Reading Past the Prologue

Reading Past the Prologue

Last update on Sept. 23, 2013.

I grew up on love stories.

I know that sounds like the beginning of an overly self-conscious teen novel, but it’s true. I often felt misunderstood by my peers growing up, but I always felt at home in libraries and bookstores. I loved princesses in Disney movies and in my massive copy of Grimm’s fairy tales.

As I got older, my movie choices got distinctly rom-com-ier. I read all Jane Austen’s novels, even Persuasion. And my fascination with falling in love persisted. My anticipation of this grand and glorious event was what carried me through my awkward, largely date-less teenage years.

Eventually, I graduated high school and moved to a city where people didn’t remember the five years I spent wearing braces. Once I was there, I put great energy into finding “the guy.” Educated as I was by Nora Ephron and Jane Austen and Disney, I knew that I might meet “the guy” anywhere, at any time. (Cognizant of this fact, I spent my whole first semester of college refusing to wear tee shirts. It was a distinctly dressed-up semester. I mourn every wasted opportunity to wear sweats.)

Whereas I had finished high school with a class of 35, my freshman class at Georgia Tech was approximately 100 times that large, and was something like 65 percent males and 35 percent females. I knew it was just a matter of time before a handsome engineer would come up to me and ask me about the book I was reading or I made a best guy friend who would fall in love with my argumentative nature and all my weird little quirks. (Girls: DON’T DO THIS. Don’t make friends with guys hoping to fall in love. Just make friends.) I was Belle, I was Rory Gilmore, I was Elizabeth Bennet, I was Sally Albright. In all my innocent, hopeful daydreams, I was convinced that finding love was the hard part. Once it worked out with the right guy, I was certain that all that was left was to ride off together into the sunset.

And, in the interest of being fair to my 19-year-old self, waiting for “the guy” was hard—really hard. Over the four years and change I dated before meeting my now-husband, I experienced quite a lot of hurt and disappointment. A couple of those heartbreaks were nothing short of excruciating. But contrary to everything my film and literary education had taught me, almost nothing that I experienced during that time rivals the discipline and fortitude I now understand is required for committed love.

The clearest embodiment of my attitude toward dating—that by the time the dating had really commenced, the best part was already over—is the fact that few of my relationships or quasi-relationships ever lasted more than seven or eight weeks. In some inexplicable, immature, wasteful way, I had learned only to appreciate the possibility of love. For all the beautiful examples of true, mature love my grandparents and parents had provided, the stories I fed on only carried me so far.

I don’t want to blame our stories. Rightly interpreted, our folklore—whether we’re talking Grimm or Tom Hanks—can teach important lessons. The fairy tales I loved as a little girl showed me that the virtues of courage and kindness were the most attractive characteristics a person could possess. Well-written romantic comedies cultivated in me an anticipation for falling in love (whether for the first or the last time) that I think right and good, given the holy, over-arching role that that love and family play in our lives. And Jane Austen and her daughters-in-literature provided me with the little bit of relationship savvy that I brought with me when I entered the world of dating. The problem is not with the stories that we have celebrated but with those that we have neglected. The problem is that our cultural imagination has failed to adequately glorify the full text of our love stories.

I have never read a prologue to a novel that stoked my interest without wanting, then, to read the rest of the book; yet I often mistook falling in love for the full text of my love story. The beauty of a story lies not only in the passages that set the stage, but in those that show us the growth of the characters—where the dragons are fought, where battles are won.

I wish someone would tell the hard, beautiful, true stories about growth, about romance, about hanging on that so many marriages are full of. These are the fairy tales that those of us who have already found love need to hear. We need templates. We need exemplars. I want to hear stories about 32-year-olds who stay when their baser nature tells them to give up and leave. I want my grandparents’ 50-year marriage chronicled in fairy-tale form.

Let’s stop contenting ourselves with prologues.

Anna Shafer

Anna Shafer is a 20-something social science editor, rom-com enthusiast, and newlywed. Follow Anna on twitter @BrightlyAnna.


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