Friday, February 15, 2013

Love stories, by the state

For Valentine's Day, Amazon compiled a list of books about love to match every state in the country. I shot over there in hopes of finding a new Michigan book recommendation, but alas: The Feast of Love, by Charles Baxter, already a favorite of mine. (Nice choice, Amazon; maybe I'll have to revisit this lovely book to offer a more thorough review. Or maybe I'll watch the movie and rant about how terrible it was to be set in Portland. Portland. I'm glad it has a 41% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) Jeffrey Eugenides's Virgin Suicides pulls in an honorable mention.

I have no complaints about these selections. It's a weird feeling, to have nothing to gripe about, so let me again call attention to the fact that the movie based on the best Michigan love story was set in Portland. Did anyone know about this?

While some of the other states have predictably great love stories (yes, New York, we get it, Age of Innocence and Just Kids and The Great Gatsby and Breakfast at Tiffany's and on and on), other states were dark horses of awesomeness. Florida--or, as I call it, "A Michigander's Death Knell"--boasts Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Oh, so good! I (almost) want to apologize to Florida. Ohio has Toni Morrison's Beloved. Ohio, for crying out loud! I guess even Ohio was better than the post-war South. New Mexico, a state I almost never think about, is the setting of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. And--surprise runner-up--My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz. That is the sound of my heart breaking. Washington state has David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars (best novel title ever, plus a bonus courtroom drama), as well as the Fifty Shades trilogy and the Twilight series. Washington, let's call you a draw.

What I also like about this list is that Amazon uses the looser but I think truer definition of love story, beyond romance: a story in which the love--any kind of love--is valuable but not enough. (Oklahoma's pick is The Grapes of Wrath. I would never recommend The Grapes of Wrath to someone who was looking for a "love story," but I don't know that there is a more compelling characterization.) I recently read (and can recommend) My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead, a collection of love stories compiled by Jeffrey Eugenides. His introduction contains the following disclaimer:
When it comes to love, there are a million theories to explain it. But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims--these are lucky eventualities but they aren’t love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.
What do we think? What did Amazon miss? What did it get wrong?