Summer of love stories

A few tales of the heart for the hot months ahead

Image from the cover of <i>Why Be Happy When </i>From the front cover of <i>You Could Be Normal?</i>, by Jeanette Winterson.

Image from the cover of Why Be Happy When From the front cover of You Could Be Normal?, by Jeanette Winterson.

I am a complete sap for tales of love and woe. My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, an amazing 2008 collection of short stories involving love, put together by the ever-moving writer Jeffrey Eugenides, makes it clear that, truly, most love stories are not happy ones. The love plot requires an object of affection that cannot be attained; a certain Emma Bovary must never be satisfied for her dear readers to make her story a tragic classic forever.

And, as Eugenides explored in his excellent 2011 novel, The Marriage Plot, the love plot seems to be a necessarily changing, shifting form in the 21st century. Love doesn’t quite look the same to us as did to Victorian novelists, the very inventors of that particular, now well-worn form. But love is always the compelling-enough stuff of fiction, and writers are never quite content to leave it alone.

I am glad for it, because to me, really, every good story is a kind of love story. Summer-reading season wouldn’t be bearable if there weren’t some stories of yearning and resolution in which to take some indulgent comfort.

But the books I am turning to this summer are not traditional love stories. They are stormy, imaginative, full of self-discovery, and ultimately preoccupied with love of a sort. But these memoirs, graphic novels and fictions all yearn for something other than romantic resolution. They want to find, perhaps, what it is to love one’s self.

Alison Bechdel’s critically acclaimed Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, published in 2006, was a devastating, beautifully rendered graphic-memoir that explored the writer’s complicated relationship with her late father and his long-closeted sexual identity. In her new work, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, Bechdel turns to examine her equally complex relationship with her mother, who is still alive and has sincere doubts about the memoir, Bechdel’s chosen medium of expression. Bechdel is a literary wonder, effortlessly weaving together strands like the history of psychoanalysis, the novels of Virginia Woolf, mother-daughter rivalry and her personal love trials, with a mixture of self-effacement and wit that never rings false. Bechdel looks for who she is, and we wonder what it is to be. Are You My Mother?, inked carefully in black and white, is the perfect mix of longing and fulfillment.

Jeanette Winterson’s new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, appears suspicious of the very notion of fulfillment. The title is derived from the author’s adoptive mother’s response in discovering Winterson was a lesbian, and the lack of understanding offered by her parent haunts Winterson’s search for a fulfilling life. But despite the memoir’s fatalistic protestations (she writes: “I never did drugs, I did love—the reckless kind, more damage than healing, more heartbreak than health”), Winterson understands things about love and desire, and this peeks through in her arresting language, just as it did in her breakthrough 1985 novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Her intensity is often harsh, but just as often dazzling.

Finally, two charming efforts by illustrator Maira Kalman are capturing my heart this season. A collaboration with novelist Daniel Handler (better known as Lemony Snicket), Why We Broke Up is the story of precocious Min, who dumps a collection of keepsakes from her broken relationship onto her ex-boyfriend’s doorstep. Each item begins to tell a narrative of its own, brought to life by the sympathetic brush of painter Kalman. The story is lovely, sad and affirming, the romantic’s favorite combination. And I am seeking out Kalman’s gorgeous illustrated version of Strunk and White’s notorious guide to grammar, The Elements of Style, to keep close as I delve into tender summer tales, as well. Beautiful writing will, after all, always be my first love.