Rose Lerner’s Sweet Disorder released this week, and she is here today to talk a little bit about it. I adored this book and will be reviewing it later this morning.
William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience contrast two opposite views of the world: that it’s a safe place full of joy, and that it’s a scary place full of sorrow and anger. One poem I’ve always loved is “The Clod and the Pebble,” which poses a question central to the romance genre and to Sweet Disorder—What does it mean to love someone?—and suggests two different answers:
Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Nor for itself hath any care;
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.”
So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet;
But a Pebble of the brook,
Warbled out these metres meet:
“Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to Its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”
The heroine of Sweet Disorder, Phoebe, is a book lover, and her first husband was a left-wing printer and newspaper editor, so it made sense to me that they would be Blake fans. I put the book in their collection, which Phoebe sold to pay the doctor when her husband was dying. It’s lingered on the bookseller’s shelves ever since, until Nick buys it back for her. Here’s the bit in the book where Nick and Phoebe discuss the poem:
The bookseller raised his eyebrows. “Auspicious day! I began to believe I would take that book to my grave despite all Mrs. Sparks’s efforts to talk some wide-eyed gull into buying it.”
“It’s lovely,” Nick said.
The bookseller shrugged. “Even with my spectacles the text is impossible to read.”
Nick opened the book. The bloom of color and feeling was expected now, but still startling. He didn’t want to close it again. Love seeketh not Itself to please, he read.
“The clod believes that love is selfless,” Phoebe said at his elbow. “But the pebble says love is selfish, and grasping.” By the end of the sentence, her voice was tense. Evidently it was a question that troubled her.
“Which do you believe?”
“I don’t know.”
“Young people.” The bookseller snorted, handing Nick a half-crown. “Both are true.”
Romance is all bound up in this question, and every book answers it slightly differently: what does it mean to really love somebody? Does it mean you have to have him, no matter the cost? Does it mean you would give up everything for her, even your chance to be with her, to make her happy?
The bookseller says both are true, and I do believe that, in a way. Loving another person is an incredibly complex experience. Why else would we enjoy so many fantasies about kinds of relationships we’d never want to have in real life, if not because they take one aspect of what’s in our hearts and amplify it in an intensely recognizable way?
I know I have a bit of the possessive and obsessive in me, and seeing it writ large is amazing: the Demon’s Lexicon books by Sarah Rees Brennan, Jane Eyre, Loki and Thor, Lord of Scoundrels. (Double points if one of the characters literally does not care about anyone else: “I would burn down the world for you.” Why yes I do love evil power couples, why do you ask?)
Even more often than that, though, I dig the heroically self-sacrificing stories. One of my earliest major book crushes was on Sydney Carton. Give me a hero who says “I want you to be happy more than I want to be happy, myself,” and I will swoon all over the place.
“There is a man who would give his life to keep a life you love beside you.” Image via Wikimedia Commons.
But the answer Nick and Phoebe come to, actually, is: neither. In this story, both selfishness and selflessness turn out to mean unilaterally making decisions for another person. And to really love someone is to let them decide for themselves, and to expect that they will do the same for you. Love might make you feel, I would do anything to have you, and I would do anything to make you happy, but in a relationship, you have to negotiate choices based on more than just what you feel.
I’m not going to say that’s a definitive answer. I don’t think there is a definitive answer. But it’s an answer I’ve been really enjoying in stories recently, and the one I wanted to explore in this particular book.
What’s your favorite romance, and how does it answer this question?
One commenter will be chosen at random to receive a free e-book of Sweet Disorder, and one commenter will be chosen from the entire blog tour to receive an awesome prize package that includes tie-in pinback buttons, bookmarks, bacon-scented candles, a bookstore gift card, and much, much more! (This drawing is open internationally. Void where prohibited.)