The first book I read this year was A Room With a View. I can’t quite say why I picked it other than it was free on kindle and I thought “I’ve never read this book before.” I think that’s going to be a theme this year.
Man, Victorian literature sure knows where a girl’s heart lies, which is to say that men who are emotionally unavailable, vaguely troubled, and certainly unattainable, are hot–even when they don’t get much time in scene. Here’s what I love and also kind of hate about this book: from the first page (I assume it was the first page since I was reading it on the kindle) we know we want Lucy to hook up with George and that’s what carries us through the whole story, even though there’s only one short scene that establishes his character. We also know that we don’t want her to hook up with Cecil from the moment we’re introduced to him. This book cashes in on the romantic imprint that forbidden love/radical free thinking is sexy and conventional thinking is not; it does it in a pretty brilliant way.
The fact that George’s character is relying heavily on this romantic imprint (if that’s the right term) caused me to step back for a moment. Look, I know we all really like George, but we don’t actually know him nor do we ever really get to know him. But we know what counts; he’s cute, he’s troubled and he’s probably mistaken for a dick when really he’s just very complex and probably feels emotions of such depth that only the right woman can decipher them (also he knows how to handle a girl who faints and one who’s just fallen into a bed of violets, read: he’s attentive and bold).
Although I can’t really say what causes me to fall for men in real life, I can say that I rarely ever do fall for them the way I do in fiction (Victorian fiction in particular). And when it does happen, I realize that–like Lucy and Geroge–I barely know these men and my attraction to them is built more on a construct I’ve made up than the actual person. It’s probably true that this construct is heavily influenced by these types of stories. Therefore, am I attracted to emotionally unavailable men because I like Victorian literature? Or is it the other way around?
“You can’t fall in love with someone you don’t know” I once told a girl I babysit. This sentiment does not hold true in the world of E.M. Forster, Jane Austin, the Bronte Sisters, et al. In that world lust=true love, and I’m honestly sort of fine with that on a literary level but I don’t buy into it on a practical level.
He’s Not an Asshole He’s Just Misunderstood
Which leads me to the “he’s not an asshole, he’s just misunderstood” sentiment that permeates Victorian literature (it’s especially effective in Pride and Prejudice).
Here’s something infuriating: I’ve recently found myself saying this exact phrase applied to a person in real life. Once it was out of my mouth I instantly felt a mix of shame and horror. Did that shame and horror make me rethink the actual sentiment? Did it lead me to consider that the subject might, in fact, be an asshole? It did not. When his asshole status was later confirmed did I reproach myself? Of course, but by then the damage had been done. (Whether he was misunderstood remains undetermined).
That’s the great/troubling aspect of A Room With a View. Great because we know that, were this real life, George would undoubtedly end up being a dick and Lucy would be stuck with him because the novelty of dating a dick wears out after awhile and it’s not like she can just divide up their books and records and try dating women. But we don’t have to worry about what happens after the end of the book. We get our initial impulse met and a sense of romantic fulfillment (win!). (According to Wikipedia, some versions of the book come with an appendix that explains what happens to the happy couple. My free kindle version didn’t include this so I’m free to hang onto that fulfillment for as long as I please.)
It’s troubling because I’ve never seen an example where pure lust=true love or even a happy relationship where one of the people involved is a brooding, emotionally unavailable radical. I also find the myth that a man just needs the love of a good woman to unlock his emotional insecurities unsettling and consistently untrue. But I guess that’s the thing about this kind of fiction, I don’t want to be taken in by it because I think it’s unrealistic but, in the end, I always am taken in by it, and happliy so.
I’m pretty curious what a male read on this book would be. Certainly there are political and cultural implications that I’m not even touching on but, at this moment anyway, I’m more interested in a male take of the romance. This makes me think of a film review of “Sideways” written by A.O. Scott that appeared in the New York Times several years ago. He says: “It both satirizes and affirms a cherished male fantasy: that however antisocial, self-absorbed and downright unattractive a man may be, he can always be rescued by the love of a good woman. (What’s in it for her is less clear.)”
In the end, I really enjoyed this book for all the girly reasons you like a book like this and, beyond that, the skillful way that political and social assumptions were woven into characters with out much more than hints to those characters’ true natures. I gave it four stars on Goodreads although three and a half is probably more accurate. I’ll also read A Passage to India, which is the book I would have started with if I had been thinking about it.
Up next? Hard to say. I started Infinite Jest last week–again without any forethought–but it seems unlikely that I will finish that in anything closely resembling a timely manner so maybe I’ll set that one aside and read something that’s not 1,000+ pages.