When it comes to depicting relationships, great novelists are not machines. That means the relationships — whether good, bad, unrequited, potential, etc. — are sometimes believable and sometimes not as much.
I thought about this while continuing my pandemic-time reading of Diana Gabaldon’s compelling 9,073-page Outlander series (I’m now on the fifth of eight books). The relationship between 20th-century doctor Claire Fraser and 18th-century Scotsman Jamie Fraser totally works. Equal partners, both smart, both charismatic, superb chemistry, lots of passion, flowing dialogue, plausible occasional fights. But the relationship between Claire/Jamie’s daughter Brianna and historian/musician Roger periodically feels kind of forced and clunky, partly because Roger is a rather annoying guy at times.
Lightning also doesn’t strike twice in two Charlotte Bronte novels. The relationship between Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre is one of literature’s great love stories, even though the characters are quite different in certain ways. But the interaction between Lucy Snowe and the partly unlikable M. Paul Emanuel doesn’t light many sparks in Bronte’s Villette.
The interaction between Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott — co-workers who are a possible future couple after four of J.K. Rowling’s crime novels — is satisfying for readers. The characters share a knack for private investigating, have a mutual respect, both have difficult pasts, and there’s that aforementioned “c” word: chemistry. On the other hand, the eventual love relationship between Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley of Rowling’s Harry Potter series seems off. Hermione and Ron are very good friends and both very nice people, but Hermione is just so much smarter than Ron to make for an equal couple.
In Isabel Allende’s 1840s-set Daughter of Fortune, Eliza Sommers and Joaquin Andieta become enamored with each other, and there’s an intense young-love passion to their affair even as the depiction of it doesn’t click on all cylinders. But the novel’s later relationship between Eliza and Tao Chi’en feels right, even if it’s more a friendship because of the strictures of the time against interracial relationships. (Eliza is of Chilean and English descent; Tao of Chinese ancestry.)
Depicting romance in his fiction wasn’t Mark Twain’s thing, but, when he did, the results were mixed. The puppy love of the young Tom and Becky in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer comes off as very plausible, while the relationship between Hank and Sandy in Twain’s scathingly hilarious A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court seems kind of cardboard and one-dimensional.
But the five terrific George Eliot novels I’ve read never disappoint in depicting romantic relationships with skill and psychological nuance — whether the relationships are happy, disastrous, or somewhere in between. For instance, Middlemarch masterfully dissects the depressing marriages of admirable Dorothea Brooke and sour Rev. Edward Casaubon, and idealistic Dr. Tertius Lydgate and shallow Rosamond Vincy; and Daniel Deronda includes the awful union of spoiled Gwendolen Harleth and sadistic Henleigh Grandcourt. Eliot also excels at happier relationships, such as those between Daniel Deronda and Mirah Lapidoth and, in Adam Bede, Adam and minister Dinah Morris.
Still, Eliot is rare in never faltering in the romantic-depiction realm. Heck, even a novelist as accomplished as Liane Moriarty in creating good and bad fictional relationships included the not-that-believable pairing of romance author Frances and oft-crude retired footballer Tony in her great novel Nine Perfect Strangers.
Any examples you’d like to offer of other novelists who did well and also not so well in depicting relationships?
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 Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about my town’s unequally funded election — is here.