The books that stuck with me this year happen to fall under a theme: romance. But not the escapist kind: no froofy happy-ever-afters. I found myself drawn to earnest stories of love and longing that take place in realistically complex and sometimes unforgiving contexts. In these worlds, the crash-collision of the deep human desire for intimacy, the courage to pursue that desire, and the facts of life more often than not lead to heartache and heartbreak. Still, if you’re like me—a romantic through and through—you don’t regret spending the time or investing yourself in these journeys; because you believe the characters don’t either.
In Akhil Sharma’s 2017 story collection, A Life of Adventure and Delight, the protagonists—mostly Indian American men—look for love, or what they think love might be, and find themselves involved, yes; but also perplexed, and for the most part inadequate and unsatisfied. The stories are full of failures—of action, thought, and personal character—but those failures, insomuch as they are earnest (while also aggravating and pathetic), touch us in that inner place of recognition, a blurry emotional region where pity meets revulsion meets empathy. I have read reviews of the collection that deem it “dark,” that judge the characters as clueless misogynists, and that read the title ironically. I myself take the characters, and their murky longings for what they may well not deserve, at face value. Don’t we all, ultimately, long for things we don’t really deserve?
In the title story, the eponymous phrase appears in a scene where Gautama, a young and lonely Indian immigrant, engaged to a woman from a similar background who he does not like very much, has called a prostitute to his room. Before she arrives, he resolves to send her home immediately. But then, “amazed by her beauty,” he instead asks her, a Black woman whose hair is braided and beaded, to take off her clothes, and he says, “May I hold your breasts, while you jump?” She agrees, smiling. “She started jumping; her hair flew up, the beads clicked. Her feet made soft thuds when she landed. His hands on her breasts, he became happier and happier. He knew that tomorrow he would feel guilt and shame, but he did not care. The girl jumped, and he had the sense that nobody else, anywhere, could be leading a life of such adventure and delight.” Pity, revulsion, empathy. Perhaps not in that order. But the story is on the side of desire, and life; Gautama thinks these thoughts as truthfully as he has ever thought anything. It is Sharma’s great accomplishment that, while reading this strange and surprising scene, I feel as truthfully lonely and as desperately hopeful as Gautama does.
I was initially drawn to Paule Marshall’s The Fisher King because of its child’s point-of-view: eight year-old Sonny—grandson of world-famed jazz pianist Sonny-Rett Payne, and great grandson of feuding matriarchs Ulene Payne and Florence McCullum Jones—travels to Brooklyn from Paris to meet his blood kin for the first time. Sonny’s great uncle Edgar, a Bed-Stuy bigwig, is organizing a memorial concert to honor his late brother and decides it’s time to bring young Sonny home, into the family fold. Sonny does not understand why he has not met his family until now; the conflicts and grudges of the past unfold in both omniscient flashback and through the eyes of the boy as he meets each relative.
For me, these family dysfunctions took backseat to the story of Sonny-Rett, his wife Cherisse Jones, and Cherisse’s best friend Hattie, who went on the road with the couple throughout Europe in the 1950s and 60s to manage Sonny-Rett’s performance career. We learn early on in the novel that the child Sonny lives with the spinster Hattie in Paris; only much later does the full story unfold—of Cherisse’s restlessness and the polyamory among Sonny-Rett, Cherisse, and Hattie; of Hattie’s involvement in the life of Sonny-Rett’s and Cherisse’s wayward daughter and of how her child came to be in Hattie’s care.
It’s a wonderfully polyphonic novel—multiple musical lines, in true jazz form—but Hattie for me is the heart. The Romantic. She fell in love with Sonny-Rett, the brilliant, sensual artist; she loved him in the moment, as messy and unexpected as it was. She loved Cherisse too, and there was enough of everyone to go around. It wasn’t complicated really; because that was how love presented itself to Hattie, the only love that would ever be. In the end, Hattie suffers, and it isn’t pretty, but she suffers purely and (one hopes but isn’t sure) without regret: she suffered for the cause she chose, which was love.
Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly was originally published in 1998; but reading it this year, it felt like it could have been ripped from the headlines. Ellie and Jeremiah are 15 and go to the same Manhattan private school. Ellie is white and Jewish and lives on the Upper West Side; Jeremiah is Black and lives somewhere in brownstone Brooklyn. When the two literally run into each other at school, it’s love at first sight. In an interesting twist—for Ellie, and also for fictional interracial stories—it’s Jeremiah who comes from the “fancy” family, i.e. his father is a famous filmmaker (something like a cross between Lee Daniels and Spike Lee), and his mother a well-known novelist. While the racial difference between Jeremiah and Ellie does come up—in conversations with their friends and family, and via external comments and interactions—this question of Jeremiah wanting to be seen for who he is and not for who his parents are becomes the more interesting tension between them.
The two spend time together mostly in Central Park after school, but Jeremiah does bring Ellie home to meet his mother. He escorts Ellie back to Manhattan, and on his way back to Brooklyn he begins to daydream about Ellie, then breaks into a run: he runs for joy. The reader both does and doesn’t remember—like Jeremiah—that earlier he had recalled his father warning him, “Don’t ever run in a white neighborhood” (the slightly less familiar version, to non-Black people, of “keep your hands where they can see them”). Herein lies Jeremiah’s “crime”: dreaming, letting his guard down, indulging elation in a hostile context. He does not realize that the police are at that moment on the hunt for a Black man who fled the scene of a crime. You can guess the tragic ending.
Woodson has talked explicitly about the novel as her version of Romeo & Juliet, for young readers. If You Come Softly is indeed a story of doomed young love; except it isn’t their families who obstruct them (Ellie’s sister warns her to “be careful,” but no one is declaring gang war), but rather an unjust world. For a long time, I bristled against YA literature, mostly because it seemed a negative trend that more and more adults were regressing, reading YA instead of adult books. But what I appreciate about this novel, along with all of Woodson’s work, is that it does not shy away from the truth of the world we live in, does not sepia-fy reality, even in a love story for teens. This book teaches young people to be ready for joy and for pain, and that hope is not the same as optimism; rather, as Dr. Cornel West says (my paraphrase), optimism says things will get better, whereas hope is what you claim when things may very well not get better.
I wonder if Dr. West would call himself a Romantic.