The Last Lovely City, by Alice Adams

I have a friend who is boy-crazy, even now. When she is obsessed with a man, she can go on for hours about him, dissecting every minor nuance of his behavior, every inflection of his words. It can be quite boring. However, I put up with it (for a while, anyway) because when she is not obsessing about a man, she applies that same relentless analysis to books, films, music, politics—the interests that we share. Plus, she can be a lot of fun, coming up with bizarre and hilarious escapades.

Similarly, the early stories in this collection put me off. There was way too much boyfriend angst: does he like me? will he call? should I call him? is it too soon to call him again? The fact that the narrator was usually middle-aged, if not older, added a fillip of interest, but no more than that.

However, the stories where romance becomes secondary, such as the title story, are truly remarkable, full of precise description and insight into human behavior. I love these little windows into the motivations of others. For example, “A Very Nice Day” chronicles a Sunday-lunch party at the home of friends, Patrick and Oliver, and nails the relationship between them in a single sentence about Patrick having prepared the not-very-good luncheon because he does not like to admit that Oliver is the better cook. Immediately, Oliver became clear to me as well: patient, generous, forbearing.

The stories I liked made me go back and look at the others I had dismissed. I found much that had lingered in my mind despite my impatient reading: images such as a living room being an archeological dig, compact descriptions of life in a particular time and place, the nuanced reactions of a reporter (described as “almost old but lively” – how precise is that?) when interviewing women in a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

It is a shame that women are so often pushed to write romance, as if that is the only plot-line available to them. I have heard it in creative writing classes, always addressed to only the women in the class: I liked that story, but I would have liked to hear more about the husband. Doesn’t the main character have a boyfriend? It would be more interesting if the narrator had a love interest. You should include some steamy bedroom scenes.

I think the marginalisation of romance is one reason I like mysteries. In the ones that I enjoy most, if there is any romance at all, it is secondary or even tertiary to the plot. Take Prime Suspect for example. Even more than the crime-solving, I was fascinated by the way this series looked at a woman working in a male-dominated field. Jane Tennison’s relationships with her co-workers, bosses and subordinates, were picked apart and their nuances and subtle changes made visible.

Our lives are not just about romance, not even primarily about romance. We have many stories to tell.

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