Who doesn’t love a love story? The trouble is I can’t think of too many that have a happy ending. This is a problem for someone who likes to think that love conquers all and that happily ever after is possible. In searching for three really great love stories (the rule of three is important in all discussions of story) I came up with two off the top of my head: the classic, Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy, an all-time favorite, Possession by A.S. Byatt, and, in casting about for a newly published love story, discovered a collection of stories recently published, The News from Spain, 7 Variations on a Love Story, by Joan Wickersham.
While Anna Karenina is a story about great love, it certainly doesn’t end happily. The story is getting a lot of play these days now that the movie starring Keira Knightly is up for several Oscar nominations — I wouldn’t have believed she could pull it off (she did) too bad they failed utterly in casting Vronsky. But, I digress. Watching the movie, we see Count Vronsky fascinated by Anna’s beauty and Anna drawn to him, flattered by his attention and bored with her everyday life — her dull, knuckle-cracking husband. There is passion, the lure of the forbidden fruit for both of them. But love? I’m not so sure they ever move beyond the fervor of infatuation. I’m looking forward to re-reading it to get back to Tolstoy’s original story, without the gorgeous whirl of the dances and the big screen close-ups of those incredibly luscious Russian jewels. I’m also planning on seeing Seattle’s Book-It Theatre’s production next weekend: book-it.org/anna-karenina/ I have a feeling that hearing the actors speak Tolstoy’s words will deliver the emotion that he intended those two lovers to bring forward, while recognizing that the love of the land and the more pure love Levin feels for Kitty are meant to shine above Anna and Vronsky’s sordid passion.
Possession, by A.S. Byatt is also a favorite love story of mine, though I’m always a sucker for the story within the story literary device. And this one begins in the London Library where one of the main characters is handed a book, thick and black and covered with dust. Dust, which the author tells us a few pages later is a thick, tenacious Victorian dust, a dust composed of smoke and fog particles…. I’m hooked immediately. Inside this dust-covered book, Roland Mitchell, a post-doc at London University studying a fictitious Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash, finds an unsigned letter simply addressed Dear Madam. This letter sends Roland on a quest to discover the identity of the lady and whether the letter could be a significant academic find. It is, of course.
Early on, Roland suspects the mystery lady may be another Victorian writer, Christobel LaMott, and he meets Maud Bailey, a feminist academic from Lincoln who is the leading expert on LaMotte. Thus begins their love story as the two join forces to search for a connection between the two poets. Roland and Maud have a wonderful romp through the English countryside, encounter loads of Dickensian characters in the process, a couple of whom end up with them in a graveyard searching for a buried box that promises to reveal the truth. Ahh. Did I mention there’s also poetry? Not only did A.S. Byatt write this wonderful story, but she also composed the poetry of the fictional poets Ash and LaMotte — very Browning-esque and lovely in their own right. And this story does end happily. At least, Roland and Maud end up in bed together where: he entered her and took possession of all her white coolness which grew warm against him until there were no boundaries . . .
The new love stories I discovered in the collection called, The News From Spain, by Joan Wickersham are amazing – lush and filled with remembered passion and longing, resignation and realistic understanding of love. Wickersham’s characters, from those leading ordinary lives as booksellers and painters to famous ex-wives of Counts and race car drivers, Mozart’s librettist, to someone just described as the famous person have all experienced love, some passionate, all-consuming love and some love that is simply kindness. All have also experienced the loss of love, that when love goes, there is no explanation. The explanation is: It’s gone.
Each story is titled The News from Spain, and it’s fun to get lost in the story and then be surprised by how that thread has been woven into it. The first story ends with two people sitting on the beach and listening to the whispering roar of a whelk shell in which, the man explains, his father used to say you could hear the news from Spain. In other stories, the news from Spain comes on the television — a senseless bomb left under a park bench near Madrid, or it brings the terrible news of a young husband’s death, and more than once, the news is about a husband’s infidelity. Some of the news from Spain comes in a whisper, but often brings with it the roar of heartbreak.
My favorite story is a take-off on Don Giovanni. It’s about two women, Elvira and Rosina, (of course) who meet in a cooking class and become friends. Both women had exiled themselves from their former lives. Rosina is fabulously wealthy, divorced from a Count because of his infidelities and Elvira, a painter, hasn’t seen Johnny in years. Johnny is a modern day Don Giovanni and the parallels are hilarious. Years later Elvira tells Rosina: His friend gave me actual numbers. They kept a list, he and Johnny. This many women in Turkey, this many in Germany. It was statistical. But crazy too. The numbers were delusional . . . And then, he said, You haven’t even heard the news from Spain yet. Straight out of Don Giovanni. Wonderful!
I find myself wanting to give synopses of all these stories but will just say instead, go buy this book, read them for yourself. I think you’ll like them. They are all complex, multi-layered and beautifully written. Most of the stories involve infidelity and some involve tragedy, but they are remembered passions, and feel grown-up. One character tells us, Best maybe to be adored with passion, as a lover, but if you couldn’t have that….. And another character, a teacher, gives a young girl just discovering the opposite sex this advice: Marry for kindness.
So, in the end are there any great love stories that end happily? Or does passionate love just exhaust itself and become, at best, kindness between two people? Yes, Possession ends happily, but it ends at just the beginning of their passion.