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  • Katherine Dahl

A Study in Love: Three Books for Three Forms

When we think of love—or even Valentine’s Day—we automatically think of romantic love, of flowers and chocolates, of hand-holding and sappy smiles against a pink background. I’m guilty of this, too. Yet, love can exist in many forms, and we ought to celebrate it. So, today I will present three types of love through three of my favorite books, all of which I highly recommend to anyone at any stage of life.

Although it is the most obvious, romantic love is beautiful in its own right; Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, first published in 1956, presents it as tragic and bittersweet in equal measures with this beauty. In the case of the narrator, David, this is because he feels he exists outside of the ‘normal’ in society. His frustration with his non-heteronormative relationships, including one with the bartender Giovanni, is the crux of the novel. David’s internal conflict is presented in contrast with how deeply Giovanni feels about him among the pressures of the society he has left behind in America (aka his girlfriend, Hella). The novel was leaps and bounds ahead of its time given the raw emotions and reality of being gay in the mid-twentieth century. Not allowed to properly express themselves, David and Giovanni are bound for destruction from the start. Giovanni’s Room is one of my favorite novels of all time, both due to the poetic prose and heart-catching storytelling. 

However, love is present between friends just as often as between romantic couples. One of the most iconic representations of platonic love in literature is in The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Now the Musketeers’ are a cultural item, much like Frankenstien’s monster or Dracula, but their famous friendship is what makes their story possible in the first place. Ironically, the main character of the book, D’Artagnan, is not even a musketeer: he only really wants to be. Because of this, he gets informally adopted into the clan by the three musketeers of the title, Athos, Aramis, and Porthos. Each of them would do anything for the other, and their devotion to each other transcends nearly every other possible loyalty they have. They are culturally absorbed as the definition of friendship for a reason. Coming from someone who carries their friends close to their heart, this representation of love is special. In some ways, I can see my own group in the musketeers.

Since Valentine’s Day is close to my mother’s birthday, I spend the holiday thinking about the love between a mother and daughter more than anything. In Beloved by Toni Morrison, it is made clear the lengths a mother would go through to protect her children. Although tragic, the story is about love: even if it gets twisted into something resembling nothing of the sort. Set in Ohio only a few years after the abolition of slavery, Beloved follows the family of the formerly enslaved Sethe. The relationship between Sethe and her children is obviously disfunctional, yet, as the story unravels and the past is revealed, the root of maternal love is seen even as a cause to this dysfunctionality. There are no limits to Sethe's love for her children—meaning she would go to any lengths to ‘protect’ them—and this was incredibly striking to me when I first read the book about a year ago. Beloved is a gut-wrenching story that I think everyone should read at least once in their life, if not for the brilliant plot construction than for the raw emotionality of the characters.

In a way, I feel bad that only one of the books I’ve chosen has a purely healthy representation of love; both Giovanni’s Room and Beloved present love through relationships twisted by various strains. But, at the same time, all of the books have left a personal impact on me and the way I view these types of relationships. I suppose they remind me of reality: sometimes there is beauty in hardship. Bittersweetness is a quality we don’t appreciate much. When we experience it, it always seems more bitter than sweet—but, we shouldn’t let that bad overpower the good we gain. A sour strawberry may be just as pink as a sweet one.


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