Book Box | From Gone Girl to gritty romance, my journey into modern love - Hindustan Times
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Book Box | From Gone Girl to gritty romance, my journey into modern love

Feb 17, 2024 11:01 PM IST

Unpacking love today one finds romance is a myth constructed by another era. Modern stories are less seductive, but revel in what happens in the "ever after"

How can I be sceptical of romantic love? Thirty-one years ago I braved my Punjabi family’s disapproval, to do a Two States, to marry my MBA classmate, a boy from Bengal.

Relationships by Alain de Botton(Author) PREMIUM
Relationships by Alain de Botton(Author)

Three decades and dozens of disagreements later, we are still together, spending holidays reading all day. And we are both okay with bedroom windows that allow the morning sunlight to stream in (more on that later).

And yet I am sceptical.

Maybe it’s my age that makes me cynical, drawing me to the dark side of romantic love stories, the Gone Girls of the world. Last week I read another such. A racy, pacy translation from French, it’s called My Husband. The man and woman posture and play mind games with each other – she is insecure and clingy, and he could be manipulative. She loves to leave the curtains open at night, he wants the drapes tightly shut. Differences like these drive them into dark drama.

My Husband: A Novel by Maud Ventura(Author)
My Husband: A Novel by Maud Ventura(Author)

What is so mesmerising about these dysfunctional love stories, I wonder? Looking for answers, I turn back to Relationships by Alain de Botton. Romantic love is a myth, an ideology that emerged in Europe in the 18th century, perpetuated by the romantic stories we consume, Botton tells us.

Read realistic stories instead, urges Botton. He calls these non-romantic counter stories ‘classical stories’ and explains the differences between the two as follows-

"In a romantic story", writes Botton, "the drama hinges entirely on how a couple gets together: the ‘love story’ is no such thing, it is merely the account of how love begins. All sorts of obstacles are placed in the way of love’s birth, and the interest lies in watching their steady overcoming: there might be misunderstandings, bad luck, prejudice, war, a rival, a fear of intimacy, or – most poignantly – shyness… But in the end, after tribulations, the right people will eventually get into couples". Such happily-ever-after stories are misleading.

Read instead the classical story, "that wiser, less immediately seductive genre, the real problem isn’t finding a partner, it is tolerating them, and being tolerated, over time. It knows that the start of relationships is not the high point that Romantic culture assumes; it is merely the first step of a far longer, more ambivalent and yet quietly far more heroic journey – on which it directs its intelligence and scrutiny," urges Botton.

I think back to last week, to quarrelling about the mess in the

house and about my forgetting the due date for household bills. And realise that Botton may have something going for this 'tolerating and being tolerated business’. It's time to change the stories I am reading. I walk to my bookshelves in search of such realistic stories. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier stare back at me. Give up Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy and Dona St. Columb? This is a wrench. But Botton is right, to be content we must move beyond romantic myths.

Wellness by Nathan Hill(Author)
Wellness by Nathan Hill(Author)

Instead, I pick up Wellness by Nathan Hill. It’s the story of Elizabeth and Jack who live in modern-day Chicago, in buildings that face each other. They fall in love, but the story doesn’t end there. Instead, we see Jack struggle with his art and his life, and we watch Elizabeth pay the price of motherhood, trying to design a life that fits in with what she needs and what society demands. The novel also goes back into Elizabeth and Jack's childhood stories; because your childhood sets the pattern for how you behave in your future relationships.

Wellness works for me because it is so rich with themes. There are art and aesthetic standards. There is the management of pain and the placebo effect. Parenting and the marshmallow test. The workings of gentrification. The effect that changing social media algorithms has on human beings. And then there is the overarching examination of the whole romantic love and marriage concept. Oh, and there is a vibrator too! And supporting characters like Brandy, Kate and Kyle, who are trying their own models of romantic love, the renewing your vows kind of marriage, the open marriage.

Read Wellness for the issues it brings up and for the characters that inhabit it. It’s been featured on many Best Books of 2023 lists, with recommendations from Oprah and Barack Obama. Other books I enjoy for their realistic look at love and family life are the novels of Anne Tyler, like Breathing Lessons and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

What about you, dear Reader? What are your favourite classical love and life stories? Do write in with recommendations. And until next week, happy reading.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at sonyasbookbox@gmail.com

Books referred to in this edition of Book Box

Two States by Chetan Bhagat

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

My Husband by Maud Ventura

Relationships by Alain de Botton

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier

Wellness by Nathan Hill

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

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