I’ve made a living in a rather peculiar manner over the past few years: by writing about relationships. Unfortunately for me—but fortunately for my career—I always seemed to have a crazy new dating tale to tell. Like the one about the accomplished scientist who’d had a thick shaggy mane in every picture he’d posted online—though in person he was about 94 percent bald. We sat down to dinner at the nice restaurant where he’d invited me to dine, and he promptly ordered a banana, despite the fact that “individual pieces of fruit in phallic shapes” were not on the menu. “Charge me whatever you’d like!” he told the befuddled waitress. Come to think of it, that’s more or less what he said to me when the check came. His exact words were: “We can split it, or I can pay, or you can pay.” Never had I been given so many options. It was after we divvied it up that I made like a banana and split.
Or there’s the story about the very tall young gentleman—I use that term loosely—who was studying for a PhD in economics at Columbia. Over tapas, he explained that he was kinda stalking another chick but went on to assure me that I had nothing to worry about—I wasn’t pretty enough to make him crazy. I responded with typical unflappability: I locked myself in the bathroom for twenty minutes and sobbed.
There was also the dude I met up with in Prospect Park one summer, after we had a brief phone discussion about our lives and likes, including our favorite foods. He brought his guitar to the rendezvous and serenaded me with a song he’d written especially for the occasion. It began: “Maura Kelly is a nutter . . . who likes peanut butter.” That’s probably as close to immortality in verse as I’ll ever get.
Because of my unusual professional specialty, friends and strangers often seek out my advice—asking me about, say, how they should interpret not having heard from a date for a full twenty-four hours since their first hang-out session, how long they should wait before having sex with the person they’ve recently begun seeing, or how it might go over if they mention the recent passing of their beloved cat in their Internet dating profile. When this kind of thing first began to happen, it made me really nervous. I’m a dating columnist, after all—which is essentially the opposite of an expert on blissful romantic commitment! Could I really provide helpful counsel?
Heck, I was always turning to friends to ask how they thought I should handle the latest Lothario in my life. In particular, I sought out my cowriter Jack Murnighan. When he and I first got to know each other—after I was assigned to write a piece about his previous book for The Daily Beast—he dazzled me, and not only with his erudite yet engaging personality. There was, too, the thick gingery hair, the high cheekbones, the strong jaw, the wide smile full of perfect teeth, and enough lady-killing charm to fell an army of Amazons. As if that weren’t enough, he could effortlessly quote from Proust or cite David Foster Wallace. Jack had spent the better part of his life extracting the wisdom from literature (majoring in philosophy and semiotics at Brown, getting a PhD in literature from Duke); he was an unusual mix of bookworm and pretty boy. Surprising, too, was how incredibly down-to-earth he was. In fact, there was so much to like about him that I was relieved to hear he had a girlfriend; that meant the question of his not being interested in me romantically was removed from the equation.
It began to happen that if I was in Jack’s part of town, I’d swing by his apartment—a crow’s nest of a one bedroom, perched high above Chinatown, lined wall to wall to wall with books; we’d make some dinner, or have a little tea, and talk about our love lives. He always had the most satisfying takes on mine. Possibly that’s because he’d once been a very scrawny and lonely boy, so he could relate to my fear that no one would ever understand the truth of my hopeful but hapless heart. Or maybe it had more to do with the fact that he read so much. He could empathize with certain female characters—like self-punishing Katerina from The Brothers Karamazov and underassertive Mrs. Ramsay from To the Lighthouse—as much as with me. And he’d gathered some great lessons from the brilliant psychologists who have written the world’s great novels.
Not long after we became buddies, I stopped over to see Jack on my way home from a hotel-bar party in SoHo, thrown by the literary journal Open City to celebrate its latest issue. Not one guy had given me the time of day. Did my new black cocktail dress mean nothing to those louts? I was demoralized.
“Is there any way for me to become one of those chicks who casts a spell over every dude she meets?” I asked Jack. “Because there are some women who just—I don’t know—they have that je ne sais quoi. They’re not necessarily outstandingly gorgeous or brilliant or successful . . . but they know how to rock it.”
When Jack stood up, I assumed he was going to make me a cup of tea while telling me I shouldn’t let it bother me. Instead, he plucked an enormous slab of literary sustenance from his shelf and put it down in front of me: War and Peace.
“Read that,” Jack said. “The character Natasha? She’ll show you all you need to know about being alluring.”
I frowned. “It’s rather long, isn’t it?”
“I thought you said Bleak House was one of your favorite novels. That’s long, too.”
“But it’s also awesome.”
Jack pointed at the cover. “You’ll love this. You won’t be able to put it down.”
“I will when my arm starts cramping as I try to keep hold of it.”
Despite my grousing, I started reading the book. I hadn’t had an easy time getting into Anna Karenina but Tolstoy’s other biggie sucked me right in; a vivid soap opera of love triangles, family dynamics, and bad matches, it deserved its reputation as the world’s most beautifully told epic. But if there was anything particularly illuminating about the behavior of the main female character, Natasha, I’d missed it. She was basically just pretty, wasn’t she? It wasn’t like she was consciously doing anything to make herself more appealing. Right?
Jack was quick to correct my misreading. And once he’d explained Natasha’s secret—read his chapter “Scorin’ Piece” to find out what it is—I had an epiphany worthy of a lightning-struck religious convert.
Like that, I was more in control of my romantic destiny.
When I passed on Jack’s instructions to one of my dearest friends, she grumbled, “It’s not fair that you have Jack all to yourself.”
I began to think maybe she was right. I began to think he should write a book about how serious reading can make us all smarter about relationships. And then it occurred to me that we should write it together . . .
That’s how we ended up here.
In these pages, we’ll be considering all kinds of romantic conundrums. Like the case of a young woman who was snubbed by a stuck-up rich kid because he thought her parents were too déclassé. We’ll talk about a dude who just couldn’t cure his infatuation with the prettiest girl in town, even though she wouldn’t give him the time of day. We’ll consider a girl who was in love with a guy whose mother was so jealous of her son’s crush that she tried to break them up. And we’ll look at a couple in a long-distance relationship who try to keep the flame alive by writing each other long notes—even though they’ve never had a meaningful face-to-face conversation.
Are you thinking that I’m conversant in such dramatics because my friends have been in predicaments like those I mentioned? It’s a good guess, but the examples above were actually pulled from novels that have endured through the years: Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Sons and Lovers, and Love in the Time of Cholera, respectively. Clearly, not much has changed through the centuries when it comes to romance.
Then again, plenty has. The Victorians, for instance, sure weren’t discussing the statistical appeal of Internet dating sites (like ’em or not, they up your odds of meeting somebody cool), or trying to determine if a woman would blow her cachet if she pursued a relationship with the guy in her office, or trying to figure out how to handle “friendships with benefits.” They didn’t have to deal with all the strange, new-fangled, often painful methods we have for meeting people. (Speed dating? Ugh.) They had pretty strict dating mores that made things a lot less confusing (if also more constraining) than they are today. They didn’t have the same kind of expectations that we do about finding the perfect partner—sexual dynamo, emotional stalwart, and best buddy all rolled into one.
Between all the pressure we put on ourselves to find a soul mate and all the possible ways to couple up, it’s no wonder we single people are a little shell-shocked. It’s not surprising that we’re constantly fretting over our personal lives—trying to figure out if the ball is in our court after an ambiguous ending to a date, if we should compromise on that factor we thought was so essential in a mate, if we should swear off the head cases we always find ourselves attracted to . . . and all the rest.
Hoping to arrive at true love much sooner than later, we turn everywhere for answers: self-help books, daytime TV, magazines, radio talk shows, friends, relatives, and shrinks. But the real experts on love have been around for a while, as Jack and I have realized, and their insights ring true generation after generation. Part of the reason the great novelists are so great is because of the timeless lessons they impart.
All the same, we understand that a large part of the reason more people don’t read these books is because nobody has the time. That’s why we did it for you; we went through some of our favorite classics, looking for clues that would help us solve today’s romantic dilemmas.
But does our simply being voracious readers—and veterans of the dating scene—and people who’ve written extensively about our personal lives—mean you should listen to us? As I’ve indicated, I’m perennially single. And Jack has been engaged twice. We’re not exactly the poster children for happy love lives. So . . . ?
I’m going to put off addressing the question of our expertise for another few moments while I ask you to consider the personal life of a certain female author, one whom gajillions of young women—and at least a few hundred young men—have turned to when looking for wisdom and solace about relationships. The novelist of whom I speak has served as inspiration for generations of sassy single girls. She was writing books that were essentially romantic comedies long before Renée Zellweger was born, let alone chosen to star in Bridget Jones’s Diary; books in which the heroines, preoccupied with finding husbands, eventually end up with the right guys and live happily ever after. But the writer herself never married. The one and only time she was proposed to, she acted as one of her heroines might: She considered accepting the offer because the guy had lots of money—but turned him down because, from the sounds of things, he was an unbearable prig. When her young niece asked her for advice about a man she was thinking about marrying, the author wrote, “[I] entreat you not to commit yourself farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.” One of her characters repeats her words almost exactly when talking to her sister Lizzy—the heroine in Pride and Prejudice. I’m talking about Jane Austen, of course.
Think about Tolstoy—a writer whose two most important novels are gorgeous meditations on how to find contentment in life and love even though by all accounts the man himself was a bitch of a husband. As his long-suffering wife wrote in her journal: “All the things that he preaches for the happiness of humanity only complicate life to the point where it becomes harder and harder for me to live . . . I devote so much love and care to him, and his heart is so icy.”
Keep in mind, too, Charles Dickens, whose first-person narrators can be so self-deprecating, affectionate, and purehearted; whose wonderful stories about the redemptive power of love and kindness have helped me get through some of my, um, bleakest moments. The man left his wife in middle age—after they had ten children together—because he’d fallen in love with an eighteen-year-old girl!
So, yes: Dickens, Tolstoy, and Austen have provided me with great psychological knowledge—and yet they certainly struggled in their romantic lives, as I have. But they weren’t asking us to behave as they did. They were asking us to observe their wonderfully, terribly lifelike characters—the good ones and the bad—in order to learn from them. They were offering us ideals (and nadirs) of behavior by which to guide ourselves, wisdom that might help shed light on the motivations of the people around us, and hope to keep us going. In the same way, Jack and I are offering up our stories about our failures and successes, alongside our thoughts about our favorite novels, so you can learn from them without experiencing quite as much humiliation, agony, and loneliness as we have! We’re not here to say: Do as we have done—far from it. If anything, we’re here to say: Read. Live. And think. It’ll help you to love.
© 2012 Maura Kelly