I had my first crush when I was in kindergarten. I was convinced I would marry the lucky boy, and gushed about him to my sister and mom who, in turn, teased me mercilessly. Then in first grade, my kindergarten beau Lenny was forgotten when I met Matthew. So on and so forth through elementary, middle, and high school, where feelings change daily and relationships rarely last.
Meanwhile, I started reading a historical romance in which the heroine falls in love with the hero when she’s six years old. This isn’t an unfamiliar plot, though perhaps this affection started earlier than most. Frequently does one protagonist (usually the heroine) develops feelings for the other in childhood, perhaps around ten or eleven years old, and spend their lives between that first strike of Cupid’s arrow and marriage pining over the other. And we’re expected to believe that ten, fifteen, or even twenty years later, that love is still as pure and strong as it was then.
Are we supposed to credit that? Feelings that develop in high school or, in historicals, during a girl’s teens, are a bit more believable, but unless the author clearly shows that a childhood love has changed and matured with age from a childhood crush to real love (as Julia Quinn does well in Romancing Mister Bridgerton), it sounds alarm bells in my head.
Which brings me to another JQ novel, The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever. While I’m in the group of readers that enjoyed that novel, the age difference between Miranda and Turner (about 9 years, if my memory serves) is a bit uncomfortable given that she falls in love with him when she’s around ten, and he’s nineteen. While this is generally acceptable, as girls are wont to have crushes on older teens, a line at the end of the book that is meant to be romantic falls utterly flat because of this fact. When Miranda shows him her very first journal entry from the day they met, that declares, “Today I fell in love,” Turner responds, “Me too, my love. Me too.”
Um, no, I hope he didn’t. Because that would be weird and totally inappropriate. Is it okay for a girl to be “in love” with a man who’s much older than her, but then wait until it’s not weird for him to notice her? What if the genders were reversed?
The romantic and idealistic hope would be that the affection between two young people somehow survives and grows and matures, but that’s just one of those things for which I find it hard to suspend my belief. It all just strikes me as a bit weird and unlikely. Of course couples do, on occasion, meet and fall in love at a young age, but I find characters who have loved one man or woman for their entire lives to be a bit naïve and their feelings unreliable. Perhaps one doesn’t need to seriously date, or sleep with, multiple people before getting married in order to guarantee an HEA, but never even crushing on someone else? Maybe gone on a few awkward dates, had a halfhearted relationship or just liked someone who didn’t like you back? There’s something very formative and important about these life experiences. And yet, there is still something appealing about the idea that someone can find the person they’re meant to be with, and know it even as a child. Maybe it strikes close to the idea of “true love” or “soul mates.”
But I can say with some certainty that I, at 21, am not the same person that I was even 3 years ago when I started college, and even less so who I was in high school. While some people grow and change together over the course of their formative childhood years, it’s rare. And I certainly don’t want to read about a person who hasn’t changed significantly since grade school. The best romance is when characters figure out who they really are, what they want out of life, and what they value — and finding someone who shares, or complements, these things, and loving them as the person that they have become rather than who they were.
Are you likely to believe characters that fall in love young — and stay in love? Or does the idea of characters with life experience finding each other appeal to you more? What are some books you can think of that do these well? Or poorly?
– Jane Granville