Literary Valentines

This Week’s Bit of String: Who wants to be Juliet?

Happy Valentine’s Day. It’s perhaps fitting to a holiday of Love that the patron saint’s origins aren’t definitively known apart from a martyred end of some sort. Who can really say where love comes from, and the most classic literary examples of romance often end tragically. (Insert special heart-shaped, chocolate-covered spoiler warning here.)

I’m sure there are a few lists out there of great romances. But most of us probably wouldn’t choose to live in previous eras, and so we wouldn’t prefer a romance from times when honouring and obeying were more important than striking out on adventures together and actually having some idea what your partner thinks about the world. Would any of us like to be in Juliet’s place? It’s hard to believe she and Romeo would have thrived together had they lived. Killing them off allowed the romance to linger, just as in Anna Karenina, if she had actually died in childbirth rather than surviving it, the great love affair would have outlived her.

Local window art for Valentine’s Day

To me, a good romance is one that I would actually be content to participate in. They’re not so common as you’d think. There must be some give-and-take to the relationship, a sort of useful friction which drives rather than divides. Definitely a mutual admiration. I wonder if we called romances “relationship stories,” would that lend them more credibility? We’re just learning about the varying dynamics, the infinite degrees of desirability. Here are the top ten literary relationships that I enjoyed reading about—with quotes, of course! You know I like quotes.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This was probably the first book I read that provided an enticing insight into a relationship. I was 9 or 10 years old, and Alcott’s novel introduced the idea that deep friendship and shared passions aren’t necessarily sufficient grounds to accept a marriage proposal, but that waiting and maintaining independence don’t have to leave you lonely.

“’Ah! Thou gifest me such hope and courage, and I haf nothing to gif back but a full heart and these empty hands,’ cried the Professor, quite overcome.

“Jo never, never would learn to be proper, for when he said that as they stood upon the steps, she just put both hands into his, whispering tenderly, ‘Not empty now,’ and, stooping down, kissed her Friedrich under the umbrella.”

Possession by A. S. Byatt

A very literary romance, as two scholars fall in love while unearthing evidence of an unknown affair between two poets a century before. This examines whether, when love stifles independence, it might yet cause art to flourish. How much determination does passion leave us?

“And is love then more
Than the kick galvanic
Or the thundering roar
Of Ash volcanic
Belched from some crater
Of earth-fire within?
Are we automata
Or Angel-kin?”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

A rare example of a strong female protagonist who while remaining true to herself, longs to find a loving partner. And our heroine finally does so, making the most of life with TeaCake and with her memories of him after the relationship’s devastating end.

“‘Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.’”

Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood

Atwood has a great ability to forensically dissect relationships, while not amputating any of the attraction. In this final book of the Oryx and Crake trilogy, two weary apocalypse survivors finally get together after years of waiting, and it’s simultaneously marvellous and familiar.

Coming home

“She’d longed for this, and denied it was possible. But now how easy it is, like coming home must have been once, for those who’d had homes. Walking through the doorway into the familiar, the place that knows you, opens to you, allows you in and tells you the stories you’ve needed to hear. Stories of the hands as well, and of the mouth… Yes. At last. It’s you.

Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane

I love Lehane’s dialogue. Banter crackling with warmth that sometimes crosses over to passion. This is why his detectives Kenzie and Gennaro are a big hit with me, and why their relationship is crave-worthy.

“Don’t look at me,” she said.
“Why not?”
“I’m telling you–” She lost the battle and closed her eyes as the smile broke across her cheeks.
Mine followed about a half second later.
“I don’t know why I’m smiling,” Angie said.
“Me, either.”
“Prick.”
“Bitch.”
She laughed and turned on her chair, drink in hand. “Miss me?”
Like you can’t imagine.
“Not a bit,” I said.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

This is quite a beautiful story that uses magic and fantasy to show love’s power, also addressing questions of destiny versus autonomy.

“As he kisses her, the bonfire glows brighter. The acrobats catch the light perfectly as they spin. The entire circus sparkles, dazzling every patron.”

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

I read this to research school shootings but it captivated me as a tragic love story, an elegy to a relationship as much as a confessional. Eva, the narrator, and her now absent husband Franklin loved each other so much, despite being quite opposite, and perhaps it made other relationships pale in comparison.

Affectionate chair, Cheltenham Street Art Festival, 2019

“After I’d survived so long on the scraps from my own emotional table, you spoiled me with a daily banquet of complicitous what-an-asshole looks at parties, surprise bouquets for no occasion, and fridge-magnet notes that always signed off, ‘XXXX, Franklin.’ You made me greedy. Like any addict worth his salt, I wanted more.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

This is an epic book about trying to create and express oneself during political struggles. It is not a romance. However, there’s a wonderful relationship between Wen the Dreamer, who woos the protagonist’s young widowed aunt Swirl through stories, leaving her a volume of adventure tales every few days. When she’s ready, they marry with this perfect storyteller’s vow:

“‘I promise you that for all our life together, I will seek worlds that we might never have encountered in our singularity and solitude.’”

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

I’m a huge fan of Waters. Her books are suspenseful with expertly-crafted twists, but they’re also deeply romantic, usually giving voice to relationships on the LGBTQIA spectrum. She has a knack for conveying the overpowering, multi-sensory nature of love.

“Frances took all this in, even while angled away from her, gazing at her—how, exactly? Perhaps with the pores of my skin, she thought.”

A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

The creator of Narnia published this journal of his widowhood under a different name, and it’s sad and lovely and relatable. In it there’s this line which I feel sums up the beating heart of any truly desirable romance:

“The thing I want is exactly the thing I can never get. The old life, the jokes, the drinks, the arguments, the lovemaking, the tiny, heartbreaking commonplace.”

I think the best thing we can do when creating relationships on paper is to use the tiny commonplace that Lewis refers to, the familiar details that symbolise a routine privileged by virtue of simply being shared. What do you think of these relationships? Do you have any recommendations?

Keeping Warm

This Week’s Bit of String: Fruit cocktail upstairs

When I was growing up my family rented part of a large, New England lakeside farmhouse. It wasn’t the most meticulously renovated building, and sometimes the winter stole in, down the stone chimney (which bats were also known to use as a passage) and between the log walls. Some mornings were so cold my mother wouldn’t let us come downstairs.

Instead, she’d carry up a little wooden table with peeling paint, and our metal-mesh chairs, and some bowls of tinned fruit or yoghurt. We’d have breakfast like a doll’s tea party in the bedroom, clustered round the small table. We loved it.

Old England snow doesn’t compare to the New England stuff, but it still feels a bit exciting.

For our mom, it was probably stressful, worrying about our health and having to rearrange things when she had 3 preschool kids with another on the way. But we just enjoyed the thrill of it, while she took care of everything.

Some of my favourite childhood memories involved keeping warm. Car rides wrapped in afghans crocheted by great grandmothers and aunts; coming in from snowball fights to find Dad making pizza with his records blaring. To appreciate these, we had to be cold first. But warming up after is well worth it.

Warm-Up Writing

Warmth is the quality I most cherish in a book, film, or TV series. Some people might say chemistry but that’s a little volatile, and can be cold, manufactured. I’m not just referring to cosiness and security either. I like a crackle beneath the surface. Maybe it’s just a few embers which a piece occasionally circles back to, or steady driving heat.

A warm story doesn’t require the complete absence of cold. Far from it—without hostility or loneliness, how would we appreciate the pockets of warmth?

Let it blaze

The heat source is usually a relationship, though not always a romantic or conventional one. It might be acceptance of a friend’s or sibling’s quirks, or devotion to a particular place (love of home is still a form of relationship), or a driving faith in an idea, even if misguided.

Often, we get a combination of these. Of Mice and Men, for example, is about friendship, tolerance for disability and racial differences, and also the unabashed pursuit of pet rabbits. My favourite writers: Dickens, Chabon, Atkinson, AM Homes, John Irving—I love them for the vast, diverse casts of characters they use but it’s not as if they’re just ticking identity boxes. They’re portraying authentic idiosyncrasies, and other people’s attractions to them. Same with TV shows, I love the recent shift toward ensemble casts, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Brooklyn 99, because it feels appreciative and supportive.

Turning Up the Heat

I’m not reputed for the cheeriest of writings. My two most successful short stories are about a brutal invasion, and a grieving mum. But I think part of what commended those stories to judges and readers was maintaining a dash of warmth. How can we make sure it’s included?

Including all reality: Even during the most terrible events, small good things will still happen. Sunrises, embraces, a cup of tea. It’s not necessary to only show the bad.

Detail work: Quick lines about a character’s manner or appearance can endear them to us. Dickens and Disney understand this; giving even villains catchphrases or sidekicks. It makes us not hate to see them, and maybe even root for them.

Honesty: Fair presentation of our characters’ faults mean they can be more fully embraced, by other characters and by readers. Bonds that have been tested can come out stronger, so we needn’t gloss things over. My latest novel is about Eve, and while she and Adam had seen each other fail spectacularly, this made them rather appreciate each other’s support at new levels.

The beauty of frosted thorns

Relatability: If we recognise something in a story, even in the midst of unpleasantness, we warm to it. And as writers, adding familiarity makes us feel a situation more deeply, and that comes through. For example, in “The Apocalypse Alphabet,” along with the stress of rationing and an approaching invasion, I included images resonant from childhood and parenthood: a little boy with his nightshirt flapping around his knees, battling with wooden spoon weapons.

Imagination: While we like glimmers of familiarity in our reading, what really entices us is that those relatable details clue us in to something bigger. We want to feel part of a grander adventure, so there’s no need to hold back from introducing the weird or wild. Contrast is key. There’s a reason I remember the Upstairs Breakfasts rather than any other picnic at our little wooden table—they were unexpected, urgent, exciting.

Dialogue: Spoken exchanges are some of the clearest ways to communicate warmth, not just because someone’s saying something, but because someone’s listening as well. I miss overhearing dialogue, since my life is so home-based now. Even my walks have to come very early, before anyone is about. Last week I “treated myself” to a lunchtime walk and took my earbuds out while I strolled up the High Street. A scruffy bearded man in pyjama bottoms and worn red trainers boasted to a dog-walking lady with a More Beer hoodie about his wife’s special mince pies. A couple of men with foreign accents talked earnestly outside a closed-down pub about how much one man loved his van. “Dis car is my workhorse, you know?” Nothing intriguing or witty, but it warmed me to know that people are still interacting kindly with each other, right there on the street.

What are some of your favourite sources of warmth in the literary world?

The Great Circle of Literature

This Week’s Bit of String: Crime and Punishment

Spring 2003, early evening Eastern Standard Time/ late night Greenwich Mean Time. I pick up the wall-mounted cordless phone and ring my ex-boyfriend as arranged. Our son is occupied with Legos on the floor of my subsidised New Hampshire apartment.

His father answers his mobile in the London flat where he’s completing his masters. I refuse to let his voice thrill me this time; I’m giving up on waiting for him to re-articulate his interest.

We exchange the requisite weather updates and talk about our son. Then my ex-boyfriend says, “I’m reading Crime and Punishment. It’s quite good…”

Oh, are you? Instantly I’m hooked again.

Present Day, British Summer Time. I come home from work and husband-formerly-known-as-ex-boyfriend launches right in with his feelings regarding the latest twist in the John Irving novel I recommended. “I did not see that coming!”

Look at them all, conspiring shamelessly to keep my interest piqued.

Among all he and I share, reading is perhaps the most nourishing and positive. It fulfils us better than, say, watching TV together, because we’re using our brains a little more. Plus the flexing of empathy and imagination required to enjoy a book helps with the heavy lifting in a relationship.

There’s magic, too, from a book. We create a world in our heads, and what is more marvellous than subsequently talking to a loved one and finding that the same bits of magic worked on them, too? When you watch a film with someone, you see and hear the same things at once. Reading is more open to interpretation, so shared impressions are extra special and further observations are bonus insights.

Literary Connections

The unifying power of the written word seems to reach between books themselves sometimes, rather than just outward to us. Have you ever noticed that? I’ll read one book that makes the same historical reference my last, completely different read did. A couple weeks ago I read Benjamin Zephaniah’s autobiography. It immersed me in the activist, anti-National Front environment where he first started performing his poetry, with groups such as Rock Against Racism.

Then I read Kamila Shamsie’s (justly) award-winning Home Fires, about the tragic effects of radicalisation. It included a single line about a character’s parents meeting at a Rock Against Racism rally. Something I never knew about before, and suddenly my reading material conspired to bring it to my attention.

Home Fires is also a modern retelling of Sophocles’s Antigone, when before The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah I’d read Natalie Haynes’s rollicking The Ancient Guide to Modern Life. Its many cultural references included Antigone.

A couple of years ago I read a novel about George Eliot and then a novel about an affluent, up-and-coming German family in the lead-up to World War II. Quite different novels, set decades apart—yet characters from each travelled to Naples and stayed in the exact same hotel, and I happened to read the books one week after each other.

It’s as if books have their own invisible network of roots and fungi, communicating and passing nutrients to each other like some trees do. One book may seem isolated from another, but the survival of one can benefit the rest. Perhaps books know the more we read, the more our appetite grows. Ah, that tantalising moment when we get to decide what to read next!

The Roots System

Of course, there is a root system books connect to: our brains. Relatively recent studies show that brains’ ‘white matter’ is as essential to reading and learning as the grey matter. White matter are the neural pathways connecting parts of the brain (the grey matter). They’re named for the lipid myelin coating that protects some neuron parts. The wider these pathways are, the more easily signals can fire off from one long neural axon arm to the little dendrite roots on another neuron.

While having smooth white matter pathways helps us to read, reading in turn helps make the pathways smoother. It’s like a path in the woods; the more we walk down it, the smoother it gets. So improved connections in our brain is one of reading’s effects. It also improves our attention span, and anyone else who’s been married a few years (it’s fifteen for my husband and I now) knows a good attention span is useful.

Side note: My husband has been known to read things I wouldn’t. I read a lot I know he wouldn’t enjoy. That’s okay. Please never condemn a loved one for their reading choices. Or musical taste. Or even whether they like Brussels sprouts. Just please, let’s not.

The rewards of reading are somewhat analogous to a longterm relationship. There might be bits that aren’t as fast-paced. You’ve got to allow the narrative some descriptive time to set the scene. You’ve got to muddle through those dialogue bits my husband dislikes (and I love) during which, yes, unfortunately, a character’s thoughts and feelings may be exposed. And in the end, that effort is worth it because you’ve learned, you’ve laboured, and shared.

Have you found that books enhance relationships? Do you ever notice the pages conspiring with each other to broaden your horizons and change your fate?

Love and Other Questions

This Week’s Bit of String: Saying good night at Grandma’s house

During a visit when I was eight, my Grandma came to tuck my sister and me in. She was a pre-school teacher, and as a matter of strict policy, she made a great deal of time for us and never got cross.

Granddad was different. He blustered rather than spoke, worked long past retirement rather than played. We were a bit scared of him. I’d watched Grandma sweetly placate him for my whole life, and it stumped me.

‘Grandma,’ I whispered as she kissed me goodnight, ‘Do you really love Granddad?’

How much choice do we have over who we open our hearts to?

She just laughed and left the room. Minutes later, Granddad himself appeared, giving his version of a chuckle, which still sounded blustery. ‘So you think your grandmother doesn’t love me?’

Like any of us, over the years I learned much more about the inexplicable, often unwelcome persistence of love. I watched Granddad lose Grandma to lung cancer a month before their golden wedding anniversary, and there was no mistaking she was loved in return. I’ve seen that reciprocation is often enough; that we can make ourselves settle when we choose to.

But I still wonder about it. Why do we love who we love? How is love sustained and and to what extent can it be manipulated or cajoled or banished entirely? Again, I suspect I’m not alone in wondering these things.

Opening Questions

When we start planning a novel, we’re told to start with a question, a predicament. That’s handy, as I’m writing about Eve and there’s a lot to question in the Biblical story of creation, of Eden and the fall and the alleged first generations of humanity.

Example: Adam and Eve have two boys, Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel and gets exiled. At this point the Bible has named only 3 still-living humans on the entire planet.

Then it says Cain’s wife got pregnant (presumably a sister too lowly to be named) and has a son called Enoch. So now we have five people on the planet. Maybe a few other girls who the Author couldn’t be bothered to bring up.

THEN it says, when speaking of Enoch’s birth, ‘Cain was building a city at this time, and named the city for Enoch.’

Wait, what? Building a city for whom? Angels? Demons? Animals? Aliens?

Plenty of scope for the imagination, then. More questions in last week’s post about believing what we read. More questions, many questions.

The Overarching Question

But the one that interests me most of all in this story is love. Did Adam and Eve love each other? Can you truly love someone when there’s no other person in existence, so you haven’t chosen them as such? How can you keep loving each other after together, you brought curses down on all future generations?

I guess to me, these are the questions that matter most—more, as I discussed last week, than whether any of it is true or not. I suppose it’s because these are the questions that pop into my head in real life, and they’re the ones that led me to my first line of this story, and it spiralled from there:

‘You must understand, I was made to love your father. For that reason, I sometimes hate him.’

At the moment, I’m writing in first/second person point of view, as Eve addresses her lost favourite daughter—exiled with Cain. If we work with the scenario that Adam and Eve were the first and only humans, they’d have had to have quite a few kids, and to play matchmaker, convincing them to breed.

(Or maybe there would have been little persuasion required. Humans aren’t always fussy about that sort of thing, but let’s not go there for now.)

Given Eve’s own background—unnamed for the first 3 chapters of Genesis, so often referred to as simply ‘the woman’ or ‘Adam’s wife,’ how might she have felt about these pairings, and her role in orchestrating them?
So my novel’s overarching question is incorporated with the first line and the point of view.

Cosmic Questions

Beyond being reflected in the relationships of her children and other descendants, Eve’s feelings for Adam also, I think, are tangled up with spiritual questions.

Pondering the purposes of humans and angels

After everything, could Eve and God love each other? I’ve just written my first scene in which God appears—quite a challenge, playing God, which I’ll elaborate on in a later post. There’s the guilt over letting Him down in Eden—but also the struggle to understand why He allowed her to in the first place.

And she must have wondered, before any of us came along to wonder the same exact thing for centuries: What the hell are we for? For Eve, who knew God as her creator and as an actual physical presence, she must have wondered why He made her and Adam. Just to serve Him, like the angels did? Were they given free will so they could choose to love Him and therefore make their elective devotion more meaningful? I think she’d have mixed feelings on that theory, given everything she went through and all she lost.

Have you come to any conclusions on these matters? How do you set up characters to love each other, without making it look like a setup?

Satisfaction: Friend or Foe?

This Week’s Bit of String: A plugless bath and cellophaned TVs

‘We only bought this place a month ago, so we’re just starting renovations,’ the inn owner tells us, through an American accent so thick it sounds as if she’s chewing something. The three-storey building smells of paint and the rooms we’ve booked have nothing apart from mismatched beds and dressers and a sole, tiny framed picture of the inn on the wall.

She points out the smart TV, and the whisper-thin curtain around the claw-foot bathtub with shower fixture. After we’ve wandered up the sparse street to the general store for a dinner of grinders, and eaten whoopie pies over a travel-sized game of Trouble, we unwrap the telly’s protective plastic to find there’s no antenna or cable so we can’t watch anything but YouTube. We can’t use the bathtub because there’s no plug or drain cover, anywhere.

White Mountains down the road, beyond the trees.
The White Mountains

But we are on an adventure; we’ve just driven through New Hampshire’s White Mountains in a thunderstorm, watching lightning pounce from black clouds, attempting to pierce a slope’s heavy leafy coat.

We’ve been wondering as we travel: What were these bedrooms used for before last month? Who forged the paths through these mountains and started it all? As my husband pondered, ‘Did they think the rest of New Hampshire was too crowded?’

As a species we require a certain amount of dissatisfaction to spur us on. As writers we need to be perpetually on our toes, slow to satisfaction with what we create. Perhaps it’s a gift to get no satisfaction. What sort of goal is satisfaction, anyway?

‘A Toast to the Groom…’

We’re visiting slightly off-season time because my brother got married at the weekend. We’ve partied and I’ve delivered one of the most important things I have ever written: a wedding toast. It was a huge honour. But how do you make a wish for two people that will apply to the rest of their hopefully very long lives?

Our Adventure Begins, wedding sign
‘To marry would be an awfully big adventure…’

In Hamilton, a wedding toast song wishes that the couple may always be satisfied. But I’m not sure about that. It seems simultaneously a low bar and an unrealistically high one. Maybe I’m scarred by the term satisfactory, which thanks to OFSTED school inspection standards sinks year by year from a backhanded compliment to an ever closer neighbour of ‘Needs Improvement.’

Recent Education Ministers clearly haven’t noticed the Latin root of the word. Satis means enough, a fact which Dickens trolled in Great Expectations when he named Miss Havisham’s home Satis House. While blessed with enough materially speaking, Miss Havisham suffered a severe deficiency in her love life. After all, while dissatisfaction sometimes motivates us to seek something better, at other times it slithers into hopelessness, enticing us to curl up and let the cobwebs take over.

Staying Hungry

Sated means an appetite has been filled. It’s supposed to be a good thing, but I associate it with the stupor following midday Sunday roasts. The sun might shine outside, my child would run around wanting to play, and everyone would just slump in front of a Formula One race. Sated but deeply unsatisfied at spending a day thus, I often ended up walking a long, three-mile circuit with my son instead.

This is Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the daytime hours. Other religions use fasting too. When we willingly deprive our bodies, it can help direct our souls and minds to seek deeper fulfillment. (Willingness is key; Maslow was on to something with his Hierarchy of Needs. If physical needs are completely disregarded, one can’t truly develop other aspects of his or her being).

A prick of hunger, a germ of dissatisfaction, may motivate us to improve, seek, experiment. How often do we feel moved to create a great work out of contentment? It’s usually need that drives us.

Writing While Hungry

The happy couple, surrounded by forest
A big world to explore.

In my latest Twitter poll, I asked writers if they’re ever truly satisfied with their work. Forty-one percent responded with Never, twenty-six percent said Not quite, and twenty-nine percent ticked the box for It’ll do. Only four percent—I think that’s just one person—chose the option Sure, why wouldn’t I be?

I’m currently pushing on through edits on a novel. There are parts I’m not sure I’ll ever be satisfied with. But instead of discouraging me, it usually thrills me to know it’ll get better. Ideas will keep popping up, characters will continue to speak, to scratch their heads and change their minds and pivot in their paths.

It would be anticlimactic to write a perfect first draft. Where’s the adventure and rewarding effort in that? There’s a line I love in Browning’s poem Andrea del Sarto, about a Renaissance artist who laments his work as being soulless despite its unblemished form. ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’

I think relationships are similar. Being satisfied by someone is great. But we don’t always have to be satisfied with them. We’re allowed to want more, to explore our partner further, to grab their hand and haul them out to explore with us. I paraphrased a line from my novel The Wrong Ten Seconds in my wedding toast: ‘May your love be at once a shelter and a quest, a safe place from which to journey forth and discover more great things.’

We need hope in our lives, and choice, and inspiration. If they’re around, I’ll take adventure over satisfaction; stormy mountains over baths with drain covers. How about you?