Love and Lust: Four Books for Valentine’s Day

Got any romantic plans for the morrow? I’ll be having my first of six evening yoga classes at our local Waitrose (was a more middle-class phrase ever written?!), but I’ve been promised a nice dinner with dessert on my return.

Like last year, I’ve been reading a few books with “love” in the title – plus one featuring “lust” this time – in advance of the day and can report back on what I’ve gleaned. Nothing particularly optimistic about marriage or true love, I’m afraid.

 

Lust in Translation: Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee by Pamela Druckerman (2007)

Druckerman travels from France (where she lives) to the United States, Russia, Japan, South Africa, Indonesia and China, interviewing professionals and anonymous adulterers and pondering what makes people cheat and what difference country of origin makes. Boiling it down, people in poor countries, even in parts of Africa where AIDS is a huge threat, are more likely to have multiple sexual partners than those in wealthy countries. Statistically speaking, there’s also a slight bias towards adultery in warmer countries. However, some factors that you might expect to have a big effect on the adultery rate, like religiosity (e.g. America vs. France), actually hardly do. What does differ is the level of guilt experienced over infidelity and its concomitant offense, lying. In places like France and Japan she discovers more of a don’t-ask-don’t-tell attitude: as long as the straying partner is discreet enough not to be caught, the other turns a blind eye.

Travel-based quest narratives like this usually have a personal element that helps to anchor a book. The other direction Druckerman might have taken would be a straightforward academic study, which her journalistic tone wouldn’t suit. Because this book hovers between genres/levels of discourse, it didn’t quite work for me, but if you think you might find the subject matter interesting it’s at least worth skimming.

A representative line:

“The pursuit of happiness, or true love, is one of the most salient stories that Americans use to justify affairs and overcome their moral qualms about cheating.”

My rating:

 

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (2007)

Even if you don’t have any particular interest in architect Frank Lloyd Wright, this carefully crafted and lovingly written historical novel is well worth reading. Mamah (“May-muh”) Borthwick Cheney and her husband Edwin hired Wright to design their suburban Chicago home in 1903, and in 1907 she and Wright embarked on an affair. The novel covers roughly the next seven years of their lives, and is particularly illuminating about relationships, the rights of women and the morality code of the time. Through Mamah’s eyes Horan shows just why this affair was irresistible: “Frank Lloyd Wright was a life force. He seemed to fill whatever space he occupied with a pulsing energy that was spiritual, sexual, and intellectual all at once.” But in the eyes of the public, and of their families, it was a selfish choice that left her two children adrift. Beside Mamah, Catherine Wright was held up as a paragon of fidelity, waiting patiently for Frank to come back to her and their seven children.

If you think you are at all likely to read this book, DO NOT GOOGLE Mamah Borthwick Cheney, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s life in these years. I’m now keen to compare this with T.C. Boyle’s The Women, which is about Catherine, Mamah and two other important female figures in Frank Lloyd Wright’s life.

A representative passage:

“Does that mean I have to play this hand to the bitter end, full of regret? Knowing I might have had the happiest life imaginable with the one man I love more than any other I have ever known?”

My rating:

 

I Love Dick by Chris Kraus (1997)

This is one of the stranger novels I’ve ever read. It’s December 1994 and failed filmmaker Chris Kraus, 39, and her husband, 56-year-old professor Sylvère Lotringer, spend a night at the home of Dick, one of his California colleagues, to mark the end of Sylvère’s sabbatical. When they wake up the next morning Dick is gone, but he’s made a huge impression on Chris. She decides she and Dick have had something like D.H. Lawrence’s ‘sex in the head’, and becomes obsessed with him. Chris and Sylvère address reams of letters and journal entries to Dick. Some they send and some they don’t; Dick is a total blank, which allows the couple to build fantasies around him. It’s a chance for Chris to reimagine a life that’s gotten away from her and regain her voice.

I preferred Part 1, which I found quite funny. Kraus lost me a bit in Part 2, with a trip to Guatemala plus random exhibits and performance art. I think the whole thing would have been more effective at novella length. But it’s intriguing how it blends fact and fiction (Dick Hebdige is a real person, and apparently not happy about the invasion of his privacy) and adapts the epistolary form. An afterword by Joan Hawkins notes the similarity to Dangerous Liaisons, in which a couple exchange letters about a seduction plot.

A representative passage:

“Dear Dick,

No woman is an island-ess. We fall in love in hope of anchoring ourselves to someone else, to keep from falling,

Love,

Chris

My rating:

 

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (1945)

Last year I unwittingly read the 1949 sequel, Love in a Cold Climate, first. I rather enjoyed that one, but somehow wasn’t in the mood for Mitford this time around, and ended up just skimming this one. Once again Fanny traces the love life of one of her posh cousins. This time it’s Linda Radlett, whose two marriages – to a Conservative and a Communist – are doomed to failure. Then she finds her true love, too late. I liked the ball scene, and the image of Uncle Matthew using his bloodhounds to hunt down his children. Mitford mixes the lighthearted and the caustic in an amusing way. The last two pages of this novel turn particularly nasty, though, which made me wonder how people can call this a comfort read.

A representative passage:

“What we would never admit was the possibility of lovers after marriage. We were looking for real love, and that could only come once in a lifetime; it hurried to consecration, and thereafter never wavered. Husbands, we knew, were not always faithful, this we must be prepared for, we must understand and forgive.”

My rating:

 


Have you read anything love-ly lately?

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16 thoughts on “Love and Lust: Four Books for Valentine’s Day

  1. I like the first quote about the pursuit of happiness being used as an excuse for adultery – it certainly is a strong thread in American discourse, from the Declaration of Independence to the musical Assassins which I saw last night: ‘Everyone’s got the right to be happy’. Interesting how Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness become Liberté, égalité, fraternité in France – and this solidarity motto is used very widely even today in FRance in taxation and all sorts of situations.

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  2. I’ve had Loving Frank on my TBR list for ages and it moved back on my radar lately when Annie Jones from From the Front Porch podcast gave it a good review recently. Now I really need to read it!

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    1. It had been sitting around on my shelf for years, so I was glad to finally have the impetus to read it. Horan has just one other novel, I think, which tells a similar story of the woman who left her husband to be with Robert Louis Stevenson. I have a copy of that one too.

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  3. I read Loving Frank a few years ago (pre-blog), and really liked it. I didn’t know anything about Frank before reading it, but quickly became very interested. I’ll have to add “The Women” to my list. I found parts of it so sad. Having to decide between your own happiness and the happiness of your children seems like an impossible choice.
    I did actually just read a book about love… Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge!

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  4. I read The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate about 8 years ago (Goodreads tells me) in a beautiful edition containing both novels. I admit, I bought it simply for the cover. 🙂 I liked them, found them charming and kind of edgy, but I only gave it three stars, so I couldn’t have liked it that much!

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  5. I love to read ‘seasonally’ or ‘situationally’ – yet it’s never occurred to me to read ‘love’ in February. I’m quite taken aback by this realisation and what it says about me! Anyway, I read Nancy Mitford years ago – probably before I was ready to appreciate her wit, I suspect. And none of the others on your list appealed – though I’m totally engrossed in Atonement at the moment, and the relationship between Cecilia and Robbie. (Can it be described love, on the basis of a grappling in the library and the yearnings of youth? I’m not far enough in to know if their bond survives the war. And my memory of the film is thankfully too hazy to help.) Maybe I should start looking out for something suitable for next year so I’m ready!

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      1. Enduring Love put me off wanting to read any McEwan! And that was simply from watching the opening scenes of the film. I saw Atonement when it first came out – far enough away that I can read the book without remembering too much detail from the film.

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  6. I can’t read about infidelity comfortably since getting married (for no reason in that relationship / marriage) so would have to give the first book a miss. I do love Mitford but she’s comfort reading in the “I’m in the Mitford world” type of way, not always comfortABLE reading, if that makes sense.

    A search tells me I’ve not read a book with “Love” in the title since last August – but that was True Love at the Lonely Hearts Bookshop, which has reminded me that the third in the series is due out soon, so all good!

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  7. There are some love-ly bits in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Tahmima Anam’s The Golden Age and my latest read in Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna series (the eponymous Jalna – but it was inadvertently more funny than romantic – due to the story not aging *ahem* perfectly) but with the exception of the La Roche, the romance/passion was only one element of the story. I’ve had the book I Love Dick on my list for awhile now, thanks to a NYT book review podcast from last year (I think); I’m curious whether the copy I (eventually) find will have such a subtle and understated cover.

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