I was recently talking with someone (ok, my therapist) about the nature of romance. Like romance as an idea. See, Mr. Librarian and I have been married almost 15 years and sometimes (especially in the COVID times) it mostly feels like romance is dead. I mean, at this point there’s not much we don’t know about each other. When you know that the person you are married to (partnered with, etc) burps, farts, and maybe even pees with the door open while you’re in the house, all the mystery is gone. In that scenario – if all the mysteries have been solved, what does romance truly mean?
I’ve definitely thought more about this as I have read more and more romance novels. I mean, I love a good romance novel. I get a gushy feeling when the hero does something truly selfless for his (or her) lady (or man) love. I can deal with it and get the cozy feeling because it happens on the page. But, whenever I start thinking about something like that happening in real life, I usually roll my eyes. Why is that? In the fantasy of the novel it is romantic and beautiful and the “who wouldn’t love an amazing person like that” feeling sort of takes over. But in real life, the idea of that level of romance in real life makes me feel weird, uncomfortable, embarrassed and even a little nauseous. I mean, who dances with their partner in their house? Who makes a special dinner for their partner? Isn’t everyone kind of just lying on the couch reading a book or watching Netflix all night long? Am I a cynic or is there something to the idea that romance is not always what we expect?
These thoughts and feelings have led me to return to a novel to which I feel like I’ve found a true connection. One that fills my heart with all the feelings of gushiness without the cringe-y embarrassment, but also makes me laugh about the ridiculousness of romance. You Deserve Each Other by Sarah Hogle is a book about two people who have lost their way. A woman who doesn’t want to marry her fiancé but also lacks the motivation to call off the wedding. Instead she plays a game of chicken – trying to see what outrageous things she can do to ensure that he calls off the wedding instead. For some reason, <cough, cough> this really resonates with me.
Naomi Westfield is running out of time. She’s scheduled to marry her fiancé, Nicholas Rose, in three months, but she can’t even remember how she fell in love with him in the first place or the last time she felt love for him. He definitely doesn’t seem like the man she fell in love with. He’s distant and seems to be holding back. But, it’s not as though she’s been completely forthright either. No, she fully admits to holding herself back; only showing him her glossy exterior and never (under any circumstance) showing him any of her vulnerabilities. And once all wedding decisions were taken over by her domineering, relentless future mother-in-law? Forget it. Naomi has had enough.
Nicholas’ mother, however, has made it clear that if the wedding doesn’t go off without a hitch, whoever calls it off gets saddled with the bill. Since Naomi doesn’t come from a wealthy family and works a minimum wage job for a local business on the verge of closing its doors, she knows she CANNOT be the one to call it quits. If she can get Nicholas to the breaking point, she might just have a way out of this mess. The problem? Nicholas doesn’t seem to be quite as miserable as she does. (Oh, he’s plenty miserable – but that’s a bit beside the point.)
So Naomi loses all inhibitions and just starts being the worst possible version of herself. She is no longer remotely polite to her future in-laws at Sunday night dinner. She trades in her used car for an even bigger clunker, just because she knows it will embarrass his family. She brings home a dog when she knows he definitely does not want a pet. And he’s just as ruthless. He makes commentary about her lack of a college education or career ambition. He definitely prioritizes his mother’s needs more than Naomi’s – not only by allowing his mother to take over all wedding planning, but also by being at her beck and call at every moment. Their pettiness knows no bounds. They fight and there seems to be no end to the lengths they are willing to go to make each other miserable enough to call it off.
Without warning, Nicholas buys them a house. Being together in a beautiful house (which is what Naomi thinks although she would never ever tell him so) leads to a few cracks in their exteriors. Cautiously, they begin to share real, true things about themselves. When the other person accepts that tidbit of vulnerability, it slowly creates the foundation from which their real relationship can take flight. It reminds me of the slogan from the old MTV show, The Real World – “find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” Naomi and Nicholas are finally able to see the real person beneath the veneer. They are finally able to address hurt feelings and regrets. And they are finally able to come together and realize that they do love each other and want to build a life together.
I’m not sure what this says about me, but I dig the sabotage part of the novel. There is definitely a schadenfreude part of me that is just laughing at their pain. I love seeing how far each would go to get at the other person. I can’t decide if it’s just my general mood right now or what, but that level of cunning insolent antics? I am down for that.
However, the more I’ve thought about this, the more I think this harkens back to my conundrum of whether or not romance is dead. What constitutes real romance? Is Nicholas always shoveling the snow off the driveway romantic? Is cooking a regular weeknight, run-of-the-mill dinner romantic? Is washing the dishes romantic? Is waiting to watch the latest episodes of your favorite TV show with your partner romantic? If these things are expected parts of a relationship, can anything be romantic? And if the romance is truly gone (because these things aren’t romantic at all) can the opposite be true? Can someone truly show real love and romance through sarcasm, cynicism, and teasing? I think the truest lesson from this book is that these things can only be romance when balanced with more selfless, solicitous actions.
On a more tender-hearted note, I also really connected with the idea about creating a family of your own. Being with someone is a commitment and to be successful, you need to have each other’s backs. Just because your family of origin is horrible (like both Naomi and Nicholas’) it doesn’t mean that you have to suffer through life alone. It just means that you have to work hard to build the community and family that you trust. Watching these two figure it out is painful at times. Sometimes you’d just want to yell at them to talk to each other. They try so hard to put on the veneer of people who have it all together and then can’t seem to break down those walls and let the other in. It is such a beautiful moment when they stop acting like idiot children throwing tantrums and start having each others’ backs.
When I first read this book, I have to admit, I wasn’t super impressed. But it is one of those that grew on me. I kept wanting to reread it again and again because I wanted to watch these two mature and grow together.
You Deserve Each Other by Sarah Hogle, published 2020