Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Room With A View

"For all his culture, Cecil was an ascetic at heart, and nothing in his love became him like the leaving of it."
--My favorite quote from A Room With A View, E.M. Forster, pg. 204

This book is from 1908. It may be a classic, but if it was written today and not by E.M. Forster, it would surely be the fluffiest of chick lit. Sometimes I wonder where ideas come from--say, that we have one true soulmate who will understand us completely, or that a woman in a story will usually end up marrying the first man she interacts with, or that spinsters will always hold out some measure of romantic hope deep in their stony bosoms. (Yes, there will be spoilers here, but there were actually spoilers printed on the back of my copy of this book. You know what will happen from the first few pages anyway.) Do these types of ideas come from A Room With a View? Probably not, but it seems like every idea of the modern romantic comedy is also represented therein.

I thought I would love this book because I tend to love comedies of manners. And I liked the writing style; it could be very clever and quotable. But after spending 27 years absorbing romantic storylines, the plot itself was very predictable. It even involved one of the pop culture tropes that bugs me the most--characters for whom we're not just supposed to believe a strong attraction, but that they're going to spend the rest of their lives together because they exchanged one meaningful glance. Like, this is what happens:

--Lucy and George are tourists, previously unknown to one another, staying at the same hotel in Florence. They happen to both be at the scene of a murder that takes place there.
--Lucy faints at the sight, and George helps her.
--Then, George throws Lucy's photographs into the river because there is blood on them.
--They share a companionable silence.
--They are madly in love with each other (although Lucy tries to ignore her feelings for a while).

There seems to be something missing here. When George throws away the pictures, Lucy imbues it with a ton of meaning: He is unconventional, truthful, humble, and a host of other traits. And we don't even know why George is quite so taken with Lucy. From their first short exchange, Lucy is able to feel that she knows George completely. Although they've spoken maybe five times ever (and kissed twice), never ONCE does Lucy mention that she wants to know George better, or vice versa. So, after one singular incident that lasted a matter of minutes, these two people knew each other intimately. As a reader, I got the feeling that they would never discover anything new about each other that they didn't already know. Is that even possible?

We're also supposed to believe that a lasting relationship can spring, fully formed, from a few romantic moments. But even with my limited experience, I don't think life is like that. Of course, lasting relationships can contain romance or begin with romance, but one doesn't necessarily beget the other. Maybe things were different back then...young men and women didn't have as many opportunities to encounter each other, and there was more pressure to choose someone. Perhaps on some level, Lucy was choosing to love George, although this was in no way implied by the book. George is portrayed as her unavoidable fate. As crotchety as it makes me sound, I can't "just enjoy the fantasy". I'm too frustrated by the fact that a lot of people feel bad about themselves when these kinds of events don't become their realities. Even I've felt bad about it at times, although I know that I'd probably be pissed off if someone threw my bloody photos in the river without asking.

I felt like this book was a strange blend of two different attitudes. On the one hand, Forster has the ability to dissect social norms with a scalpel. He shows no mercy in describing the futility of tourists who are trying to recreate home in a foreign land (be sure to pack enough digestive bread!). But at the same time, the concept of a soulmate remains unquestioned. Contrast this to The Age of Innocence, which I felt had a more subtle and complex treatment of romantic ideals vs. convention.

(Also, while he's celibate and not necessarily asexual, when I read the following, I felt that I could sort of relate to Mr. Beebe's character in that moment, on some personal ace level. Since I couldn't really relate to anyone in the book, I'll take what I can get:

Mr. Beebe followed. Lucy still sat at the piano with her hands over the keys. She was glad, but he had expected greater gladness. Her mother bent over her. Freddy, to whom she had been singing, reclined on the floor with his head against her, and an unlit pipe between his lips. Oddly enough, the group was beautiful. Mr. Beebe, who loved the art of the past, was reminded of a favourite theme, the Santa Conversazione, in which people who care for one another are painted chatting together about noble things--a theme neither sensual nor sensational, and therefore ignored by the art of to-day. Why should Lucy want either to marry or to travel when she had such friends at home? (221) )

Still, I might watch one of the film adaptations.

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