(Listen to this while reading.)
As Valentine’s Day approaches, half the population smiles, the other half sneers. Reductively, there are two types of love: reciprocal and unrequited. In a fever-pitch of righteous indignation the likes of which can only be sparked by a good, rousing book talk, the phrase that captures all the passion I feel for Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men came spilling out onto the foot of English Department steps: “Anne Stanton’s a bitch!” I feel my hatred for Anne Stanton even stronger than any catty campus gossip. And why? Because she broke poor Jack Burden’s heart. Poor Jackie Bird, who I’ve loved for 10 years now, fiercely and frivolously and without any fantasies of reciprocation.
First loves always die hard and hardly fade. All the King’s Men is my favorite book because it was my first favorite book (well, first favorite grown-up book). But really, what more can you ask for in a novel than murder, politics, sex, intrigue, philosophy, prose as thick and tasty as peanut butter? Top it off with a big dose of unrequited love, embodied by a tragic and charming narrator? I call it a perfect ten.
So, are the best books about unrequited love? I laughed when my friend posed the question. I straight up scoffed in the face of his theory. I couldn’t help it. It was a gut reaction, a categorical rejection of something so, well, categorical. But when he posed it more specifically, I was surprised at myself, at how readily I could indulge his theory.
“Name the three best novels about unrequited love,” he said.
I didn’t have to think. “Love in the Time of Cholera, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and The History of Love. Wait, no. I mean All the King’s Men, The Sun Also Rises, and Lolita. No, I mean The Great Gatsby. Of course I mean Gatsby. Why didn’t I say Gatsby first?”
When I got home, I looked at my bookshelf. Jayber Crow. The Marriage Plot. American Boy. It’s everywhere. Hypothesis: Great literature is about longing.
Of course, I can name a zillion great books NOT about unrequited love. A good scientific process requires one to approach a theory determined to disprove it rather than to prove it. So, at other end of the spectrum, we find plenty of books I’ve loved that are not—at least not overtly—about unrequited love: Slaughterhouse Five. Cannery Row. The Awakening. Let the Great World Spin. The Fault in Our Stars. Catch-22. To Kill a Mockingbird. Harry Potter. And yet. I’m ready to make an argument for at least a thematic, if not a clear-cut, representation of unrequited love in each of these. Edna loves the world so big, and it just won’t love her back. Hazel and Gus love that mean Dutch author who’s nearly lost his memory of what love is. Voldemort loves power, but it’s cheating on him the whole time.
I’ve had my share of unrequited love. I know how to yearn, how to hope, how to read between the songs on that mix tape, how to find great significance in meaningless objects. (Confession: My mother confronted me with a tiny yellow Capri Sun straw she’d discovered while dusting taped to the bottom of a soccer participation trophy on my shelf. I didn’t tell her it had belonged to Matt Duncan, part of his afterschool snack during academic team practice.) I love deeply and widely and tragically. I love things that don’t love me back: feral cats and Orion and the boy leaning out of his window smoking who calls down, “don’t worry, I wasn’t talking to you.” And I love books.
But do books love me back? (BooksAreMyBF may be onto something here…) If, as any traditional wedding would have us believe, “love is patient and kind, doesn’t envy, isn’t proud… It always protects, trusts, hopes, always perseveres,” then maybe good books do that for us. And if so, then it follows that book love isn’t so unrequited after all. In which case, my love for All the King’s Men isn’t about loving a Jack Burden (who loves an Anne Stanton who will never love him back) who will never love me back. It is about, then, as I’ll suggest all bleeding-heart reading is about, the great spider web Jackie Bird comes to believe in by the end, where:
The world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle…
Which is all to say that if you’re anticipating a lonely Valentine’s Day, buy a book, and just maybe the dreamy barista in the bookstore cafe will be your drowsy spider ready for a tingle.