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Guest Post — Love between the lines: On reading Maura Kelly and Jack Murnighan’s Much Ado About Loving

Guest Post by Rebecca Howden

There are two things in the world I don’t think I’ll ever fall out of love with – books, and being in love.

When I’m trying to impress cute philosophy students, I’m likely to claim that my incurable romantic streak is some kind of Nietzschean theory, that capacity for joy and capacity for pain are so closely intertwined that to experience extreme happiness you have to take the extreme misery as well. But really, I just kind of like the melodrama that comes with wearing too much on my sleeve. Even if it ends in complete misery, the rush of falling in love is so exhilarating that the pain afterwards almost seems worth it.

Luckily, there’s no better therapy for the lovelorn than reading great literature. When it feels like nobody else in the world could possibly understand your unique form of heartbreak, it’s a peculiarly delicious comfort to indulge in Gothic romance and pretend you’re Catherine Earnshaw, all pale-faced and wild-haired in those wintry English moors. It’s comforting to share your loneliness with Jane Eyre, or torture yourself with the excruciating loveliness and despair of Pablo Neruda’s love poems, or channel your bitter jealousy through The End of the Affair.

But maybe there’s something to learn from those books as well. It might be a different era, a different culture, a different continent, but human feelings stay the same, and the games lovers play with each other’s heads and hearts stay the same too. A beautiful Victorian heroine might have been waiting feverishly for a letter to be couriered across the estates by a footman while I’m obsessively refreshing my Gmail, Facebook and Twitter accounts, but basically, we’re in the same boat.

And that’s just what Maura Kelly and Jack Murnighan explore in Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favourite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, No-So-Great Gatsbys, and Love in the Time of Internet Personals. In an entertaining hybrid of literary criticism and dating advice, they trade off analyses of classic novels chapter by chapter to weave together stories of their own mistakes, bad dates and romantic disasters, alongside the slivers of insight they’ve gleaned from the nights spent in, wallowing in their loneliness and a good book.

The whole idea of ‘dating advice’ always seems kind of suspect and annoying to me, but the first thing Kelly and Murnighan make clear is that they definitely don’t think they’re any kind of relationship experts. Throughout the book they frequently admit to being completely messed up when it comes to love. But they do know their literature, and although I don’t necessarily agree with all of their interpretations, I think they’re onto something by looking to great books for wisdom about love – that most literary of afflictions.

Murnighan prescribes War and Peace as essential reading for learning how to capture someone’s heart. You want everyone who lays eyes on you to fall head over heels? Be like Natasha Rostova – sparkly, impulsive and overflowing with joie de vivre. Described by Tolstoy as ‘a little bit of quicksilver’ and by Murnighan as ‘a creature made to dance and laugh and flirt’, Natasha enraptures everyone around her because she herself is just so enraptured by life. The idea does veer suspiciously close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory, but at its heart it’s not such bad advice. Be yourself, but turn all the best parts of yourself up to eleven, and you’ll captivate people without even knowing.

Then there are the cautionary tales. Don’t fall for the ‘as soon as’ guy, the Moby-Dickheads who are single-mindedly focused on harpooning a giant white whale (or getting into graduate school, or starting their own business, or whatever), who promise they’ll have more time for you once they’ve reached their goal.

It’s nice to meet a guy who’s nice to his mum, but if he’s too close to her, take a hint from DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and get out of there, because you’ll never be good enough for him as long as that umbilical cord is still attached. And if a guy skips town after knocking you up and promises to send for you once he has made enough money to support you both, don’t be as naïve as poor Lena Grove from Light in August. Sometimes the most obvious answer is the right one: come on girl, you know he has no intention of ever coming back.

If I was to add my own literary love lessons to the list, I’d have to say some of my best advice comes from Elizabeth Wurtzel. Some of it I’ve learned from The Bitch Rules (Wurtzel’s satirical, feminist take on the ‘90s self-help dating book The Rules), and it’s all pretty straightforward: eat cake, wear Levi’s 501s, be a nutcase about the things that make you passionate, believe you’re a supermodel, don’t get up to clear the table unless the men do as well, and don’t let on that you’re a depressed maniac on the first date.

But there’s also a critical lesson in Prozac Nation: don’t appoint a guy to be your savior. When you’re that messed up, a guy isn’t going to fix you. Love will just become a mask for all your problems, and you’ll drive yourself even more insane with jealousy and insecurity and neediness. Eventually, he’ll get sick of being around someone who’s so depressed all the time, and then you’ll end up with yet another reason to be miserable. It’s kind of clichéd advice, but in the end it’s true: to be happily in love with someone, you have to first be sort of okay within yourself.

Having said that, rules are meant to be broken, and I can’t help but feel instinctively that sometimes the love that makes you go crazy is the best kind. Take Wuthering Heights – what if Cathy had gone with her gut and let herself love Heathcliff instead of boring old sensible Linton? You can convince yourself you’re in love with the ‘good on paper’ guy, who by all rational logic is perfect for you. But if you can’t stop thinking about that wild-eyed scallywag whom everyone tells you to stay away from, but whom only you can connect with… well, sometimes you have to go with your heart, not your head.

Rebecca Howden is assistant editor of Monument magazine and writes about books, gender, fashion et cetera at rebeccahowden.com.au.

Maura Kelly and Jack Murnighan’s Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favourite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, No-So-Great Gatsbys, and Love in the Time of Internet Personals is available now from Free Press.

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