With Valentine’s Day having rolled around again, I’ve been thinking about love. Specifically about the boundaries of love.

We all know that love can be the glue that holds people together through rough times. It can also rip people apart with just as much firepower as a terrorist bomb, only instead of bodies left mangled and bleeding, it’s emotions. Love can even dwindle to indifference–or become distorted, even turn to hate.

How to define where love’s responsibility begins and ends? For a culture in transition such as ours, it seems especially difficult, though maybe it’s always been that way, we’ve only seen the personal records people wanted progeny to see. (How many of our favorite writers and historical personages required a trusted survivor to burn the more personal parts of their letters and diaries?)

I know a family in which the grandmother lived for her beloveds. Her life really was wrapped around her family. She truly believed it was her love that caused her to nag one granddaughter about that extra 100 pounds of weight. Love prompted her to earnestly advise her own retirement-age daughter to kick out the disabled son she was supporting because ” a man should be working a real job, even if he’s only got one arm.” It doesn’t count that the son did all the cooking and shopping and gardening, because that’s women’s work, and the mother ought to be doing those when she came home from her job.

Because Grandmother loves everyone, she feels that her advice should be welcome. It can’t possibly be intrusive or unwanted when your motive is love! Yet if there is a crisis, who is there first with the chicken soup and the offers to clean, cook, drive, or sit with sick people? Yep, Grandmother—even for neighbors or in-laws, sometimes when the person’s own family is way too busy to deal.

I think one of the things we deal with all our lives, from our first tentative relationships as teens until we are old and coping with the younger generations (either ours or others), is the responsibilities of love. Even the fizz of attraction has its hidden pitfalls and responsibilities, as we discover in our first (and often dramatic) relationships. How many of us have dated someone who was just dazzling when it came to the fun part of love, but as soon as there was a bump in the road, they could not deal with the jolt? Or with whom we had nothing to say when the heat of attraction abated?

Friendship is a part of love. It, too, has its responsibilities, as we see over and over again in media in expressions like wingman, and I’ve got your back, and trust me.

What are your favorite books that deal with all aspects of love, and not just the razzle-dazzle (or dramatic destruction) of sexual chemistry?

There are a lot of books that I appreciate for how they deal with questions of love, but the longest enduring over my lifetime are George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. The latter is not as well-known because the author died before she could complete the last chapter. The editor included notes on where it was going, but the closure does come at that distance. Yet even so, it, like Middlemarch, examines love not just between possible mates, but family love, friend love, relations between women, the dangers of mistaking attraction for love, and the dangers of someone else’s attraction leading to mistaken assumptions.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that though I still enjoy stories about young people dealing with the dazzle of passion, what lingers longest in my mind are works that examine the full spectrum of love with a clarity that resonates with that resounding YES, someone else has walked that road.



Love — 12 Comments

  1. Thinking about Grandmother, she might even realize that her advice isn’t wanted, but might decide (incorrectly, in your story, but in other families’ stories it might be different) that love means speaking hard truths. What you say about responsibility in love and friendship resonates a lot with me.

    I don’t have a book or books I can point to in the way you’re asking, but I know one thing that I find hugely consoling in books is when people come to understand one another, and what hurts a whole lot to read is misunderstanding. So I guess another thing I think is characteristic of love is the will to work toward understanding

  2. I love that exploration of love with pitfalls and joy in the first half. I tried to think of books that gave me like that, and mostly it’s long chunky series who can carry that. Your own Inda and family and friends and yearmates, the Vorkosigan Universe and all the family bonds (and the society who created and formed Miles) – and now LMB even manages to write about aftermaths and new paths. And my third series in that vein is Cherryh’s Foreigner series, not just do we see the protagonist mature and grow into a needed role in an alien society from an ateviphile student who has no idea what being paidhi really means into integrating in such a way that he would no longer fit only human society, as most of his life has been lived Atevi (which would work for people who move to other countries with different cultures, too). Cherryh even has an imploding love scenario in Bren’s and Toby’s mother, the non-existent father and the glamour-struck first lover of Bren’s who turns into a hanger-on, but due to various dramatic developments in the rest of that world, has a chance to outgrow her envy and rose-coloured glasses but find the diamond in herself, and become a full love and teampartner of Toby (who by now is the only survivor other than Bren of their disfunctional core family and they have managed – maybe because of the outer danger, political drama plot in the series – to see each other clearer than ever and forgive each other and support each other).

    Or basically all of Michelle Sagara/ Michelle West’s ouvre.

    • Interesting that you should mention the Foreigner series, because I’m reading the latest volume in it right now. It’s fascinating to see the intersections between human love and alien emotions in it.

      Another series that has some really good familial love is Joseph T Major’s five-volume alternate history of World War II that begins with Bitter Weeds. There’s a lot of close-knit families in it, as well as the loyalties of officers and their troops, and as the series proceeds, the younger generation form families of their own. He’s begun a follow-on series set in the alternate Cold War that world produces, although it’s been a while since he’s written anything in it. I’m hoping he’ll start writing on it again soon.

  3. The love between M and Bond, that we see with the 90’s Pierce Brosnan Bond reboots coming to the fore. By the time we get to the 2000’s Daniel Craig reboot, and final Dench M in Skyfall, it is their relationship that matters most to both of them. Their relationship IS the lost empire, the lost UK dominance in the world and even in Intelligence. And this, though M has betrayed Bond more than once in the Brosnan and the Craig Bonds. But the point is that Bond doesn’t see it that way — he sees her as doing her job, and doing it right.

  4. There is also the love between friends as well as family – Victoria Goddard’s ” The Hands of the Emperor” is a terrific example of this in all its wonders and warts, perceptions and blindnesses.

  5. Actually, your books come to mind, esp the Inda books, where many ranges and types of love are explored, whether it’s Tdor and Inda’s childhood comfort, the love between family members, the devotion between brothers, the friendship between Jeje and Taumad, the list could go on and on. Partly because there’s the time element. It’s not the timeline of months/a few years of most love stories. It’s adolescence to adulthood. Your books actually help me conceptualize the wealth of the kinds of love that are possible, far beyond American culture’s one man-one woman marriage ideal (and beyond the short-sightedness of my being a twenty-something). Something I’ve thought about a lot, especially on days like Valentine’s Day which centers such a limited view of what love is.

    Another place I get this “long view”, I’ll call it, is from reading Wikipedia entries about celebrities and their relationships hahah. Like Leonard Cohen. His love life seemed very complex and full of gratitude and happy memories, not self-destructive, as celebs’ networks of relationships often seem to be.

    I think TV shows are also well suited to portray different kinds of loves because of that time element. Buffy is one that comes to mind.

    And, not exactly related, but in the realm of music, what I really love about Kate Bush’s music is that she writes what at first glance sounds like traditional love songs, but really many of them are about kinds of passion well beyond the scope of a romantic relationship, i.e. the song “Cloudbusting” is based on a memoir about the writer’s father.

    • Thank you!

      That’s interesting about Kate Bush. I’ll have to look up some of her lyrics. (I’m one of those people who have trouble hearing the words to songs over the rest of the music. At best I get images and scraps of lyric.)

  6. Your grandmother example reminded me of someone we both know who uses concern and sympathy as vehicles for control. Real love whether parental, fraternal, between friends, or between lovers respects freedom because real love values the person for who they are instead of trying to shape them to another’s vision or advantage. That’s not love. It’s abuse, and it’s all too common. I found example of familial and romantic love I could understand and respect in the works of Jane Austen. From a different cultural perspective I see love in the Asian Dramas I enjoy so much. Filial piety is revered to an extent in China that we in the West might find disturbing, but humans are humans always and everywhere, so there is a lot to identify with, especially the dance of boy meeting girl whatever the cultural context.

    • Excellent points.

      Yes, but I don’t think that person understood love in a healthy sense. As you rightly point out, the concern, etc, was about control. Also, I think the person had pity cases, not friends–pity cases reaffirmed the person’s position higher on a (self appointed) hierarchy.

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