How Is Literary Fiction Redefining Romance And Thus Opening Us Up Towards Unconventional Relationship Models?

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Dee Das

Staff Writer

Trying to live, love, and say it well in good sentences. Pronouns: she/her. Contact:

Contemporary romance novels have come a long way. By depicting second chance romances, featuring a diverse cast of characters, and shedding light on serious issues like motherhood, career, race, etc., the genre of romance is not to be equated with frivolous fluff as it often gets mislabeled as. It tells us how views on gender, sexuality, and love have changed over time. It also draws our attention to how every love story doesn’t always need to culminate in marriage. Gone are the days of unoriginal and aggressively macho heroes and their subservient heroines. Contemporary romance stories are making space for multidimensional narratives to coexist without eclipsing one another.

The romance seen in literary fiction also showcases unique love stories that change the way we think of relationships. Relationships are never easy-breezy, nor are they always fulfilling and happiness-inducing. Romance isn’t just the province of the pretty twentysomethings whose days after meeting the loves of their life suddenly become a bed of roses. Just like any other endeavor, romantic relationships take work. Preconceived notions about how relationships are supposed to be are debunked and instead, they are represented as they truly are.

pink rose in a clear vase

Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, for instance, portrays a very realistic image of love. There is this misconception that love fixes an individual and makes their life whole. While love does fill our lives with unbridled joy, it doesn’t necessarily become a medicine for what we lack. Casey is struggling to finish her first novel while managing the crushing weight of student loans and her mother’s recent demise. She is a weepy, anxious mess and everything in her life is falling apart. To top it off, she is in love with two men at once. King has shown love as something that forms an important aspect of Casey’s life but it is in no way all-consuming.

Over the course of the novel, we see her evolving into her own savior as she battles hard to stay afloat. The believable lows and much-deserved highs of her life are hers and only hers. Casey will never grow to solely rely on her love interests for validating her existence. She is passionate about things that are not subject to the whims of others. She is her own person. The you-complete-me kind of feeling is not sustainable and Casey is smart enough to know that she has a lot of work to do on her own before she can prove to be a suitable match for anyone. Loving doesn’t mean losing oneself to another person. Loving means finding a way to affirm one’s individuality, and Casey’s story bears testimony to that.

Then there’s Clare Chambers’s Small Pleasures, which is set in the post-war London of the 1950s and features Jean, who is on the brink of turning 40. She works as a feature writer at a local newspaper, has limited career opportunities, and needs to be at the beck and call of a demanding mother. Her life dramatically changes as she is assigned the task of investigating whether Gretchen Tilbury is truly the virgin mother she claims to be. After a series of peculiar incidents, Jean finds herself falling for Gretchen’s husband, Howard. Even when the story sends dark ripples across the lives of all those involved, Jean, despite trying hard, can’t seem to give up on her only chance at happiness. Howard acts as an antidote to Jean’s quiet loneliness. His gentle and thoughtful nature finally pulls Jean into a world where misery isn’t the only constant. Contrary to what she has grown to believe, there’s no expiration date for finding love. Both Howard and Jean have suffered their respective losses. Howard’s wife never loved him and Jean has had her share of horrible men.

The biggest takeaway from Small Pleasures is that love and life don’t have to stop at a certain age. We grow up internalizing that our life’s milestones come with deadlines and if we fail to meet them, we are somehow never going to recover. This idea is not practical and life is way too vast to be caged that way. Jean’s story, even though it has a sad ending, showcases how many bright sides exist in our world unbeknown to us. Marriages might fall apart, partners might disregard our desires, jobs might drain us out, and living might feel like being on trial, but our lives are wild and precious and in every nook and cranny, love waits for us to find it.

a couple holds hands with wedding rings on each partner's respective finger

Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather In Tokyo, translated by Allison Markin Powell, is another example of an unconventional love story where love breaks out of every stale mold we try to limit it to. Tsukiko is in her late 30s when she reunites with one of her high school teachers whom she calls ‘Sensei’. He is at least 30 years her senior but the age gap is never a bar as the easy intimacy they share transcends it all. Despite their initial hesitations, Tsukiko and her Sensei eventually become bolder with their relationship. Their closeness grows as they share meals and drinks, trade stories, and go on trips together. There is something truly otherworldly in finding joy in the ordinary, in the everyday, and Tsukiko and her Sensei’s love for each other helps them realize the magic of the mundane. True happiness rests not in grand gestures but in doing daily chores with the beloved. Their relationship lacks extravagance and that’s the charm of it.

This novel not only redefines relationship models by stating that romance doesn’t have to be monopolized by the young, but also makes us perceive what should be the goals of a relationship in a new light. Our social upbringing inhibits us from dating whoever we wish. We are often given strict instructions on who we can date and who we cannot. This book debunks all such morals that don’t serve any discernible purpose in our lives. Tsukiko and her Sensei’s story tells us that love is infinite and cannot be restricted according to conventional standards.

To love is to both swim and drown. Literary fiction tells us that the feeling of being in love cannot always be loved as it often feels heavier than iron. And even though it’s lovely to be in love, it doesn’t always last. This genre very rightfully captures the infinite power we hold and the powerlessness we have to endure, in love, simultaneously. It also reminds us that love is never available in limited supply and doesn’t need to be rationed. Above all, literary fiction showcases all the chaos and social factors that influence and follow the romantic choices we make. And most importantly, it makes us realize that partners can live their lives in conjunction yet be on their own.

To know more about why you should pick up romance novels, please check out this piece on why romance deserves as much respect as any other genre.