Romantic Rivalry Can Result in Riveting Reading

Romantic situations make many novels interesting, and complicated romantic situations can make them even more interesting.

Among those complications are when two people love the same person, one person has two suitors, the desired person tries to decide between the two, and so on. How long will the process take? How intense will things get? Are both suitors true contenders? Who, if either, will be chosen? Will the most compatible match happen? How will the “loser” react? What might the relationship be like after that? Etc.

I most recently encountered a version of this scenario in Ivan Turgenev’s A House of Gentlefolk, in which Panshin and Lavretsky both want the hand of Lisaveta. While Lavretsky is the better “candidate,” neither he nor Panshin are ideal. Panshin is handsome, confident, and somewhat talented, but quite shallow. The deeper Lavretsky has drawbacks such as being much older than Lisa (36 to 19) and being depressed after a disastrous marriage to a woman who’s now (supposedly) dead. Lisa, while ethical and intelligent, is a somewhat sheltered person and much more religious than either of her two suitors. All in all, things are not promising for a match made in heaven — or Russia. And then things get REALLY complicated…

Another relevant 19th-century novel is Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, in which the independent and initially idealistic Isabel Archer rejects Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood and instead marries Gilbert Osmond. Yes, three suitors, and Isabel’s choice proves to be disastrous.

Still another relevant novel based in the 19th century, but in this case written in the 20th century, is Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Newland Archer is engaged to the conventional May Welland but becomes enamored with the unconventional Ellen Olenska. Archer’s ultimate choice is not disastrous, but his life ends up being pretty much a melancholy one. (The photo atop this blog post shows Michelle Pfeiffer as Ellen, Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland, and Winona Ryder as May in 1993’s The Age of Innocence movie.)

In more recent fiction that sort of echoes what happens in Wharton’s novel, wedding band guitarist Dave is engaged to a fellow New Jersey resident (the rather boring Julie) he’s known since high school but then becomes smitten with a New York City resident (the arty but neurotic Gretchen) in Tom Perrotta’s The Wishbones.

Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe has Ruth Jamison marrying the abusive Frank Bennett, but Ruth and Idgie Threadgoode are the novel’s secret soulmates living in a difficult time and place for same-gender love to be out in the open.

Though it’s referenced completely in back story, Severus Snape is attracted to Lily, but she ends up marrying James in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Lily and James of course become the doomed parents of Harry.

In 18th-century fiction, the star of Fanny Burney’s Evelina finds herself the object of desire for the unsavory Sir Clement Willoughby and the admirable Lord Orville. Not much contest there.

A quirky version of the romantic-rivals situation is offered in Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, which has hubby number one still in the picture despite being dead. 🙂

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about my town’s shamed Planning Board and a Board of Education in turmoil — is here.

74 thoughts on “Romantic Rivalry Can Result in Riveting Reading

  1. Lots of scope in this subject, films, books, play, tv series. The never ending triangle AND so much to pick from in books, I see ones like Anna Karenin and Heartburn are taken. So I will go with a real oldie based on true events, the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, Hilda Lewis’s A Mortal Malice. That was a most interesting rivalry between him Frances Howard for the affections of her second husband which saw her end her days in prison.

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  3. As usual, I’ll go to a change of topic here. I’m so sorry for the loss of life and injuries to those in Virginia Beach! When will we decide to do something, anything about gun control. It seems so easy, yet so hard, in the climate in which we now live. Those who died yesterday probably had loved ones who were waiting for them to come home after a hard day at work, yet were denied that by this shooter. I’ve a hard time with people who die senselessly for no apparent reason. It makes me want to go back to watching Tim Conway and being able to laugh again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lit. VERY well said, and I share your despair. NRA-bought politicians and others who remain against gun control have so much blood on their hands. When one contrasts the U.S. with New Zealand on what happens after a gun massacre, one feels sick. And of course MANY people who call themselves “pro-life” (on abortion) have nothing to say but “thoughts and prayers” after the loss of lives time after time due to gun violence.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with you, Dave. I’m also very frustrated with most of the Democrats who are refusing to bring an impeachment inquiry against Trump. They don’t have to bring formal charges against him, but I don’t think they need anything more to have an inquiry against him. What more are they waiting for? Pelosi seems to be waiting for an ironclad defense, as well as a Senate confirmation, but that’s not what is ever probably going to happen, but Congress still needs to do its job!

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  4. I suppose I can’t help but think of “Phantom of the Opera” (although I admit my knowledge of the book is lesser than that of the musical. Still, that was a love triangle that almost killed two of its members, which definitely added intrigue to the plot. Also, your mention of characters that are “supposedly” dead made me laugh aloud. Perhaps that’s a whole other post…:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Nimbus of a Writer! Great mention of “Phantom of the Opera”! An intense love triangle indeed. Reminded me a bit of the triangle in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with one person in Victor Hugo’s triangle also having a physical deformity.

      Glad you enjoyed that “supposedly” mention! 🙂 The resolution of “A House of Gentlefolk” definitely hinged on that.


  5. Hi Dave,

    I would have mentioned “Anna Karenina” but I personally find Tolstoy’s novels too long to stay too focused on the drama. Though there definitely was a lot of romantic drama in “Anna Karenina” which I think I would have really enjoyed if there was more plot and less pages.

    Can pretty much say the same for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera”. I wasn’t a fan of “Hundred Years” but was hoping that was more about the magical realism than it was about the writing. Sadly, it’s the writing. I’m half way through “Cholera”, and I just keep zoning out and forgetting what’s going on. But I think there’s love. And maybe a little bit of cholera too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sue!

      I think I liked “Anna Karenina” more than you did, but I hear you that some novels could use some pruning.

      “But I think there’s love. And maybe a little bit of cholera too” — ha ha! 🙂 I found “One Hundred Years of Solitude” a lot more compelling than “Love in the Time of Cholera.” I liked the latter, too, but the love story didn’t resonate with me a huge amount. Didn’t seem very plausible, and the male lead Florentino is not that sympathetic — and quite promiscuous for someone allegedly “faithful” to the married-to-another-man Fermina.


      • Oh that’s funny. I think Florentino is probably my favourite character! Not that I necessarily like him, or can sympathise with him, but he has more flavour than the other two characters combined. But I’ll persevere. I find it amazing how different people are. One of the ladies at my book group is about to start her third go at “Grapes of Wrath”, which two of us keep telling her she HAS to read and HAS to finish. I guess it just doesn’t speak to her. Just like neither Tolstoy or Marquez speak to me. I am however also re-reading “Catch-22” which just gets better each time I read it. And it has the wonderful opening line of “It was love at first sight”, so that almost fits into the topic this week, right?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well, we all have different likes and dislikes in literature, which makes for fun discussions. 🙂 Actually, I agree that Florentino is a very interesting character, even as I found him annoying and self-centered and not that sympathetic at various times.

          It IS kind of shocking to hear about anyone not being absorbed by “The Grapes of Wrath”; still, I guess that can happen with any classic novel. But that person in your book group is in a not-taken-with-“The Grapes of Wrath” minority, I think. 🙂

          I’ve only read “Catch-22” once. I can see how it would be great to reread. Nice closing line to your comment!


  6. I’m glad a reader mentioned Anna Karenina as that came to mind immediately with this topic, Dave. It didn’t seem like a long book to me, as I was so enamored with every word. How about Stephanie Plum in the Janet Evanovich series? Her two interests, Ranger and Joe Morrelli, certainly make for some romantic tension midst her crazy antics!

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    • Thank you, Molly! I know exactly what you mean about long books not seeming as long as they are if they’re great. Others that come to mind include “Middlemarch,” “The Brothers Karamazov,” “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “The Goldfinch,” and “Shogun,” to name a few.

      Interesting about the Janet Evanovich series! I read only the first three books, and Ranger seemed more like a non-romantic friend who Stephanie called on for help at times as she was learning the bounty-hunting ropes. I guess things evolved somewhat. Definitely plenty of love-hate tension between Stephanie and Joe in those first three books!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I have finally started chipping away at Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” and it fits this topic beautifully 🙂 So many romantic tangles in that book, and romantic rivals, and multiple suitors, and rejections, and marriages, and affairs… and I’m only about half-way through! 🙂

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  8. Love is indeed complicated and made more so when living within an ever-changing complex world. Even the definition of “love” is fluid. I am currently reading “Night Train to Lisbon” by Pascal Mercier which includes a love trio. What I love about literature is that words, narrative and the ability to time travel open a wonderful opportunity for internal reflection.

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    • Thank you for the eloquent comment, Clanmother! Excellent observations, philosophical and otherwise.

      When I saw the title “Night Train to Lisbon,” I was reminded of Erich Maria Remarque’s fantastic novel “The Night in Lisbon,” set during World War II.

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        • Great, Clanmother! Hope you like it! I think Remarque is a terrific, somewhat underrated writer. His “All Quiet on the Western Front,” as compelling as it is, might be only his fourth best novel (after “The Night in Lisbon,” “Arch of Triumph,” and “A Time to Love and a Time to Die”).

          “So many books and so little time” — I totally hear you. And I like the way you described reading novels as “adventures.” 🙂

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  9. Look at the emotional power slowly built up by Lady Brett’s vacillations from Jake, Mike, Robert, and Romero in The Sun Also Rises. Enough sexual tensions there to start a war.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mike! That’s a great mention!

      “The Sun Also Rises” is not my favorite Hemingway novel (I’m a bigger fan of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”), but it’s a memorable book — in large part because of all that romantic angst.

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      • All right, a fellow dissident! I agree Bell is better than Sun. My favorite is A Farewell To Arms. To add fuel to the heretical fire, I prefer Hem’s short stories to any of his novels.

        The ghost of Dr. Tom Gossett from Wake Forest may visit me tonight for typing these blasphemies.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ha, Mike! I enjoyed reading your response. 🙂

          I’m embarrassed to say I’ve yet to read “A Farewell To Arms”; I need to rectify that. I’ve gotten to some of Hemingway’s shorter works — “The Old Man and the Sea” (novella?) and several stories, and found them to be interesting reading. Some authors definitely had/have the knack for both novels and short stories (Tolstoy, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, Melville, Cather, Atwood, Kingsolver, Edith Wharton, Jhumpa Lahiri, Graham Greene, etc. Heck, even Jack Reacher series writer Lee Child).


  10. The Age of Innocence was one of my favorite novels. And Turgenev certainly understood romantic rivalry very well. His long short story/novelette “First Love” deals with the same theme very explicitly, about a teenage boy who’s in love with a young woman who’s having an affair with his father.

    And thanks for mentioning Fanny Burney, who isn’t read nearly enough these days. All of her stuff is great.

    Going back to the romantic rivalry theme, the Cormoran Strike books have a budding romantic rivalry over Robin, Cormoran’s assistant, between Cormoran and her fiancé Matt. Of course we’re all rooting for Cormoran, but it’s still unclear how it will turn out.

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    • Thank you, Elena!

      “A House of Gentlefolk” is just the second Turgenev novel I’ve read, but he does seem expert at depicting relationships — the rivalries, the problems, the heartbreak, and so on. “First Love” certainly sounds like it has those elements.

      “Evelina” is the only Fanny Burney novel I’ve tried so far, but it’s excellent, quite funny at times, and more “readable” than a number of other 18th-century books I’ve read.

      And, yes, that sort of triangle in J.K. Rowling’s great crime books. So glad you recommended them to me; I’ve read all four, and can’t wait until the fifth one comes out. Matt is a really loathsome guy, and it would be nice for things to work out for Cormoran and Robin if Rowling decides to let that happen.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. I think “The Age of Innocence” fits this column perfectly, though I think we’ve had this discussion before about why Archer didn’t visit Ellen after his wife died. Unless it was perhaps guilt?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lit!

      Yes, “The Age of Innocence” ending is kind of unexpected, and certainly dashes readers’ hopes. And in a Paris setting, too! 😦 Newland’s feeling of guilt is as good an explanation as any, even as he basically/ultimately acted in an honorable way earlier in the novel.


  12. “Heartburn” by Nora Ephron seems to fit, with the main character’s husband also having a lover. The book is both sad and funny and offers a very heartfelt description of a person trying to believe in someone, but knowing deep down that they’ll never trust them again.


    • Thank you, Becky! I’ve heard a lot about that novel — partly “inspired” by Nora Ephron’s marriage to famed Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, I believe — but haven’t read it. Definitely fits this topic, and I liked your heartfelt comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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