In Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, married couple Shadow and Laura spend time together. Which is not surprising, except for the fact that she’s…dead.
Yup, relationships in literature can sometimes be strange, offbeat, unusual, unexpected, or improbable — making it seem, in comparison, like Felix and Oscar were kindred spirits in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. But drama or humor can abound when there’s interaction between people with very different situations, personalities, and demographics.
Most examples I’m about to give are nowhere near as extreme as Laura and Shadow’s “till death doesn’t do us part” union. But the relationships I’ll mention are still of the rather unlikely sort — albeit often positive.
For instance, there’s Queequeg and Ishmael in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. A masterful black harpoonist and a fairly ordinary white seaman — raised thousands of miles apart in dissimilar cultures — who become pals after their quirky first meeting at a New England inn.
Or take the friendship that develops between elderly nursing-home resident Ninny Threadgoode and middle-aged visitor Evelyn Couch, who are not related and originally didn’t know each other in Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Ninny and the stories she tells turn out to be life-changing for Evelyn.
Flagg’s novel partly looks back to distant decades, while Camille is set a short time after the death of Marguerite Gautier (“The Lady of the Camellias”). In Alexandre Dumas fils’ novel, an unnamed narrator and Marguerite’s former lover Armand Duval meet/interact in a non-ordinary way as the story of the late Gautier unfolds.
Another “diva” of sorts is opera singer Roxane Coss of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. When Roxane is among a group of people taken hostage for months, she has an affair with opera-loving, married businessman Katsumi Hosokawa — a pairing that could only happen in such an artificial situation.
Or how about the relationship in Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son? Beleaguered but resourceful protagonist Pak Jun Do ends up audaciously appearing at the doorstep of a famous North Korean actress (Sun-moon) to replace her military husband (Commander Ga).
Fictional relationships rarely get as unpredictable as that of married couple Henry and Clare in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Henry bounces around in time, always staying an adult as he randomly encounters Clare when she’s a kid and when she’s a grown-up.
Back in the friendship realm, an against-the-odds bond develops between Kiki and Carlene in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty — unusual not because those two women are from different countries (the U.S. and England) but because their less-than-ethical husbands (one a white liberal and the other a black conservative) are bitter rivals in academia.
Then there are unusual work pairings, some of which can almost be friendships as well. For instance, in Charles Portis’ True Grit, Mattie Ross hires Rooster Cogburn to find her father’s murderer, and those totally opposite characters (female/male, young/older, straitlaced/dissolute, etc.) end up feeling a fondness and respect for each other.
Jeeves and Bertie Wooster are also friends in a way — even though Jeeves is the (much smarter) butler and Bertie is his employer in P.G. Wodehouse’s novels and short stories.
Humphrey van Weyden and Wolf Larsen are far from buddies in Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, but their relationship is fascinating as it evolves. The physically weak Humphrey is rescued from the water, and forced to stay and work on the boat captained by the strong, bullying Larsen…until the tables start to turn.
Some other seemingly mismatched relationships: English captain John Blackthorne and Japanese translator Mariko, who become lovers in James Clavell’s Shogun; lower-class white kid Huck and escaped black slave Jim, who develop a friendship in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; “deformed,” goodhearted Quasimodo and beautiful, compassionate Gypsy dancer Esmeralda in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame; and Nino and Giuseppe, half-brothers many years apart in age who share an affectionate but sporadic bond (Nino is not very responsible) in Elsa Morante’s History.
Also: white woodsman Natty Bumppo and the Native American Chingachgook, close friends in James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” novels at a time when most settlers treated Native Americans horribly; brilliant, young, computer-hacking “punk” Lisbeth Salander and brilliant, middle-aged, somewhat-more-conventional journalist Mikhail Blomkvist, who have a complex relationship in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.); and Dorothy, The Scarecrow, The Tin Man, and The Cowardly Lion in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Also: mismatched college roommates Walter Berglund (a friendly “nerd”) and Richard Katz (abrasive indie rocker) in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom; Professor Virgina Miner and non-intellectual Chuck Mumpson, who become attracted to each other in Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs; writer Paul Sheldon and his psychopathic fan, Annie Wilkes, who torments Sheldon in Stephen King’s Misery; religious, dying teen loner Jamie and popular, rebellious teen Landon, who have a poignant relationship in Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk to Remember; and Jackie Kapp, a jeweler from an immigrant family who gets to know famous New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson in Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s The Celebrant.
When it comes to far-fetched relationships, animals can be involved, too. For instance, there’s Pi and Richard Parker the tiger, thrust uneasily together after a shipwreck in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi; lonely lower-class farmer Link Ferris and high-class collie Chum in Albert Payson Terhune’s His Dog; and Mrs. Murphy the cat and Tee Tucker the dog, pals who talk to each other in Rita Mae Brown’s mysteries.
What are some of the most unusual relationships, friendships, and other pairings in literature?
(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)
For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.
I’m also writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.