THE BLOG
12/04/2009 06:06 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Love At First Sight and Contemporary Lit

It was the Beatles who asked, "Would you believe in a love at first sight?" and answered their own question, "Yes I'm certain that it happens all the time."

I've been thinking about those lines a bit because the 30th anniversary of the day I first met my wife is fast approaching. It was in Beersheba, Israel, at my sister's wedding and I saw her across the proverbial crowded room. I was struck by the size of her eyes. Later I learned she was wearing hard contact lenses which she found uncomfortable and which gave her that wide-eyed expression.

Yes, it does happen all the time. Recently the Washington Post ran a story about how the famous opera singer Denyce Graves met her third husband, the distinguished transplant surgeon Robert Montgomery, on a flight to Paris. At one point during the flight, the doctor remembers, their hands touched -- "and we both felt this thing and were like, 'Oh [expletive], what just happened?' It was like electricity."

Added Graves, "I think I started loving him even on the airplane. I know that I did."

This kind of thing, where the characters "meet cute" is the stock in trade of movies of the so-called "romantic comedy" genre -- but not so much in contemporary "serious literature."

Author Carol Shields, who tragically died in 2003, wrote in her novel,"Republic of Love" (Penguin 1993): "Love is not, anywhere, taken seriously. It's not respected. It's the one thing that everyone in the world wants but for some reason people are obliged to pretend that love is trifling and foolish. Work is important. Living arrangements are important. Wars and good sex and race relations and the environment are important, and so are health and fitness. Even minor shifts of faith or political intention are given a weight that is not accorded love. We turn our heads and pretend it's not there, the thunderous passions that enter a life and alter its course. (my emphasis) Love belongs in an amateur operetta, on the inside of a jokey greeting card or in the annals of an old-fashioned poetry society. Moon and June and spoon and soon ... It's womanish, it's embarrassing, something jeer at, something for jerks."

Rachel Kadish, in her novel "Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006) bravely declared her aim of writing a book that takes happiness and love seriously. The "lie" Tolstoy told, which gives her book its title, is the famous opening of Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." No, Kadish declares. Happiness is just as interesting as misery.

Kadish's heroine, Tracy Farber, speaks for the author: "It's as if our whole literary tradition, which has been unsparing on the subjects of death, war, poverty, et cetera, has agreed to keep the gloves on where happiness is concerned. And no-one has addressed it. I mean, shame on us all -- readers, critics, writers. Anyone who tries to take happiness seriously is belittled. The writers who pen happy endings risk getting labeled 'regionalists' which is like a paternal pat on the head and a nudge back to the children's table. Or worse, they're called 'romance writers' -- the literary world's worst insult."

Is this really true? Readers' reactions are invited.