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Contemporary romance novels have come a long way. Depicting second-chance romance, with a variety of characters and lightening of serious themes such as motherhood, career, race, etc., the romance genre does not equate to frivolous fluff as it is often mislabeled. It shows us how views on gender, sexuality and love have changed over time. It also draws our attention to the fact that not every love story has to culminate in marriage. Gone are the days of unoriginal and aggressive macho heroes and their submissive heroines. Contemporary love stories create space for multidimensional narratives that coexist without overshadowing each other.
The romance seen in literary fiction also features unique love stories that change the way we think about relationships. Relationships are never light-footed, nor are they always fulfilling and happy. Romance isn’t just the domain of the pretty twenty-somethings, whose days after meeting the love of their life suddenly become a bed of roses. Just like any other endeavor, romantic relationships take work. Preconceptions about how relationships should be are debunked and instead presented as they really are.
Lily Kings Writers & Lovers, for example, paints a very realistic picture of love. There is this misconception that love repairs an individual and makes their life whole. Though love fills our lives with unbridled joy, it doesn’t necessarily become a medicine for what’s lacking in us. Casey struggles to finish her first novel while dealing with the crushing burden of student loans and the recent death of her mother. She’s a tearful, anxious mess and everything in her life is falling apart. To top it off, she’s in love with two men at the same time. King has shown love as something that is an important aspect of Casey’s life but in no way consumes everything.
As the novel progresses, we see her evolve into her own savior as she struggles hard to stay afloat. The believable lows and well-deserved highs of her life are hers and hers alone. Casey will never rely solely on her love interests to validate her existence. She is passionate about things that are not at the whim of others. She is her own person. The you-fill-me feeling doesn’t last, and Casey is smart enough to know that she has a lot of work to do on her own before she can prove herself to be a suitable partner. Loving does not mean losing yourself to another person. Loving is finding a way to validate your individuality, and Casey’s story is a testament to that.
Then there is Clare Chambers Small pleasures, which is set in post-war 1950s London and is about Jean who is about to turn 40. She works as a columnist for a local newspaper, has limited career opportunities and is always on the lookout for a call from a demanding mother. Her life changes dramatically when she is tasked with finding out if Gretchen Tilbury is really the virgin mother she claims to be. After a series of strange incidents, Jean falls in love with Gretchen’s husband, Howard. Even if the story makes dark waves through the lives of everyone involved, despite her best efforts, Jean can’t seem to give up her one chance at happiness. Howard acts as an antidote to Jean’s silent solitude. His gentle and thoughtful nature eventually draws Jean into a world where misery is not the only constant. Contrary to what she believes, there is no expiration date for finding love. Both Howard and Jean have suffered their respective casualties. Howard’s wife never loved him and Jean had her share of terrible men.
The biggest take away from Small pleasures is that love and life don’t have to stop at a certain age. We grow up internalizing that our life’s milestones come with deadlines, and if we don’t meet them, somehow we’ll never recover. That idea is impractical and life is way too big to be caged that way. Jean’s story, although it has a sad ending, shows how many bright sides there are in our world without us realizing it. Marriages may fall apart, partners may disregard our wishes, jobs may drain us and life may feel like an ordeal, but our lives are wild and precious and in every nook and cranny love is waiting for us to find it.
Hiromi Kawakamis Strange weather in Tokyo, translated by Allison Markin Powell, is another example of an unconventional love story, in which love breaks out of whatever old-fashioned forms we try to confine it to. Tsukiko is in her late 30s when she reunites with one of her high school teachers, whom she calls “Sensei”. He is at least 30 years older than her, but the age difference is never an obstacle as the simple intimacy they share tops it all. Despite their initial hesitation, Tsukiko and her sensei eventually become bolder in their relationship. Their closeness grows as they share meals and drinks, exchange stories, and take trips together. There is something truly otherworldly about finding joy in the ordinary, in the mundane, and Tsukiko and her sensei’s love for each other helps them see the magic of the mundane. True happiness does not lie in grand gestures, but in doing daily chores with the loved one. Their relationship lacks extravagance and that is the appeal of it.
Not only does this novel redefine relationship models by acknowledging that romance need not be monopolized by the boys, but it also allows us to see the goals of a relationship in a new light. Our social upbringing prevents us from dating who we want. We are often given strict instructions about who we can and cannot date. This book debunks all these morals that serve no discernible purpose in our lives. The story of Tsukiko and her sensei tells us that love is infinite and cannot be limited by conventional standards.
To love is to swim and drown. Literary fiction tells us that the feeling of being in love cannot always be loved, as it often feels heavier than iron. And while it’s nice to be in love, it doesn’t always last. This genre rightly captures the infinite power we possess and the powerlessness we must endure in love at the same time. It also reminds us that love is never in short supply and does not need to be rationed. Above all, literary fiction shows all the chaos and social factors that influence and follow our romantic choices. And most importantly, it lets us realize that partners can live their lives together and still be on their own.
To learn more about why you should pick up romance novels, please read this article on why romance deserves as much respect as any other genre.