I’m trying to write a love story, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Consider what happens to Samson and Delilah in the Book of Judges, for instance. Everybody in that story dies. Romeo and Juliet have a better time of it, or at least until they commit suicide.
I can’t think of another story in which a pair of lovers die simultaneously. The character who’s been left alive is generally the man; the dead one is most often the woman—for example, Catherine in Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms or Lara in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, published in 1957. Whatever the reason for this, no one should be obligated to die at the end of a love story.
In Happy All the Time, Laurie Colwin’s 1978 novel, four young suburban couples are dealing with the minor perplexities they and their children face. There are no deathbed scenes. Hardly anyone is ever even sick. All the stories end happily. But what happened to Colwin isn’t at all happy. She died of a sudden heart attack in her Manhattan home at the age of 48.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s husband doesn’t die at the end of the story, but at the very beginning. He slumps in his chair over dinner in the middle of saying something quite ordinary. Didion’s 2005 memoir is an account of both her husband’s death and its aftermath. Her spare, journalistic prose is rounded out by memories of the couple’s past and by the immediacy of their daughter Quintana’s serious illness. This book is true in every sense of the word and one of the great American love stories.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1966 novel Cancer Ward is anything but simple. It ends in a moment when a Russian dissident named Oleg must decide whether to stay in the town where he has been treated for cancer or return to the place of his ultimate exile. He loves two women, a nursing student and a doctor. The dangerous hormone therapy prescribed by the doctor has left him sexually impotent. But she wants him to live with her.
At the last moment, Oleg boards his train. The doctor has rendered him impotent in the hope of saving his life. If that’s not love, I don’t know what love is.
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