There’s a photo in the bathroom of my parents’ house. It’s a picture of one of my childhood cats. Its caption reads: “Love is like a cat. It goes where it pleases and pleases where it goes.” I would say the same thing is true for the best novels—in particular, the ones with love as their core sample.
The first line of Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others is “This is a love story.” Likewise, within the first few pages of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, the narrator describes, “Then she smiled, and in that instant, if such a thing were possible, Pasquale fell in love, and he would remain in love for the rest of his life—not so much with the woman, whom he didn’t even know, but with the moment.” Both of these novels, at their onset, explicitly draw attention to the concept of love as a narrative momentum, if not also a rhetorical device for ensuing conflict. Because we all know that in fiction, nothing is safe, nothing is sacred. As Charles Baxter says in his craft text Burning Down the House, there’s no story if everything in the kingdom is running smoothly.
So we can expect, as readers, to find love, at some point in the narrative, wrecking upon the reef of desire and rejection. But why is this a forever-compelling subject, especially if we can predict its failure, if not also its possible rise from the ashes? My vote is that it’s because watching love occur on the page gives us hope that we ourselves can one day find it in our own lives—and not lose it. I would also argue, for this very reason, that it’s a more powerful subject than any other literary trope or genre element. More than fame, more than family, more than the future. Love as subject matter has mass appeal because it is a narrative all by itself: strangers meet, strangers feel attraction, strangers fall in love. The enticing variable becomes whether that love will stay true or fall prey to its own fickleness.
So what makes Spiotta’s and Walter’s take on love so singular and spectacular? No spoilers here. But I will give you a little taste of each writer’s plan for love in their respective works. In Innocents, only a few pages after that declarative opening line, we come to this passage: “I told you this is a love story. One day, one of the very last days, it will be a different story. But before I tell about that part, please let me tell this part. The very beginning part. The how-we-met part.” Right there, Spiotta is cluing us in to the fact that love is going to be at the heart (pun intended) of her novel, for better and for worse. That passage alone is enough to whet the appetite to continue reading because we want see how that “love story” becomes “a different story.”
And in Ruins, it’s no secret that the woman Pasquale falls for at the novel’s beginning is an American actress (though not Elizabeth Taylor). However, the novel also comes to recount Taylor’s love affair with Richard Burton while she’s shooting the film Cleopatra in 1962. If that premise alone doesn’t do it for you—the details of a Mediterranean romance between two of the most famously beautiful actors in the history of Hollywood—I don’t know what will. Walter is well aware that love as focal point (whether from afar or from within) galvanizes an audience to want to see where that love goes.
Whether it goes down the drain or goes to new heights, we as readers will be pleased to watch it wander.
Lighthouse instructor Alexander Lumans will teach Reading as a Writer: Jess Walter and Dana Spiotta starting October 19. And both Walter and Spiotta will be at Lighthouse December 3 and 4 for the Writer’s Studio.