Monday, December 29, 2003

Romanticism is a four-letter word

Perched near the top of the best-seller lists for a while now is Mitch Albom's latest effort, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Of course, it's been roundly and creatively trashed by the (il)literati as it's unapologetically sentimental, and worse - romantic. As we pass through the death throws of post modernism, which of course many of our academics - bleeding edge minds that they are - haven't yet caught on to, and head into the next as-yet-unnamed age (Douglas Coupland should get first dibs, I think), Romanticism is making a comeback amongst the general populace of readers. I think this is a good thing, because it has as much to offer regarding the human condition as does self-conscious, detached irony dribbled onto 700 pages of no plot.

Let me leap aside here and explain what I mean by "Romanticism". I refer to the classic/standard definition, but I also mean a optimistic and sentimental outlook, no fear of all human emotions, including sentimentality, longing, serendipity, romance, and happy endings. I do not mean romantic in the sense of bodice rippers or harlequin romances where the heroine has to choose between the guy that's bad for her - the one she wants at first and boffs a couple times just to have had a go at it, and the one that's good for her - the one she wades into the sunset with at the end. Not that I'm putting those down (though I personally don't like them), but that is not what I'm talking about.

I think the continuing presence of romantic books at the top of the bestseller lists speaks of a sophisticated audience that's not acknowledged due to an assumption of low taste, grouped with readers of sci-fi or techno-thrillers. Am I trying to elevate these genres to pretensions of high-brow fiction? No, I'm not, because most of the stuff simply serves its purpose: To tell a good story and frame it the fantasy world the reader enjoys. But I will say that often classic, true high fiction, does emerge from these genres.

For example:
- Lord of the Rings (Fantasy)
- The Lovely Bones (Romance - as I've defined it here)
- The Robots of Dawn (Sci-fi)
- Dark Rivers of the Heart (Suspense)
- The Shining (Horror)

So, in this context, I'll go so far as to say The Five People You Meet in Heaven is a pretty good romantic novel. But I'll qualify my opinion in that you won't like this book if you don't like romantic or sentimental novels. In other words, this does not transcend the genre.

TLD: SPOILER ALERT. Though there was one ultra-clunky plot device. The protagonist dies while pushing a little girl out from underneath one of those tower of fear death-drop rides, and as my lovely wife pointed out, "What the hell was a little girl doing wandering around in the restricted area directly under a ride?" What the hell, indeed.

One romantic novel I think that does transcend the genre is Nicholas Sparks' A Walk to Remember. The Notebook by him nearly transcends, and I'll venture to say that if Hemingway wrote romances (which he almost did) and understood women even a little (he was particularly clueless there, hence Men Without Women is his greatest achievement), he would have written something like The Notebook, with it's manly themes of loneliness and self-sufficiency. Another transcender you might recall is The Bridges of Madison County.

So, if you liked any of those, you will like The Five People You Meet in Heaven and any of the others I've listed here. If you dislike sentiment, then these books will make your eyes roll up inside your head whilst you have a mild toxic fiction shock seizure from which you can only recover by quickly reading a couple pages of post modern trash or watching an episode of David Letterman on one of his particularly snarky nights (pre-child Letterman, that is; kids naturally increase your sentimentality quotient and there's nothing you can do about it; so there).

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