The romance genre currently faces a bit of a conundrum. Mass-market paperbacks offer readers “sweeping tales of love,” but their covers often flaunt top-heavy women curled up on four-poster beds. Colorful hardbacks boast moonlit silhouettes of shirtless men crouching in bedroom windows but still promise “genuine romance.”
This, scream the Fabio-inspired illustrations, is the 21st-century love story.
Romance novels tend to blend the emotional with the physical, the passionate with the sexual, all for the sake of a good love story. But few novels intimately discuss what love is. Whether you’re reading the likes of Nora Roberts or Lisa Kleypas, romantic heroes and heroines often base their emotional attachment on their bedroom activities. And the higher the sexual tension, the stronger the so-called “love story.”
That’s not to say that sex doesn’t belong in literature. Whatever your opinions on the Fifty Shades trilogy, E.L. James’ series shot to the top of The New York Times Bestseller charts, and Anne Rice’s The Sleeping Beauty trilogy has recently seen a mass reprinting, suggesting that sex is just as commercial on the page as it is on-screen.
But why do authors and readers seem to confuse sensual passions with profound love? Steamy page turners and erotic novels certainly have their time and place and sex scenes can, if warranted, illustrate a larger emotional connection between characters. But why is it that today’s love stories are interrupted with premature descriptions of “flames fueled by nothing more than his mouth and tongue” or “ovarian wine” before characters know their lovers’ last names? (Thank you, Linda Howard.)
The love story hasn’t always been so sexually driven. Book lovers constantly return to Mr. Darcy’s declarations of love in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or the relatable characters of Erich Segal’s Love Story; William Goldman’s The Princess Bride enchants with the hilarious escapades of Westley and Buttercup while Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera captivates readers throughout its characters’ prolonged romance.
It seems as though modern romance, however, takes a more formulaic trend. Even if some authors don’t decorate their chapters with emotionless sex scenes, standard romance novels tend to lack the plot and character depth necessary for a moving love story. Nicholas Sparks, whose novel Safe Haven inspired a film set for a Valentine’s Day release, currently holds a title as one of the most popular names in romance — but perhaps undeservedly so. He might have initially charmed with The Notebook and A Walk to Remember, but his latest works regurgitate tired concepts and shallow lead protagonists — if I only had a dollar for every character who gets cancer in one of his novels.
Perhaps the closest we’ve recently come to an innovative love story is Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies, which also saw a recent theatrical release. Marion’s love story merges the fantastical with the romantic, telling the story of a self-seeking zombie named “R” and his newfound love interest, Julie. With modern civilization on the brink of destruction because of a mysterious zombie virus, R struggles to reclaim his identity in a world where love, conversation and even literacy no longer exist — that is, until he begins to fall for Julie.
As two protagonists redefine their humanity, Marion clarifies that this is not a story about sex. Only genuine love, he argues, will save the human race.
“I won’t deny that this proximity ignites more urges in me than the instinct to kill or eat,” says R, as he lies next to Julie in the bed of an abandoned suburban home. “But although these new urges are there … all I really want to do is lie next to her. In this moment, the most I’d ever hope for would be for her to lay her head on my chest, let out a warm, contented breath, and sleep.”
Though his scene certainly has sexual undertones — even the mention of the word “bedroom” can provoke dirty thoughts from the most conservative reader — Marion understands the need to develop his character’s relationship without the added pressure of sexual activity. As a result, his characters grow attached to each other in a way that is emotionally believable, if somewhat fantastical.
Of course, Marion’s Warm Bodies isn’t the only satisfying contemporary love story. Audrey Niffenger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife met rave reviews from critics and readers alike for its stunning discussions of absence and free will. David Nicholls’ One Day successfully develops a relationship by describing the events of a single date — July 15 — over the span of 20 years. And even Danielle Steel, who’s dominated the romance genre for over three decades, has released the intriguing Until the End of Time, which follows two unlikely romances over two different eras.
Still, with so much of the romantic market drowned out by depthless sex scenes or cookie-cutter heroines, it’s difficult to find a love story that captures human sexuality and emotional capacity, which is disappointing. Love intrigues us. We constantly turn back to stories that explore fictional relationships that might mirror our own private experiences — perhaps even to find a way to express love in our own lives. And though sex does form a component of romance, it should ultimately represent two characters coming together for something greater.
“I crush her against me,” says Perry, Julie’s former lover in Warm Bodies. “I want to be part of her. Not just inside her but all around her. I want our rib cages to crack open and our hearts to migrate and merge. I want our cells to braid together like living thread.”
Today’s romantic tales should follow a similar philosophy. Braiding desire, affection and vulnerability into something living: Love.
Carrie Ruth Moore is a sophomore majoring in English. Her column “Cover to Cover” runs Thursdays.