When your heart’s been broken, there are fewer better places to run than straight into the pages of a great novel. We asked Maura Kelly, author of Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not So-Great Gatsbys, and Love in the Time of Internet Personals, now out in paperback, to answer a few of our questions about the best books for readers who are looking for comfort, enlightenment, and a little bit of time-tested advice about romance. Bust out your library cards, ladies: This is need-to-know info.
Sexcerpts: They say the more things change, the more they stay the same. Is that true with classic literature’s view of love and romance, even in an age of online dating and hookups? What are a couple of major themes that are truly timeless when it comes to relationships?
Maura Kelly: How true it is! That idea — that things really do stay the same — was a big inspiration for this book. For instance, while re-reading The Aeneid, I was amazed to find that the main female character, Queen Dido, was going through a situation that plenty of us have been through: She let herself fall head over heels way too fast — only to get brutally dumped. In fact, the man in question, Aeneas himself, tried to leave the country on her without even letting her know things were over. And that book written some time around the year 21 B.C., for crying out loud! Perhaps chivalry was dead way before feminism took hold?
Another example: In Sense and Sensibility, one of the main characters, Marianne Dashwood, basically loses her mind after she writes to a crush, and days and days pass with no response from him. Were Jane Austen writing today, Marianne would’ve been checking her email constantly; back then, she kept listening for the sound of the footman’s horses, hoping that the next note delivered might be from the cad in question.
As much as the big philosophical questions remain the same — How can we survive through periods of despair, find happiness, and make life meaningful? — matters of the heart don’t change all that much either (even if innovations like smartphones and open relationships complicate matters).
If a woman is feeling frustrated with relationships and love, what book do you recommend that she reads to gain some perspective?
I suppose it depends on what she’s looking for. Jane Eyre is a great love story about a woman who is known for being very homely looking, who thinks she’ll never find a guy — until she comes across her soulmate.
Great Expectations is a very funny book about a guy who’s in love with a woman who doesn’t love him back — a reminder that plenty of people of both genders experience unrequited love.
I also adore Howards End — about an aging spinster, who has made peace with the idea that her siblings and her friends will be her family, until an older widower falls for her. Realizing that it’s really nice when someone loves you — even if he is an old coot with annoying political opinions — she decides to work at making their relationship a beautiful one. She’s lovely, that character, Margaret (played by Emma Thompson in the movie, which seems just right).
As far as modern books go, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss is wonderful — although it’s not exactly a conventional love story at all. One of the two main characters is a very lonely man, who was separated from the love of his life during the Holocaust and never reunited with her; the book concerns itself with the unexpected love he finds at the end of his life. It’s really sweet — the best contemporary novel I’ve read in years and years.
Based on literature, what types of guys should we watch out for? How can we ladies tell who’s up to no good?
It’s tough to top Jane Austen for this kind of thing: Her books are rife with guys who over-promise, and under-deliver; who woo and wow the ladies, but then drop off the face of the planet or never show up when they’re expected.
Then there’s Middlemarch — which is, I have to say, more awesome than all of Jane Austen’s books combined, though I know those are fighting words. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of devoting yourself to a self-important “genius” who cares a hell of a lot more about his very important work (which turns out to be not so important, in the long run) than about your basic emotional needs.
Similarly, as I talk about in Much Ado About Loving, you’ve got to be careful around guys like Moby Dick‘s Captain Ahab, who are so wild with ambition that they can’t think about anything else except achieving the next big goal. Or killing the next big whale.
Do you have a favorite romantic hero?
You know, some of my favorites are complete maniacs. Like Florentino Ariza, from Love in the Time of Cholera. He’s almost as crazy as Don Quixote, although much cuter — pale, with dark hair, and always dressed in a black suit. Florentino is a wild romantic, who falls so deeply in love as a teenager that he doggedly pursues his idee fixe, Fermina, for decades — first courting her with love letters against her father’s wishes, then remaining devoted to her even after she falls out of love with him and marries another man, with whom she seems fated to live happily ever after. Eventually, though, Florentino wins the day. I love him because I want to believe that kind of pure love — what Shakespeare would call an ever-fixed mark — exists in the world. And yet, as the author of Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel-García Márquez, hints, that kind of love can often resemble a serious illness. Like cholera.
Ah, if only there were a vaccine for afflictions of the heart. Buy Much Ado About Loving here!
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