There’s sweetness in life sometimes. Get over it
There’s a word that recurs in readers’ and critics’ reactions to A Love of Two Halves, my new novel. I expected it, but the frequency of its appearance has prompted a touch of surprise — and much reflection.
It is a short and simple word, sometimes intended as a compliment, sometimes most clearly not.
The word is ‘sweet’.
This was expected, because the main characters Karen and George do fall genuinely in love with each other. And they have a good sense of humour. Yet while the tale quite deliberately contains some sweet moments, it did not feel, from the writer’s point of view, sweet in its entirety. It features a fear of destitution by a single mum and her family, grief over the tragic death of her beloved older brother, her narrow escape from a serious sexual assault, descent of her previous best friend into prostitution and drug use, explanation of how rampant corruption in financial services caused a decade of austerity, deepening income inequalities, reference to slave money funding stately homes together with contemporary equivalent examples of money-laundering, a corporate feud and a major character experiencing depression for several months. Karen displays resilience, humour and optimism despite the hardship and trauma she has experienced.
I love a sharp contrast of light and shade in both comedies and tragedies. There are poignant moments in Bridget Jones Diary, and laugh-out-loud moments in The Plague, by Albert Camus (my favourite book of all time).
As regards the sweetness quotient, a reader’s reaction is a highly personal preference, influenced by the tone and balance in the book. I find this in music. Yesterday Once More by The Carpenters, or I’ve Been Loved by You, by Kimmie Rhodes, are just sweet enough for me. But The Lady in Red by Chris de Burgh? Sorry, too sickly.
In literature, where I do push back at the purveyors of bleakness is where one comes across a prejudice that sweetness is somehow incompatible with depth. It’s hard for a comedy to win an award, and actors expect congratulation when they say that they ‘love to play the villain’.
So I’m not offended if people call my book sweet; I’m delighted. I would argue that love, friendship and humour are every bit as profound as alienation, violence and despair. It’s all life. We humans are programmed to connect, and programmed to grieve over loss. Drama comes from the interaction between these two broad categories of powerful emotional experiences. One of them isn’t more authentic than the other. That’s like saying that the moon is more real than the sun.
If A Love of Two Halves is too sweet for you, I accept that, and I defend your right to say so. But it isn’t more shallow than The Catcher in the Rye. I reject that notion most fiercely.
There is sweetness in life sometimes. Get over it.
· A Love of Two Halves, published by Unbound 2019, is available at online retailers.