Reality doesn't measure up to supermarket romance novels

I read these cheap, formulaic books, and I can't stop wishing my life would be like that.


Cary Tennis
May 19, 2006 2:56PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I am an unapologetic fan of trashy, bodice-ripping, "buy it in a grocery store, read it in three hours" romance novels. Part of what appeals to me is the sweeping drama of two people stumbling upon one another in what seems like a moment of random chance, but really is the culmination of destiny, each of them finding someone who is uniquely able to help answer life's questions, the only other person in the world who could possibly understand. It doesn't hurt that all of these stories have a predictable three-act structure with a joyous and simplistic ending.

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Despite my love of this type of frivolity, I fancy myself a rational person who comprehends that reality does not follow this structure, least of all romantic reality. Most people are tragically flawed, and not in a roguishly charming way. But I fear that I may have unintentionally internalized the myth underlying these stories. No matter what I tell myself about the dating world, i.e., "nobody's perfect," "attraction can build," "just because my dog hates him, that doesn't mean he's evil," my heart keeps returning to an idealized image of "the one," and as a result I think I'm searching for someone who doesn't exist.

This, to me, seems like a tragic exercise of soul-destroying proportions. I think I hold myself apart from normal romantic relationships, hoping one day to encounter someone who truly understands, who is my soul mate, and I can just be myself. This problem is compounded by my astoundingly good luck at having a wonderful community of friends, so I'm never alone unless I want to be, and I can always drag one of my male friends to events that require a date.

Sometimes I lament my single status, but then I quietly observe many of my coupled-up friends' relationships and I don't see the magical, soul-deep connection I hope to one day have. My parents have that kind of connection. My dad still says things like, "How did I ever get so lucky to find a woman like your mom?" and my mom's eyes will twinkle when she looks at my dad. She says that after 35 years of marriage, she still finds him interesting. How cool is that?

When I try to divorce myself from the myth, I see glimpses of it in the real world and then I don't want to give it up. But I don't want to spend my life on a fruitless mission either, only to wind up alone, consumed with regret, with no one to share my stories. I would appreciate any thoughts you might have.

Romance Fan

Dear Romance Fan,

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Whenever we stand by unable to act, uncertain, holding out, waiting for something that may or may not occur, we are not living. We are not discovering life as it unfolds.

Life is messy and uncertain as it unfolds. There is only a very small area around our feet that we can keep orderly and sure. The rest is going to be messy. It is going to be messy and uncertain. But in that messiness and uncertainty there is also magic and grace.

That is the deal we make with life. We give up our fantasies of perfection in return for a chance at actual magic and grace. You cannot find that magic and grace by observing, holding yourself at a distance, waiting. You cannot find it by waiting because it is not something that happens to you; it is something you create. You create it by wrestling with life.

But what about those people who seem to simply wait and then are swept up, like passengers on a magic bus? I do not believe that even the people whom life finds and sweeps into its orbit have been simply waiting. They have been creating. They have been creating themselves. They have been sculpting moments.

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This I would refer to as focused inward activity. It is not the passive waiting of the princess so derided by women who equate introversion with passivity.

Picture a woman alone in a library. She is studying intently. A man sees her there every day and becomes interested. He observes her. He desires her. She does not seem to notice him, but she does notice him; something in the way she turns her shoulders tells you that she notices him and lets him observe her. She does not hide from him but neither does she invite him. She accepts that he will either approach or not approach, and she is ready. She is not trying to control the situation. She is simply participating. She does not need for him to approach her. She is not waiting for something to happen. She is going about her life.

He might appear one day with flowers and it will seem magical and romantic. People will say she is so lucky. But she sculpted that moment; she created the space in which it could occur or not occur.

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People might say this is the old passive, waiting woman thing. Why shouldn't she be able to get up and go ask him if he likes her and wants to take her out? No one is stopping her. She can do that if she wants. I say do what feels genuine. If you like romance novels, read them. If men bore you, don't go out with them. Live your life. No one can predict the future.

Was I waiting all my life to get a chance to write this column? Was I preparing for the moment? I could not foresee that such a moment would occur. I was just doing my job. I am still just doing my job.

A woman walked by my house one day and I married her and we had breakfast this morning. Who knows how that happens. You can't spend your time worrying about all that stuff. If you do, life will go right by. You have to be ready for it when it happens, though. You have to say yes every once in a while.

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