We Give a Damn About Fictional Couples Not Glam

Gail HoneymanSome memorable couples in literature aren’t gorgeous, charismatic, socially adept, etc. That can be a good thing, because those couples seem more realistic, often evoke warm feelings, and perhaps have a better chance of staying together because there’s more than surface attraction.

Of course, glamorous romantic duos — the opposite of what I described above — don’t always jointly lead charmed lives. Cases in point include pairings such as Scarlett and Rhett in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Tertius and Rosamond in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, etc. Maybe we’re not as upset when things go south for those “beautiful people.”

A novel I read last week contains a great example of a relationship between two people who aren’t exactly movie-star-like. The title character in Gail Honeyman’s absorbing/sad/funny Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was psychologically abused as a child by her horror of a mother, and has facial scars from a fire. She’s a smart woman who’s getting by as a nearly 30-year-old adult, but is lonely, depressed, and (mostly) awkward in social settings — which makes it a bit of a surprise when goodhearted coworker Raymond takes an interest in her. He’s more socially adept, but has also had some tough times in life and is a slob, a smoker, and not in great physical shape. Plus the two hold less-than-“prestigious” jobs: finance clerk (she), IT person (he). Anyway, it’s really nice to see the potential for something to work out between two people who’ve had significant struggles.

Honeyman’s novel reminded me a bit of Fredrik Backman’s compellingly quirky A Man Called Ove. One difference is that the odd Ove marries a much more outgoing, “together” person than himself — meaning this was a loving couple in which one member was kind of glam while the other wasn’t. But tragedy later strikes Sonja, which puts a big dent in her favored-by-fate life — and devastates Ove to the point where he becomes a morose recluse for quite a while.

One of the most famous fictional couples not blessed with great looks is Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s iconic novel. But of course the two have other things going for them: Jane is an intelligent, independent-minded “survivor” while Rochester is wealthy and quite charismatic in his rough-hewn way. They fall in love with each other’s minds/personalities. Unfortunately, makers of various Jane Eyre movies couldn’t help themselves — they partly ruined the story by casting actresses and actors much better-looking than Jane and Rochester are in the novel.

Another far-from-chic pair are Raskolnikov and Sofya in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is an impoverished, angst-ridden man — and a murderer to boot — while the admirable Sofya is forced into prostitution (before meeting Raskolnikov) to support herself and her family. She’s religious, he’s in need of redemption, and…

Getting back to more recent literature, the appealing teen couple from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars are both dealing with major physical issues that make for a challenging life — and relationship. Hazel has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs, while Augustus had a tumor that caused him to lose his right leg.

I realize I’ve just scratched the surface here. Your favorite fictional couples that fit this blog post’s theme?

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 2003-started, award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about my school district’s switch to all-remote learning this fall, and local pushback against the Trump administration’s sabotage of the U.S. Postal Service — is here.

42 thoughts on “We Give a Damn About Fictional Couples Not Glam

  1. HI Dave,

    Glad to hear that you enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant, although I think the title needs some work as she’s not even a little bit fine.

    I think Cathy was my least favourite character in Wuthering Heights, though I found almost all of them pretty ugly in one way or another. Unfortunately, that made it easy to dislike the book as a whole, despite how good Bronte’s writing is.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sue. Thank you for the comment! I interpreted the title of Gail Honeyman’s novel as being kind of ironic, although Eleanor became somewhat more fine as the book went on. 🙂

      Yes, no characters in “Wuthering Heights” one would like to hang out with…


  2. Here’s a tricky pair of entrants: Nick and Nora Charles, the couple featured in Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man”. She is rich, and a fine figure of an over-imbiber, and he is a worldly-wise over-imbiber newly married into wealth who returns to his old line of work– detective– so as to aid in the tracking down of the missing inventor Wynant (the thin man in the title).

    The drinking in the novel is pretty much non-stop, yet never significantly impairing of the deductive faculties in the professional gumshoe or his well-heeled sidekick. Can’t recall much in the ways of hangovers, woozy arguments or morning-after recriminations.

    Nick and Nora make a fine team, and do get to the bottom of things criminal. And they are debonair and attractive, moving well in high society and low.

    But as anyone who has spent time around non-stop drinkers, beauty fades fast, as does pretty much anything fragile and fine nearabouts. But you can’t find that out by reading the book– only by considering its actualities– which might be unfair to a work of detective fiction, however skillfully wrought. Its author knew better than he wrote here, but that’s what makes for part of the novel’s strange charm: within in its pages, and nowhere else, endless drinking has no consequences.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY. VERY interesting and elegantly expressed take on Nick and Nora. A glam couple in a way, but, as you say, one has to suspend belief when it comes to the no-consequence alcoholism involved. Sort of reminds me of how characters in some novels get in brutal fights that would kill or permanently injure them in real life but have only a relatively minor effect on their bodies in their fictional world.


  3. .Dave, after a long wait I am finally reading John Grisham`s latest Camino Wind.
    Now Laura is pounding with so much devastation but trump`s show must go on , illegally using White House and exposing all to COVA 19.
    The way things are going in trumpland, it all has to come crashing down on Republicans who have let go of their ethics and have become peons of Trump

    But, Trump couldn’t care less.

    We both have read Camilo Island.
    The book brings us back to the Island with Bruce still the local bookshop owner.
    Now the island is pounding with Hurricane Leo, and out to destroy so much.
    And there is a murder !

    I have read about a hundred pages and love it a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Awwwww, literature heartsies 🙂 Re-reading Anne of Green Gables, and reading some of the later books in the series for the first time, has really made me rediscover my love for Anne and Gilbert 🙂 Every gal needs a Gilbert, and I’m lucky I married one. I also would have to pick Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy as a favorite literature couple, and I did recently read Gone with the Wind also (had never actually read the entire book before) – that Scarlett is some kind of something, I’ll give her that! Sometimes I want to cheer her on and other times I want to backhand her, Rhett or no Rhett. I also just recently read “Wuthering Heights” for my local book club. I have to say I wasn’t a fan of “bad boy” Heathcliff, not even a little bit! The story was well-written and good, I just really didn’t like the character.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.!

      Anne and Gilbert are such a great couple — after the long road to becoming a couple. 🙂 He shouldn’t have said “carrots”!

      And, yes, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy also became quite a pair after first working some things out…

      I’m not a fan of Heathcliff, either. I guess there’s some charisma there, but he’s a pretty mean guy much of the time. I know there are childhood resentments and class differences that helped give him that chip on his shoulder, but still…

      Liked by 1 person

      • As you may recall, I am reading “Wuthering Heights” now, a chapter or two every day or two, as my attention span, such as it ever was, is less so now . There is some possibility I would read more at a sitting if I had found somebody in the novel to like, but I haven’t. I dislike Heathcliff most of all, because his cruelties are resentful, deliberate and the result, so far, of what would seem to be long planning. And yet, I think the novel is, in its strange dark ways, excellent.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you, jhNY! That’s a great point about “Wuthering Heights” being a compelling book despite it being hard to like Heathcliff and various other characters. Perhaps a rarity among great novels in that respect. The novel hooks the reader with elements such as the writing, the setting, the mood, the passion, and the astonishment of what weird things the characters do.


  5. Great topic; I loved Eleanor, Ove AND the complicated characters in Time Traveler’s Wife! A book I’m reading right now fits, as Cussy Mary Carter in “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” is a Kentucky blue-skin person. The man who falls in love with her is more physically attractive, but, well…he IS a “mountain man,” so certainly wouldn’t appeal to more refined women.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Becky! I share your regard for those Gail Honeyman, Fredrik Backman, and Audrey Niffenegger novels! And I appreciate the mention of “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.” What a fantastic title! Interesting when novels explore class differences (for want of a better phrase) — including class differences between couples.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree with you about A Man Called Ove. He is definitely not glam, but as we come to know his past heartache and his newfound capacity for love, we see that he is possessed of a beautiful spirit.

    When I checked my bookshelves for non-glam couplese, Francis and Helen in William Kennedy’s Ironweed jumped out at me, although I’ll confess I don’t remember much about it, as I read it years ago.

    Liked by 5 people

  7. Interesting theme, Dave! For sure Ross and Demelza Poldark from the original stories by Winston Graham. Unlike the overly romanticized television drama, Ross has a scarred face and noticeable limp. Their relationship is also rocky but survives a couple generations. The other would be the Outlander novels by Diana Gabaldon. Jamie’s entire back is scar tissue, and his hand is maimed and barely functional. Not to mention the psychological damage from Randall. While the television adaptation keeps the scars, the hand disfigurement along with the couple’s gray hairs and wrinkles have foolishly been omitted. Their relationship too is fraught with difficulties; time travel can do that 🙂

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Mary Jo! Great points about the “Outlander” books vs. the TV series! A shame that screen adaptations often “prettify” characters.

      In Diana Gabaldon’s novels, Jamie indeed went though a LOT of devastating situations that led to physical (and psychological) scarring and maiming — and of course Claire also experienced a huge amount of trauma in the eight books.

      I’ve only seen clips of the TV version, but the two stars clearly look younger than their characters were in Gabaldon’s later books; I guess Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan are around 40 in real life.

      And time travel definitely complicates Claire and Jamie’s relationship, as is also the case with the protagonists in Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife.”

      Liked by 5 people

  8. Mary Bennet was not what we would call no awfie bonnie, hre in Scotland. Sp it was nice when Pamela Mingle wrote a book about her and and saw to it that she found happiness, the Pursuit of Mary Bennet. Great post again Dave. Been away a few days but back to the catching up tomorrow.

    Liked by 7 people

  9. Another brilliant topic, Dave. And yes, you have me on another segue on something that I have always been interested in – the idea of “beautiful people” and how we respond to them in books, movies, plays, dance, and in everyday interactions. Here is a recent Atlantic article that suggests that our brain chemistry has something to do with our responses. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/04/how-attractive-people-affect-your-brain/586870/ I really appreciate this post, Dave because of the exploration into how we deal with visual imperfections. Even our childhood stories, such as Beauty and the Beast transforms the beast into a handsome prince. We want to transform “plain” into “beauty.” Perhaps our greatest strength is that we are able to expand our definition of beauty to embrace more than the physical aspect. Thank you for another remarkable discussion.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thanks so much, Clanmother! And VERY well said.

      Yes, good looks and/or the effort to obtain good looks are something we see quite often in literature (and real life). In “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” there’s even a scene in which the title character gets a stylish haircut and makeover and is suddenly noticed more/treated better by her co-workers.

      As you note, I guess it’s a chemical thing as well as a societal construct to be attracted to “attractive” people — who may or may not also be attractive on the inside.

      Any time the human race is “able to expand our definition of beauty to embrace more than the physical aspect” is welcome!

      Liked by 4 people

  10. I loved this about Eleanor Oliphant. Maybe it feels weird to cheer for an ugly fat guy to get the girl, but guess what? In real life plenty of people get with ugly fat guys! It’s what’s inside that really matters, but we want our heroes to be lovely on the outside too. Which is stupid.

    Liked by 4 people

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