The reasons for unfulfilled love, in novels and real life, are many and nuanced. Here are just a few of my favorites.
The First Crush Think back to the first boy on whom you had a crush. He won’t be hard to remember. Whether it was the boy who sat across from you in school or the older teenager down the street (mine were always older), our first infatuations loom large in our memories. As I write, I often find myself turning back to my first crushes to tap into that rush of unfamiliar excitement that changes everything. These seldom turn into actual relationships, but the feelings can often shape how and whom we love going forward.
The Big Heartbreak This is unrequited love in its truest form. Have you ever loved someone who did not love you back? Or perhaps someone seemed to feel the same way and then changed his mind abruptly. (Both of these have happened to me.) We’ve all been gutted and we can relate to the poor heroine in the novel when it happens to her. (Or him: remember how poor Pip pined for Estella in Great Expectations?) I believe that even more important than the big heartbreak is what it does to a person and how she chooses to move forward from that ever-so-hurtful place. I desperately want to cheer for a heroine after she has been shattered, as she struggles to make herself whole again, only stronger and more open to love.
The Great Should-Have-Been Many years ago when I studied at Cambridge, I had a college boyfriend with whom I was completely smitten. The relationship was perfect, except that I was about to return home to the States with no prospect of our being on the same continent again. There was simply nothing to be done about it. Even today, happily married with three children, that love looms large in my mind as The Great Should-Have-Been. Technically, this type of love is a bit of a cheat, because it often is fulfilled, only to be thwarted by circumstance. Think passing ships and missed connections, the feuding families of Romeo and Juliet, the magical what-ifs things had been different. There is something so powerful in a book when a heroine and her man have all the right ingredients for love, but simply cannot be.
Or can they? Regardless of type, the greatest appeal of unfulfilled love is in what comes next. We wonder if the crush will turn into real love, and whether our heartbroken heroine will find love again, or win back her love. (“Tomorrow is another day,” declared Scarlet as she vowed to reclaim Rhett at the end of Gone With The Wind.) Will star-crossed lovers ever meet again? It’s the promise of the unknown that keeps us turning the pages right to the very end and then wishing that there were more.
So the next time you read a romance novel, go ahead and root for the heroine and her man to wind up together at the end. But I promise you, it will be much more interesting if they do not.