Friday, October 3, 2014

Return of the romance

A friend recently suggested I ought to read romance novels.  My first reaction was "huh?" followed quickly by "why?!?"  But after thinking about it (and knowing my friend was just joking), I realized I have read a few books that I think qualify.  I really liked Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, and Sweet Misfortune and The Final Note by Kevin Alan Milne were both quite good.  I was told that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: A Novel and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand don't really count, but surely Wuthering Heights does?  I don't think anyone who's read Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd would argue it wasn't a romance, and I just finished The Return of the Native by the same author, although it took me two tries to get through it.

The "native" is Clym (Clement) Yeobright, who returns home to Egdon Heath, a small village on the English moorlands.  He's grown disillusioned by a business career in Paris, and wants to become a teacher for the poor instead.  But the love interests in this story go far beyond a simple triangle - it's more like a... a love-pentagram, I guess.  Clym's cousin, Tamsin (Thomasin) was engaged to marry a local innkeeper named Damon Wildeve, who suffers from a wandering eye.  In fact, Wildeve had something of an illicit relationship with Eustacia Vye, a dark-haired beauty who longs to escape the heath for a more adventurous life.  The final piece of the story is Diggory Venn.  Venn is a "reddleman," a traveling salesman of a red chalk used for marking sheep, and the hazard of his trade is that the chalk also colors his skin red.  But in spite of making him look like a devil, Venn is actually a very decent guy, and the story opens with his return to Egdon as well, bringing the unfortunate Tamsin, whose wedding to Wildeve in a neighboring town didn't happen due to a mistake with the license - and, of course, Diggory had unsuccessfully proposed to Tamsin a year before.

So, just to sum it up: Diggory still carries a torch for Tamsin, who feels obligated and honor-bound to Wildeve, who is really in love with Eustacia, who sees Clym as a possible escape from a dreary and provincial life on the heath.  Got that?  Naturally, no one marries the right person.  What a boring story that would've made!

I don't usually worry about revealing the plot and outcome with classics, but in this case I suspect the story isn't widely-read or familiar to most, and I've probably said too much already.  But as easy as it is to like the noble Venn (who reminded me of the solid Gabriel Oak), Hardy depicts each of the characters in such a way that you can relate to and sympathize with all of them.  Eustacia seems so beautiful and exotic (as well as aloof) to the villagers that some of the women believe she's a witch, and yet you can't help but feel her longing to escape for something more exciting.  I even felt bad for the fickle Wildeve, who is kept from the woman he really loves by the social expectations and customs of the community.  Even the setting of the fictional Egdon Heath, which is almost pagan-like with its bonfires and traditions, adds a layer of fascination and appeal to this ill-fated love-... um, pentagram.

And yet, as interesting as that all may sound, it still took me two tries to get through it, because - after all - it's a romance.  The tragic nature lends some interest - and I've enjoyed others like Main Street, O Pioneers, and The Good Earth, that have elements of a romance in them.  But honestly, romances aren't really my thing, and I mostly enjoyed the well-developed characters and the very human dilemmas they face which we sometimes see echoed in our own lives.  Plus, there's Hardy's beautiful language which can bring a place alive with so many subtly-nuanced words that you'll want a dictionary at hand to truly understand and see the color in his story.

So, while I won't be cracking any steamy bodice-rippers or the more circumspect "bonnet-rippers" (aka Amish romances), don't be too surprised if I come back with another classic that borders on romance.  Although, I think it's a safer bet that I'll be reading a history, maybe even one that recounts a long-ago love story.

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