What I’m Reading: Great Love Stories

My Mistress's Sparrow is DeadI’m currently reading My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, an anthology of great love stories selected by Jeffrey Eugenides, one of my favorite writers now though I’ve yet to finish either of his novels.In the book’s elegant introduction, Eugenides differentiates the subject of love, and the love story:

What is this thing called a love story?

…When it comes to love, there are a million theories to explain it. But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. A love story can never be about full possession (true, true). The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims – these are lucky eventualities but they aren’t love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.

Edward Hopper Summer Evening

  We value love not because it’s stronger than death but because it’s weaker. Say what you want about love: death will finish it. You will not go on loving in the grave, not in any physical way that will at all resemble love as we know it on earth. The perishable nature of love is what gives love its profound importance in our lives. If it were endless, if it were on tap, love wouldn’t hit us the way it does.

Edward Hopper Room in New York, 1932 Oil on Canvas University of Nebraska Art Galleries

 I’ve never thought about it like that, but my goodness he’s right. All the greatest love stories I know come to an end when the couple ends up together – then it becomes not a story, because really there’s no more rising or falling action but just the straight line of the rest of their lives. Not that that segment of the story is not worth telling, but it is far less interesting than how they came to be together.

And that’s why I love asking people how they met. That’s the love story – the obstacles two people face when they want to come together, but aren’t exactly sure how – or maybe each is sure in his or her own way, but their methods differ and outsiders watching the story unfold can only hope they meet in the middle. And sometimes they never do meet in the middle. Something happens. Someone goes away for school, gets another job, changes their looks, their values, their taste. Or an overbearing family member (usually the mother) intervenes and even though their love is strong, “real-life” and all its responsibilities are stronger and you end up marrying a man or woman you were never attracted to while the love of your life goes the other way.

Those are stories I’ve heard quite often – they make me sad and tempt me to resign myself to fate, the kharmic “it is written,” but also enliven me because behind every failed romance is a lesson.

Anyway, it’s strange to be reading good, strong fiction again. The last bit of fiction I read was The Hunger Games and before that, there was a considerable dry spell. I wondered if I’d ever read fiction again, but there’s nothing like a great anthology of love stories to bring me back. I dove in the volume this afternoon while sunbathing by the pool and felt like I was coming home.

I’ll leave you with this haunting passage from David Bezmogis’ “Natasha”:

For context: the sixteen year old protagonist realizes he’s fallen in love with his 14 year old step-cousin, who initiates him sexually one summer in his parents’ basement. He falls in love with her, but his age prevents him from becoming someone who can truly protect her from her abusive mother and overall dire situation. He tries his best, but it’s not enough and she tells him she’s leaving for a safer place, another state. But he finds a few days later that she never left the town, but has instead moved into his drug dealer’s home.

Not the best summary – but seriously, read the story. I highly recommend it.

In another country, under another code, it would have been my duty to return to Rufus’s with a gun. But in the suburbs at the end of my sixteenth summer, this was not an option. Instead, I resorted to a form of civilized murder. By the time I reached my house everyone in Rufus’s yard was dead. Rufus, Natasha, and my stoner friends. I would never see them again. By the time I got home I had already crafted a new identity. I would switch schools, change my wardrobe, move to another city. Later I would avenge myself with beautiful women, learn martial arts, and cultivate exotic experiences. I saw my future clearly. I had it all planned out. And yet, standing in our backyard, drawn by a strange impulse, I crouched and peered through the window into my basement. I had never seen if from this perspective. I saw what Natasha must have seen every time she came to the house. In the full light of summer, I looked into darkness. It was the end of my subterranean life.

Rene Magritte The Threatened Murderer (L’assasin menace), 1926 Oil on Canvas, New York, Collection MoMA
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