Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Weekly Meme

The question before the panel this week:

Monica suggested this one:

Got this idea from Literary Feline during her recent contest:

“Name a favorite literary couple and tell me why they are a favorite. If you cannot choose just one, that is okay too. Name as many as you like–sometimes narrowing down a list can be extremely difficult and painful. Or maybe that’s just me.”

This is a tough one. A lot of books about couples either end with them split up, or they focus solely on one person in the relationship, with the partner as a cookie-cutter symbol happiness and fulfillment. A lot of the guys that the heroines of chick-lit wind up with can barely be defined even in the broadest terms (smart? funny? caring?).

But in thinking it through a bit, I came up with two outstanding couples. The first, isn't a "couple" in the sense of romantic involvement, but are bound together nonetheless. In Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool, the "title character" Sully has had his share of romantic failures. At 60, he's been divorced from the mother of his son for decades. He nurtures a crush on his boss's wife Toby, who is about the same age as his son. For 25 years, he's also carried on a half-hearted affair with Ruth, a married woman 15 years younger than him. I liked this coupling a lot too, because it was realistic. In the movie version of the book, they had Melanie Griffith play a glammed-up Toby, and positioned her as the love interest. Ruth, a young grandmother who worked as a supermarket cashier and waitress and wore cheap slacks, was totally absent from the movie. There are more women in small towns like Ruth than like Toby, and a woman like Ruth would be more likely to take an interest in Sully.

But the real woman in Sully's life is Miss Beryl. She was his eighth-grade English teacher, and her husband was his football coach all through high school. Miss Beryl had a spinal deformity all of her life that gave her a strange appearance and made her the butt of her students' jokes. Long after her husband, Clive Sr., has died, she remains surprised by him choosing her. Her son, Clive Jr., runs the local bank and stops in frequently. But the two are completely different in their beliefs, attitudes and outlooks, and are not very close, although they do care for each other.

In high school, Sully was a frequent dinner guest at Miss Beryl's house. His own house was a horrible place to be: he had an abusive, drunken father who frequently vented his anger on Sully, on their timid mother, and on Sully's older brother Patrick, who died in a car crash. Fifty years later, Sully is a permanent tenant in an apartment in Miss Beryl's home, much to Clive Jr.'s chagrin. But their relationship is more than just that of a landlord and tenant. Miss Beryl saves the mail Sully chucks in the trash without opening and maintains a file of important papers for him. Sully helps her maintain the house, and rushes her to the hospital when she has a stroke halfway through the book. They support each other in subtle ways, and by the end of the book it's clear that in their relationship, they've both found the mother-son relationship they've always wanted, so late in life that even the memory of wanting it had almost faded away.

A more traditional "favorite couple" of mine is from The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery. Valancy Stirling, at 28, has led a lonely and unsatisfying life. No friends -- ever. No boyfriends -- ever. The object of derision from her large and annoying family, including, unfortunately, a stunningly beautiful and popular cousin her own age. When a doctor tells her she may have only a year to live, at most, she's determined to change everything. She breaks with her family. She moves in with disreputable local man to care for his ailing daughter (who was also the unwed mother of a baby that died). And then, most shockingly of all, she marries local ne'er-do-well (they still had them back then) Barney Snaith.

I picked them as a favorite couple because they were unconventional in drably conventional times, in a drably conventional literary genre. Most couples, both in real-life Victorian Canada and in books aimed at 10-13 year-old-girls, live in houses and go to nightclubs or parties for fun. Barney and Valancy lived in a shack in the woods. They rarely socialized or even went into town. When they wanted to have fun, they went hiking through the woods, looking for wild flowers (but never picking any, as Valancy didn't believe in removing them from their naturally wild place), getting to know the animals, picking roots and berries, and other woodsman stuff. Barney and Valancy were also not firmly joined at the hip: one of his pre-conditions for marrying her was that she allow him his space, stay out of one particular area of the house, and not ask questions when he told her he was going away for a few days. All of these sound to a modern women like items from Dear Abby's "Is He Having An Affair?" checklist, but Valancy accepted them without question and their relationship blossomed.

I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post that in many books, one half of the happy couple is a straw man for fulfillment and happiness. Usually, these books tell the story of courtship and end with the marriage, or at least the suggestion of long-term involvement. Barney and Valancy get married towards the beginning of the book, and throughout the rest of it, their happiness in their unconventional life sparkles and shines in comparison to Valancy's earlier misery at being mired in a more conventional one. The book has an over-the-top happy ending to the point where you actually expect someone to appear leading a diamond-encrusted unicorn for the couple to enjoy as a pet, but it doesn't diminish the developing story of their relationship.


C. B. James said...

You are not the only one who had a tough time with this question. It took me a while, and I had to stretch the definition of couple as you did, but I came up with a short list.

Smilingsal said...

I did think a bit about it, but I chose one couple as my favorite.