Where can we turn when the world feels too painful to bear? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. For me, the answer is usually words: poetry, novels, interviews, quotations—all of language seems to have a healing power. Regarding Brexit, and its attendant xenophobia and racism, Joanna Walsh, fiction editor at 3:am Magazine, invited “publishers, writers, translators—people fighting, in their work, to keep our cultural borders open—to contribute a single sentence in reaction to what’s happening right now,” resulting in a powerful litany of “[a]nger, despair, protest, sorrow, love.” Bibliotherapy, the act of therapeutic reading, has a long history; Ceridwen Dovey’s New Yorker piece from 2015 titled “Can Reading Make You Happier?” finds that “Ancient Greeks […] inscribed above the entrance to a library in Thebes that this was a ‘healing place for the soul.’”
I’m traveling for the summer in South America. (Does travel make us feel better? Experiencing the world? Being in nature, looking at wild life through travel binoculars? yes. But still: books.) I took one book with me—Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter—and it was stolen in LAX before my first flight. So I’ve switched to Kindle and Emily Books. As an experiment, I decided to open myself up to the highs and lows of the romance genre: If love heals, then I thought I’d try out, as they say, “trashy” romance novels, or “beach reads.” I suppose the only difference I’ve discovered between the “high art” of literary novels and the “lower art” of romance novels is twofold: 1) the self-publishing writers of the world need editors, badly, and 2) saccharine hope and happiness of “light” literature may be easy to generate and fluffy—but, as sentiments, they are still important, and even necessary.
I’m left wondering why we literary or intellectually-minded readers put down the whole genre of the romance novel when all it is, really, is another attempt to feel okay in the world.
I’ve read four romance-focused books in about as many days. It’s a way of hiding, of healing. Sometimes, I think it may be working. Here they are:
Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter is a love story of sorts, where the protagonist—a complicated, at times unjust middle-aged woman—falls into a type of love with a beautiful young mother, younger than her own daughters. The connection between the two women is a strong, motherly mentorship, but ends in a disastrous way. Ferrante continually blows me away with her fearless ability to look directly at motherhood and womanhood, with all of its sordid details, sexual frustrations, and darkness.
Violette Leduc’s Thérèse and Isabelle, censored from her novel Ravages in 1955 and published the following year as a novella, recreates the intensity of falling in love for the first time. Thérèse and Isabelle are two girls in a boarding school who unexpectedly fall for each other, and Leduc is masterful not only at capturing that experience in words, but also in her descriptions of female sexuality, sparing no details about the female body, orgasm, oral sex, etc. This is a beautifully written, powerful book, and, as Elizabeth Hall notes in her interview about her book, I Have Devoted My Life To The Clitoris, Leduc was one of Anaïs Nin’s favorite writers.
Kat Evans’ The Space Between Our Hearts: I admit I haven’t read a self-published romance novel ever, and it’s been years since I thumbed through my mom’s romance novels as a child, searching for sex scenes (Judith Krantz’ Scruples, anyone?). So, I read this book. And it was good. I was pulled quickly along in the lesbian romance/murder mystery, in which a female private investigator is trying to help a woman accused of murdering her child. Who really did it? Will they get together? Of course, the writing lacks the complexity of Ferrante’s magnifying glass on humanity, womanhood, and love, but there is still something endearing about, as Evans writes in the afterword to her readers, “a love story about how romance and hope can sometimes spring forth in the midst of difficult circumstances.” Hope—it’s still a sweet, important, necessary thing, now more than ever. (It would be easier to feel hopeful, though, if all self-publishing writers used an editor, or a really smart friend, to proofread their writing, what with all the blatant typos here, i.e. male/mail and sight/site.)
Melody Grace’s Untouched (the first in a series of thirteen “Beachwood Bay” books!) is more a feat of literary capitalism than anything else, but it’s also kind of like a hetero version of the youthful, naïve, exuberant love of Thérèse and Isabelle—just subtract the poetic, skilled writing and add in a lot of grammatical errors (i.e. you’re/your, apostrophes used for plural words). This book is like reading a really long Taylor Swift song. But Grace captures the excitement of first love! She really does! The brilliant thing, though, is that she leaves you on a cliffhanger. I admit I considered buying the next book. Which I’m sure leads to the next. And the next. If you want to get lost in books, in the same way you get lost in your favorite guilty-pleasure TV show, this series might be for you. And it’s really nice to remember that people are still falling in love, making plans for a future that we can’t really be certain about—which is, I suppose, one of the beautiful things about books, after all.