husband was just so romantic.
Or consider an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which a fellow high-school student gives her a cladagh ring after going out with her once. I thought it was meant as a romantic gesture; a number of my friends saw it as creepily stalkerish and assumed he was up to no good.
Then there’s the 1963 film The VIPs, about the lives of a handful of passengers stranded at an airport by fog. Elizabeth Taylor is fleeing overbearing husband Richard Burton with her lover Louis Jordan, but because of the fog, Burton catches up with her and, in a fit of passion, slams her against a mirror, cutting it (accidentally) and thereby her. In that instant she realizes how much he loves her, and that even though he doesn’t reciprocate, she can’t walk away from him.
Happily the days when violence was a measure of love rather than abuse are long gone. But even less likely to sell today is the legend that Cleopatra would challenge men who said they’d die for her love to do that: One night in her bed in return for a morning execution. During the Romantic era, that played well; it’d be hard to pull off now.
Even on a personal level, perceptions change. When I saw the film Head Over Heels (1979) in college, it was a charming romantic comedy about John Hurt pursuing and winning his dream girl. When it was rereleased several years later as Chilly Scenes of Winter with the director’s original ending restored (Hurt loses the girl) I couldn’t but notice that the relationship isn’t as cute as I’d remembered it: Hurt’s so obsessed he’s about one step away from having a stalker shrine.
This personal aspect of romance can lead to a big disconnect between writers and readers. Poul Anderson assumed he’d created a sexually liberated woman in the female protagonist of The Avatar; I thought she was a fantasy stick figure, a beautiful dream lover who’ll give you sex, fix all your problems and even has a cute brogue (Anderson said in an article that he was baffled why Caitlin became the center of the book rather than the SF aspects).
On the other hand, if it’s done right——if the writer does a good job presenting the character’s feelings——it’s possible to enjoy a romance based on completely different premises than we like in life. I’m not a fan of arranged marriages, but Arranged (2007) works because it’s about people, two young women (one Muslim, one Jew) who want to obey their family’s traditions, but still … what if they wind up with someone horrible?
Love makes the world go round. But what’s it going to do to our fiction?


Filed under Movies, Reading, Writing

6 responses to “Love is a many splendored thing

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