I had a discussion with a friend (Holly Black) about what kinds of mistake we liked in our romances. I think I remember that we agreed that the misunderstanding rarely worked, largely because it isn't a very important mistake and also because it feels like the longer it persists, the stupider the characters are being, as if the author is simply manipulating the romance the make it last the appropriate number of pages.
Initially, I argued that I didn't like mistakes that are too grievous, and I especially didn't like mistakes that involved violence. This seemed pretty obvious. What kind of a romance is it when the guy hits the woman around? Or is it any better if the woman is the one physically hurting the man? These are the kinds of stereotypes in relationships that drive me crazy. The metaphor of romance is really important for me. I don't like metaphors about weak women or about domination.
However, Holly pointed out the rather obvious fact that I loved the Queen of Attolia. The mistake in that novel, on Irene's side, is that she cuts off the thief's (Gen's) hand. This is a pretty gruesome and long-lasting mistake. A lot of the book happens with the two separate from each other after the mistake, and Gen is recovering. In fact, he is terrified of Irene and of seeing her again, worried that she will carry out her other threat, which is to cut out his eyes and tongue before she kills him. The reader can't possibly doubt, after she has cut off the thief's hand (or rather ordered it), that she is serious. She is a queen, and she is an angry queen. We understand through stories about her past what has made her what she is. We sympathize, but we don't want Gen to go back.
So why is it that this romance works for me? Well, for one thing, it isn't falling back on stereotypes, and of course, I always like romance that is fresh. But the mistake is taken very, very seriously. Nothing is glossed over. The problems physically and psychologically for Gen are real. It is hard for us to love Irene, and harder still for us as readers to believe that Gen does. Turner makes us believe step by step.
The pay off for a truly good mistake is that the reader is even more invested in the success of the relationship than otherwise. It feels more real. And the contrast between the horrible mistake and the happy ending is even more poignant. I don't think you ever fall in love with Mr. Darcy unless you first truly hate him. I think you also have to grieve on the other side that Elizabeth has been so blind, and you feel sick at her misjudgment of Darcy. (I personally like it when both sides have something to learn.) Mr. Knightley's setting down of Emma is one of my favorite parts of the book. I read it over and over. My only problem with it is that there is no reciprocal mistake on his part. I have the same problem with Mansfield Park, because I feel like the romance is a little unbalanced. And Jane Eyre. In Wuthering Heights, everyone is equally stupid--it has a different problem.
Why does a romance have to have a mistake in it, anyway? Well, it is partly that the romance is a form that we are used to. There is the first meeting, where they two hate each other on sight. This is partly important because there isn't much of a story to tell if they love each other instantly, unless it's a Romeo and Juliet story where society is keeping them apart. I don't think those are as satisfying as romances. They work better as social commentary, which is probably why I see those kind of romances in dystopian fiction more.
I think the real reason we need a mistake, though, is that it is human. In real life, we all make mistakes in our relationships. I had a friend once who told me that the most frightening thing to her about love was that we always hurt the people we love the most. It isn't because we're trying to, simply that we are around them more and we can hurt them more. We are more vulnerable to them. I suppose if you can't forgive each other, your romance is never going to work. You might as well get used to it from the first. (Not that I am suggesting forgiving things like abuse, mind you. But I can see where the line can be blurred and people can forget what they should forgive and what they shouldn't.)
Mistakes are going to happen, and I think there is a kind of catharsis in reading romance. You identify with the main characters and you feel as if you, too, are being forgiven. You are made safe by the acceptance of the mistake in the romance. Anything you do will not be as terrible as that. But love can go on.
Happy Valentines Day #3