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Jessa CrispinBack to OpinionJessa Crispin

Literary antidotes to rom coms

I’ve been watching a lot of romantic comedies. With two international flights, long layovers in Heathrow, and jet lag-induced insomnia, I have recently found myself in front of a lot of tiny little screens, watching whatever might show up on them.

And we’re not talking classy, elegant romantic comedies where Cary Grant shows up in a tuxedo, calls you “kid,” and somehow restores the hope that someone will eventually love your cranky ass. No, I’ve been watching the cliched, horrible, life-sucking romantic comedies that deal only in the worst stereotypes of men and women, managing to simultaneously make romance look repellent and destroy any hope of you ever getting any.

A promotional picture for the film "His Girl Friday" with Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell and Ralph Bellamy.

Is it any surprise I’ve taken matters into my own hands and rented half a dozen Cronenberg films?

But I’ve been thinking about the romantic comedy cliches, and how difficult it is to avoid them in storytelling. It’s the perfect narrative — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy runs after girl in airport to declare he can’t live without her, happily ever after — but often it’s deeply unsatisfying for the reader or viewer. The disconnect between reality and these fairytale stories is enormous, to the point where it’s not even good for fantasy anymore. I wanted to find some books that managed to destroy the cliches, at least for the span of one book.

“Washington Square”
by Henry James

Henry James should have been a woman. I know he is a deeply unpopular reading choice these days, known for going on too long, for the emotional constipation of his characters, for his terror of the human body. But he writes great stories about the societal pressures on the female psyche. And “Washington Square” — and the 1949 film adaptation “The Heiress” — are great antidotes to the “love conquers all” cliches. The failings of the father — who refuses to see or nurture anything good in his daughter simply because she is not as beautiful as her dead mother — plays out in the way the daughter interacts with men. I’m one of the few who reads the ending as optimistic, but sometimes your gruff, overbearing father doesn’t want what’s best for you, your penniless suitor both is and isn’t a heartless cad, and sometimes you need to hear that you have no qualities, so that you can go out and get some.

“The Daemon Lover”
by Shirley Jackson (from “The Lottery and Other Stories”)

The protagonist of “The Daemon Lover” seems to be a bit ambivalent about this being her wedding day. It was a spontaneous sort of decision, a “let’s just do it at the courthouse” kind of thing, that maybe has more to do with her age — 34, “Thirty, it said on the license” — than with her groom, Jamie. But then Jamie doesn’t show up. The time ticks by, and she gets more and more frantic. She tries to retrace his steps, but the reader learns she isn’t even sure where he lives. The story is devastating and haunting, but it’s a perfect examination of how destructive that impulse to settle can be when it has more to do with circumstance than with love.

“Cheerful Weather for the Wedding”
by Julia Strachey

This list is skewing a little dark, I know. But if there’s one cliche that needs to be killed in romantic comedies, it’s the wedding interruption. The ex shows up, carts away the bride, because only at that point does he realize they were meant to be together. In “Cheerful Weather for the Wedding,” the ex-boyfriend shows up and asks to have a word with the bride. Does he want her back, after the sudden realization she is his one true love? Vaguely. He’s not too sure what he’s doing here, actually. Does the bride love him more than her groom? Maybe. But she’s going to get married anyway, and the bottle of rum hidden in the folds of her skirt is helping her through. Strachey was a hilarious writer, and she takes all the expected elements of a wedding day comedy and turns them into something unique. It’s a farce, and I laughed more than anything I’ve ever seen Kate Hudson in.

“Molly Fox’s Birthday”
by Deirdre Madden

Blame “When Harry Met Sally” if you like, but it is apparently impossible to have a single male friend and a single female friend in a story anymore without them ending up madly in love. Even if it takes decades to get there. Madden plays with this idea as the narrator reminisces about her closest friends, the titular Molly Fox and the handsome, divorced Andrew, who later shows up with a bottle of wine and they get to talking… She follows up that ellipsis with something more interesting and honest than a happily ever after, and the book is all the better for it.

“The Ravishing of Lol Stein”
by Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras writes tales of obsession, so who better to counter those awful words of comfort, “Time heals all wounds.” Some wounds fester, of course, and in “The Ravishing of Lol Stein,” Lol has gotten stuck in one particular day of her life. It was the day her fiancé left her for another woman at the town ball, humiliating her in front of everyone. That day has turned into something dark and twisted inside of her, and years later she returns to her hometown — new husband and children in tow — in an attempt to recreate that night. It’s a terrifying story, and for those malingering in bed with heartbreak and despair, as good a reason as any to get up, put on some pants and tempt yourself back to life with slices of buttered toast. Happily ever after may evade you, but murderous revenge doesn’t have to be your lot, either.