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 Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town’s shamed Planning Board and a Board of Education in turmoil — is here.