About a month ago, Miss Bates, stuck in afternoon traffic, listened to a favourite CBC Radio podcast, Tapestry, a show that self-describes as offering “the more subtle news of life – a thoughtful consideration of what it means to be human.” Their motto is Kant’s “The human heart refuses to believe in a universe without purpose” (which is also a darn good motto for the romance genre). One segment of that particular podcast was “The Novel Cure,” an interview with Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin who run Bibliotherapy at The School of Life in London, England, and have published a book called The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies. What a great idea, thought Miss Bates, a book recommendation for what ails you: feeling blue, out of sorts, plain pissed off, or having the “mean reds” as Holly Golightly said. Have you been dumped, are about to embark on a voyage, be married, divorced, change jobs, or cities? Berthoud and Elderkin’s prescribed book eases the transition, comforts, and diverts. Books as “prescription” medicine for the under-the-weather soul, mind, and heart.
She listened, rapt, as Berthoud and Elderkin suggested titles for a variety of moods and circumstances: H. E. Bates’s The Darling Buds Of May for cynicism; Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity for a recent break-up; Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight for fear of flying; and, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for a new father. Miss Bates considered their choices lugubrious. Blatty’s The Exorcist for a loss of faith!? She’s read de Saint-Exupéry’s Vol de nuit and there’s nothing in it to comfort someone who’s afraid to fly (especially in light of de Saint-Exupéry’s night flight disappearance during WWII). What cheer is there for a new dad in the post-apocalyptic world of The Road? Great books all, but do they comfort and divert? They are intelligent, well-written, and challenging; they offer answers and considerations. They are great choices, BUT! Miss Bates protested WHERE ARE THE ROMANCE NOVELS? Do they not offer comfort, diversion, and thought to feeling blue, turning green, and seeing red? To despair, uncertainty, ennui, malaise? On the occasion of birth, death, and everything in between? Don’t they have a place in the prescriptive canon?
Anecdotal or not, Miss Bates has encountered many women who find respite in reading a romance novel (which is not to say men don’t, she simply hasn’t met any). For many, including Miss Bates, who can’t “take the waters” at Baden-Baden, cracking open a romance novel and being lost in it, laughing, crying, mourning, and celebrating with heroine and hero, thinking about its thematic implications, enjoying its wit and wisdom, serves as panacea to a day gone terribly wrong.
After the host’s, Mary Hines’, Tapestry episode set wheels turning and discontent churning, Miss Bates encountered evidence of the romance narrative’s efficacious effect in a moving, wonderful post by Elyse on Smart Bitches Trashy Books, “Chronic Pain and Coping: Why Romance Novels Are My Equipment for Living.” If you only have time for one post today, read Elyse’s. It brought everything home for Miss Bates as Elyse recounted her effort to understand the cause of debilitating physical pain. It was a long and complex journey to find the right doctor and diagnosis. It took years and those years were accompanied by the comfort and diversion of romance novels. When she finally met a doctor willing to listen, help, and prescribe, he validated her reading choice as one of the things that will help her live with the chronic condition. Elyse provides a great list of romance novels, as do the many comments, that helped her cope. She offers them up to your blue moments and bad days. She also gives a fine poke against the genre’s naysayers, those who wag accusing fingers towards the genre’s chronic literature “lite” condition because of its HEA. Elyse argues, ” … it’s not about the end, it’s about how you get there.” Miss Bates cheered and cried and recalled “The Novel Cure” podcast. All the pleasure IS in “how you get there.”
Miss Bates has had her recent blogging blahs and she’s certainly had her share of daily-grind will-nothing-go-right days. Romance novels can NEVER replace medical advice and treatment, but they can work in tandem to divert, comfort, and give respite. They can simply make a day gone-to-hell-in-hand-basket better: when Miss Bates finally gets home to a cup of tea and footstool. Miss Bates will write about the romance novels and authors to which she returns/turns when, as Wordsworth wrote, “the world is too much with us.”
When Miss Bates has a bad day, when she feels put upon, or misunderstand, or her world has revealed itself to be a cruddy place after all, her retreat is to one particular romance novel, Judith McNaught’s Paradise. The peculiar thing about this is that she doesn’t even like McNaught all that much. The big-eyed ingenue heroine and harsh hero and right-wing politics implicit in the corporate world setting of Paradise (it reminds her of the 80s prime time soap, Dallas) … most unappealing.
If you’re not familiar with the novel, here it is, in a nutshell. Matthew Farrell and Meredith Bancroft meet and share a one-night stand (into which innocent, virginal Meredith was swept by the power of her attraction for Matthew). When Meredith realizes she’s pregnant, she tells Matthew and he insists they marry. He is poor and ambitious and goes overseas to make his fortune. Yet, he and Meredith build a marriage, mainly over the telephone, despite their bad beginning, of affection, care, and desire. While he’s overseas, Meredith miscarries, nearly dying in the process. Her nasty father keeps Matthew away from her sickbed; he thinks she had an abortion. Matthew’s angry and believes she doesn’t want him; Meredith’s hurt and believes he doesn’t want her. They divorce. Years later, they meet when now-wealthy Matthew, corporate shark, is poised to take over Meredith’s department store empire. This is an iconic second-chance-at-love romance narrative.
Why does Miss Bates turn to Paradise when it is far removed from her schoolmarmish, frugal, lower-middle-class gentility? Because the heroine is gloriously vindicated, an idea she’s written about before. When vilified, she maintains her dignity. She’s no doormat, but she won’t fight with the hero’s weapons. When Meredith and Matthew meet again, their interactions are deliciously fraught with tension and nastiness. Harsh words are exchanged; threats are tossed. The key, for Miss Bates, lies in Meredith’s transformation: without losing her innocence, kindness, or dignity, Meredith has not allowed her baby’s loss or Matthew’s abandonment to turn her bitter, or angry, or mean. She mourned and still honours her lost baby’s memory: she also lives her life well. She’s engaged to a good man; she loves her work. She built a good life. On meeting Matthew again, she acknowledges that he still has the power to affect her physically and emotionally. When they are snowed in together in a remote cabin … only Miss Bates’ FAVOURITE ROMANCE SCENARIO … McNaught writes a wrenching scene of Meredith telling Matthew the truth about the night he returned to the States. The scene is the height of melodrama; it’s sentimental, the worst kind of corny: they call each other “darling.” What Miss Bates loves about the scene? Truth be told, she loves that Meredith is so so right and Matthew is sooooooooo wrong. Maybe it’s petty, but it’s comforting to a spinster who values emotional vindication, whose great literary heroine is that most vindicated of heroines, Jane Eyre. Matthew done her wrong and now, he’s humbled and contrite. Maybe there’s a Big Miz here, but still … he should have been a bigger man than he was. Matthew’s really quite lovely and makes up for what happened in sundry ways, but the novel lapses into ordinary after this scene. Miss Bates, however, reads the build-up to and that scene in the snowed-in cabin for comfort and vindication every time she’s had that kind of day.
What of you, dear reader, what do you read for comfort, diversion, respite, maybe even VINDICATION, when you’ve had a bad day? (Not that it has to be a romance narrative.)
Or, consider Berthoud and Elderkin’s prescriptive choices: what romance narratives would you suggest as alternate prescriptive readings?
Cynicism: H. E. Bates’ Darling Buds of May (no relation to Miss B.)
Despair: Milan Kunera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Stuck in a rut: Rose Macauley’s The Towers of Trebizond
A recent break-up: Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity
Fear of flying: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight
For a new father: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road
Grieving: John Berger’s Here Is Where We Meet
Learning to be a good man: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (this is a near-perfect choice)
Alcoholism: Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano
Loss of faith: W. P. Blatty’s The Exorcist
Unnamed dread: Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes
A novel “cure-all”: John Berger’s To the Wedding
What romance narrative stands as a heal-all for you?
Please note that the above list is taken from Tapestry‘s website, to which Miss B. linked in the first paragraph of her post.
What romance narratives would you prescribe for disgrace, anger, listlessness, “overworked and underpaid,” feeling abandoned, lonely, and “seeking the ideal mate”? Or any other mood, or circumstance that strikes your fancy?
Please note that Miss B. is indebted to Wikipedia for the above image of reluctant sea-bather and coaxing “hero.”
(Miss Bates will follow this post with Romance Panacea Part II, stay tuned!)