Finding a balance in life is challenging. The routines, the career, the relationships, the finances, and family and friends – it isn’t easy compartmentalizing as well as merging all of these together, and too often we become over-involved in one area while others, especially personal relationships, suffer. But it must be particularly difficult for those in the creative arts.
I was thinking about this while listening to Sunday in the Park with George, Stephen Sondheim’s musical about Georges Seurat, the Impressionist pointillist painter. Dot, George’s unsophisticated mistress and muse, struggles to compete with his art for George’s attention and finally gives up, marrying Louis the Baker instead; so it usually is. Art is possessive and artists are obsessive and for many of them, love and art are mutually exclusive. When I encounter artists, musicians, actors, and such in romance novels, I often wonder how likely it is that characters of such creative brilliance can find equilibrium between their soul mate and their artistic soul.
Many books never address this issue because the characters are given talented proficiency rather than brilliance, which is fair enough; few people are brilliant in real life. I am not denigrating the hard work associated with any of these professions, but are these characters obsessive about their art? No. Do their lives have room for more? Yes. In fact, many of them acknowledge a hole in their lives filled when their other halves appear.
Some authors skirt the potential conflict by relegating the artist’s obsessive drive to the past. When they meet their heroes, Susan Mallery’s pianist (Sweet Talk) and Nora Roberts’s violinist (Carnal Innocence) are both burnt out, and the apices of their careers have passed. Other authors give their characters pressing issues to deal with: Suzanne Brockmann’s Jericho Beaumont (Heartthrob) is an alcoholic, and Judith McNaught’s Zach Benedict (Perfect) and Leigh Kendall (Someone to Watch Over Me) have murder on their minds. Although some of these characters later resurrect their careers or creative spark, their spouses do not have to compete with the same degree of passion given over to artistic pursuits because it was gone before they came along.
And then there are those who seem to compromise very well despite unequal or immense artistic talent. Christine Feehan’s Joley Drake, for example, is one in a billion – she finds time to be with her family, go on tour, record albums, defeat the bad guy, and be in a relationship with the super-alpha Ilya Prakenskii. (Of course, she also has magic to help her along, but doesn’t that just make my point?) The hero of Mary Balogh’s Simply Unforgettable decides to follow his singer wife around the world for a few years, after which they will settle down – a compromise reached with extreme facility by both parties, so happy are they simply to be together. And two of Mary Jo Putney’s couples (painters in River of Fire and actors in The Spiral Path) share an equal amount of passion for their vocations; devotion to art, at least, would rarely be a source of conflict for them.
So when I think hard, only three books come to mind that broached the difficulties of living and compromising with a driven artist: Eloisa James’s Your Wicked Ways, Laura Lee Guhrke’s His Every Kiss and Lisa Kleypas’ Somewhere I’ll Find You. YWW and HEK balance the scales by making both hero and heroine brilliant musicians, but there’s no question that these artists are extremely difficult people to live with. But music stitches together broken souls, and in YWW it allows the estranged couple to reconcile, just as it weaves a family out of three disparate people in HEK. Regarding SIFY, the resolution (a Victorian duchess dividing her time between theatre and family) might raise eyebrows, but the conflict, at least, is real. Julia Wentworth is passionate and driven about her profession; her husband’s initial truculence over her work causes her to leave him, and only then does he offer to compromise.
Well do I know the difficulty of compromise, and I’m not even a creative artist. I am a musician, but, although I spend hours perfecting the turn of the wrist at the end of a phrase or figuring a more efficient fingering to a difficult passage, I am not consumed with finding a concrete representation for the abstract notions in my head. Authors, painters, sculptors, composers, filmmakers, choreographers – they make something out of nothing. I can only imagine the amount of effort it requires to share your soul in a way pleasing to both art and love, which is why so many artists’ marriages end in disaster. On their own, neither love nor art is easy; combined, well, quelle galère, as the French say. Thus, at the end of Act I, Dot informs George that she is leaving for America, hoping against hope that he will convince her to stay. But when he turns instead to his masterpiece, she acknowledges that they never belonged together:
You have a mission, a mission to see
Now I have one too, George –
And we should have belonged together –
I have to move on
We can only give as much as we can. Georges Seurat created a new way of painting scientifically as well as aesthetically, and as a result Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte hangs in Chicago for the enjoyment of millions. Who can say that with Sondheim’s fictional Dot, George would have been a happier person or the world a better place?
But then, who can say it wouldn’t have been?