With all things love floating in the air around Valentine’s day, it is easy to become inundated with the sappy baby-Cupid and chalky-candy-heart energy of the whole affair. Nothing is so quick to activate my cynicism than heart shaped boxes filled with mediocre chocolates and plastic roses garishly displayed in every store. For anyone who has truly experienced the gamut of emotions which accompany love, its vicissitudes more closely resemble a fiery inferno than the saccharine-sweet sentiments the Valentine’s cards would have us believe. There is as much pain in love as there is pleasure.
Still, we are all rushing towards this elusive state of being in earnest. There is no way to deny the magnetism of love. So, rather than turn a blind eye to love at this time of year, it might behoove us to look at things from a different angle. Perhaps a fresh perspective will remind us of just why we are all so obsessed, constantly searching for this thing called love.
By way of this notion, I offer some literary couples who break the mold, their bonds more closely resembling love in its true state. As Lysander tells Hermia in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth,” and these couples prove that. Though their undying devotion to one another remains intact, each of the couples follow an interesting and often twisted path towards love.
Marla Singer & Tyler Durden, Fight Club
In Chuck Palahniuk’s first novel, the unnamed narrator (an insomniac with existential tendencies) meets and becomes obsessed with a woman named Marla Singer. It is at a meeting of a testicular cancer support group that the narrator first meets Marla. He is enraged that she would have the audacity to attend the support group, although he does not have testicular cancer himself. The narrator frequents different types of support groups in order to counteract his growing sense of ennui. Once he realizes that Marla has similar tendencies as himself, he cannot escape his growing interest, although he does not recognize it as affection.
When Marla starts sleeping with his roommate Tyler Durden, the narrator’s obsession and irritation collide. Only through a surprising plot twist does the true shape of their love story become clear. As Marla states, “You love me. You hate me. You show me a sensitive side, then you turn into a total asshole.” He is both repelled by and drawn to Marla with equal fervor. Yet, it is with thoughts of Marla that he ends his narrative, promising a continuation of their anything-but-typical love story.
Lisbeth Salander & Mikael Blomkvist, Millennium (series)
A love story that spans across several novels, the complicated relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael unfolds with as much passion and pain as any true romance often does. In the first book, the two are drawn together through the power of shared experience as well as a mutual tendency towards acting as social pariahs. When Lisbeth finally decides to accept and express her love for Mikael at the end of the book, it is only to see him with another woman. This causes Lisbeth to push away her feelings, and for the larger part of the second novel, the two communicate only in a distant and business-like manner.
Through the impetus of another harrowing experience, Mikael must rescue Lisbeth from near-death, again forcing the two together through tragedy. This situational closeness continues in the third installment of the series, as Mikael and Lisbeth must face danger, the possible imprisonment of Salander, and major life changes together. Although they have continuously experienced separation, the third book closes with Mikael at Lisbeth’s door. Though they are both unsure, Lisbeth again welcomes him in, both to her home and to her heart.
Celia Bowen & Marco Alisdair, The Night Circus
Set in a fantastic and fairytale-like atmosphere, the love affair between Celia and Marco is equal in its intensity only by their inability to act upon it. The two are the pawns of powerful rival magicians, each tied to the magical Le Cirque des Reves and forced to use all of their abilities in an attempt to overcome one another. Although they cannot be together in any typical sense, the two are drawn to one another with a consuming passion. Each expresses their love through magical acts conjured to speak to the soul of the other, thus growing their bond from a forced distance.
Perhaps it is this very distance and the continual effort which it demands, that makes their love so perennial. Through the course of the novel it becomes clear that there can only be one winner in this dangerous competition, with the death of the loser as the inevitable outcome. Faced with Marco’s death, Celia risks herself to save him. The two are taken out of the physical world to become spirits, still tied to the circus, yet finally free from their bonds. As the book closes, the ghosts of Celia and Marco restore the devastated circus to its former splendor, ensuring that they will forever have a place where their love can endure.
Lady Amalthea & Prince Lir, The Last Unicorn
Peter S. Beagle’s fantasy novel focuses on a lonesome unicorn who sets out on a quest to find her sisters, despite the danger of a formidable enemy, the Red Bull. According to the tale, the Red Bull has driven all of her sisters into the sea, and keeps them prisoner there, at the whim of the cruel King Haggard.
Along the way, the unicorn meets the failed magician Schmendrick and a nomad cook named Molly Grue who vow to help her with her quest. As the three get near Haggard’s castle, they come face to face with the Red Bull, and Schmendrick is forced to act quickly in order to save the unicorn’s life by turning her into a young woman, Lady Amalthea.
At the castle, Lady Amalthea encounters Haggard’s adopted son, Prince Lir, who becomes hypnotized by the beauty and mystery of the Lady Amalthea, and pursues her although she shows him only indifference at first. Later in the quest, Lir sacrifices himself in an act of love to save the unicorn from the Red Bull. She, in turn, revives him from death with the touch of her horn. As the book closes, the two lovers are forced to separate, each returning to their own destiny. While they cannot ultimately be together, their souls have grown with the experience, and both are forever changed.