The Question No One Wants to Answer

In writing my second novel — working title WAITING FOR SUNSET — I was having a lot of fun. The characters were lively; they said outrageous things, behaved in outrageous ways, and in general made fiction jump off the page. But then as the story progressed into part two, I began to wonder: is this how people really behave? Or rather: am I depicting how people fall in love accurately?

The theories about the function of art and writing vary. Some think that they should imitate life, vera similitude and really let the reader see things as someone might experience them in the ‘real’ world. Others think art is a mirror for us to understand ourselves and sometimes that can mean the mirror of a funhouse at the fair.

I had a basic question that I put to everyone I encountered over the course of week three of getting through my first draft: how do people fall in love? The answers were discouraging to say the least. Although love is a topic we all talk about irrespective of race, religion, or gender, no one wanted to go ‘on record’ and give me their opinion. A group of married men, all practicing husbands with ten or more years under their belt of relationships, children running all around at a two-year-old’s birthday party — evidence of their love with their mates — were hampered perhaps by the proximity of their spouses and unhelpful. I was dismayed by the generic answers I was getting from these friends, each of whom I knew their personal journey to their spouse. One met her at the tender age of 16 as a foreign exchange student. Another while a first year student at college. Still another while working in D.C. On average they had a 1.5 children (one couple 2, one couple 1 with one on the way, skewing the dynamic).

“Married people know nothing about love,” I said that day, fulfilling a stereotype that actually isn’t true. Married people know more than anyone in any industry that spins the cobwebs of love that love is a daily choice of loyalty, fidelity, and head working in conjunction with heart and the other parts of the body to honor commitment. But this doesn’t mean we can verbalize how we come to make this strength of bond to someone else over all others. I am also included in this non-expressive bunch because although I had a ‘love’ marriage as most South Asians would call the act of choosing your own spouse, three years later, I couldn’t identify what drew me to my husband. Not to say I didn’t remember how or why we were attracted: my memory had erased the moments when any such union between a monolingual Lao-Thai American and converted South Asian Christian could have been in doubt.
“It was our destiny,” I said to my Indian friend and her husband and the other couple at the table at her husband’s birthday party when I raised my question and they pointed out both of their marriages had been arranged by parents. “We had no choice but to get married — it all funneled in that direction.”
I suppose I was making an argument for divine arrangement – that while true and in fact how it happened when the two of us met in Qatar — it was still an easy way out of the kind employed by my male friends at the toddler birthday party.

My own personal inability to answer the question only fueled my fire and the novel was a secondary benefit. I had to know why people didn’t want to talk about love in a definitive way even though all music: English, Arabic, Tamil or otherwise is about love; movies whether Hollywood, Bollywood or Egyptian feature star crossed lovers, and each of us during adolescence to adulthood searches for a lover who will stay true throughout life.

I went deeper into my search and got more answers at our early Thanksgiving potluck.

“Poise, confidence, and beauty,” a six month newly wed said, as he twirled the hair of his new wife.

“Things start tallying up until there is an aggregate of positives that tips her over,” another friend said.

“Common interests,” my husband said (which is hilarious because we actually have very few).

“Immune systems,” my other friend said, “I read that women can sense men with stronger immune systems and so biologically they want to mate to make strong off spring.”

I mulled these over and came back to my characters, Abdulla and Kavitha, who meet in an apartment in London unexpectedly and sparks fly. I tried to distill together what I had grasped from the various conversations, with men in particular because women will love as easily as we inhale air, and came up with the following skeletal list:
Attraction — check.
Strange circumstances — check.
Polar opposites — check.
Small discoveries of similarities — this is what needed developing, I decided, “the meat” missing out of the story and the heart of how people come into proximity and decide not to look at anyone else any longer.
After a few weeks of asking, I feel a bit like Carrie Bradshaw and still don’t know that I have a concrete sense of how people fall in love: it is ethereal, indescribable, ever present, and yet, just beyond our grasp.

What I do know that is that for Abdulla and Kavitha it will be each of these things and none of them. For each love story is it’s own unique tale.

My first novel (currently seeking representation) started in early drafts about how two people fell out of love: the anatomy of a breakup. This second one explores how two people who seemingly have nothing to gain, find the world in each other. The third one I’m researching on this trip to Laos and Thailand has early hints of the first and a bit of the second: Why would a woman leave her eleven year old son and father of her child for the wide world?
I’m not sure how long the idea of love will interest me as a writer but for now the cultural and social dynamics of how we choose our partners is fascinating, perplexing, and great fodder for fiction. Perhaps I am a romance novelist at heart but minus the graphic covers and sex scenes.
Share with me your experiences or thoughts about love and help enlighten the path of my characters – and the rest of us in real life.

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