Ah, Young Love?

kiss 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

18 thoughts on “Ah, Young Love?

  1. I am more inclined to buy into the idea of children as friends and falling in love when they are older. As in Whisper Of Roses by Teresa Mediros, a book I really love. I just think the idea of real love when very young and lasting forever is a bit naive, although I’m sure there have been exceptions.

  2. I’m also rather turned off by stories that start with one character as a child. Although I don’t find the Quinn line distasteful, since I don’t think it’s intended to be literal. I don’t recall anything in the book that suggests he had inappropriate feelings for her as a child, so what’s wrong with a little loverlike hyperbole?

  3. Claire Maloney and Roan Sullivan, the H/H of Deborah Smith’s A Place to Call Home meet when she is five and he is ten. Although they are separated five years later and they both have lives before they are reunited as adults, the connection that was established at an early age is never severed. A Place to Call Home one of my all-time favorite romances.

  4. Readers are not expected to take literally the idea of children falling in love. Yes, they might have childhood crushes, but in every novel that I have read the love shared between adults is qualitatively very different from the feelings that the characters had for each other as children, however intense those feelings may have been.

    Nor is there any good reason to assume that that “characters who have loved one man or woman for their entire lives [are] a bit naïve and their feelings unreliable.” It’s all a matter of luck. While it’s unusual, it’s certainly possible for a person to meet his or her soulmate at an early age and never to be romantically interested in anyone else.

    And while people change as they age, change never stops. Even if you delay marriage until you are over thirty and have all the “life experiences” you could possibly imagine, there is never a guarantee that you or your partner will not change in a way that makes your relationship unsustainable.

  5. She wasn’t a very young child, but my grandma met my grandpa when she was 13 and he was 19. Her father let them get married the day after her 15th birthday. They had just celebrated 63 years together when he died of cancer. I’ve never met any other couple who loved each other so much for so long. Occasionally, they had spectacular arguments that we kids loved to watch because they always ended up laughing and he would dance her across the room to the red candy jar and share a Hershey’s kiss (they would never actually kiss in public!). I think the key is they made sure they grew and changed together, instead of apart. All those years, they were always very careful to do new things together and had an “outing night” every week. Pappaw told me once that being in love is easy; being loving is hard. One is temporary, the other is forever.

    Sorry for the gushy, but damn, I really miss them.

  6. That was beautiful Chris. I know exactly what you mean. It’s kinda like old movies, they just don’t make them that way anymore. :)

  7. Robin, thank you so much for sharing the story of your grandparents. That’s just such a wonderful thing to be with your true love for over 60 years and to grow old together… My grandparents were also married for over 60 years until my grandfather died of cancer. My grandmother was also a teenager when she got married (I think 17 or 18; she was engaged to my grandfather when she was 15). But back in my grandma’s day, a woman’s goal was to marry well, and to set up a family. I think in this day and age, we (and our parents) have greater expectations of what we can be or do in our lives. We are also more mobile, and more of us move across the country or even work in different countries, and therefore have a greater capacity to change than in the past (when people were more static and tended to stay in one place) – so the childhood sweetheart theme, although sweet and romantic, is less believable to me in contemporaries. I do have relatives (who grew up in small towns) who married their childhood sweethearts – but they never actually left home.

    I think Loretta Chase’s Last Night’s Scandal does the “friends from childhood turned into lovers” quite well. And perhaps Liz Carlyle’s Wicked All Day – but both these books feature couples who were kind of “extended family” (but were not blood kin).

  8. I don’t mind childhood friends who turn into sweethearts, but I don’t like books where one of the couple (and 99% of the time it’s the heroine) is so obsessed with the other that she never has any other romantic experience. She’s usually younger, and while she’s pining by herself, he’s off experiencing life and love and everything else.

    Chris is certainly right about people changing over the course of a lifetime, but I think that the pace of change is faster when young, both internally and externally. There is so much new to learn and assimilate, so many different kinds of experience to have, and the body and brain go through so many changes, that I agree with Jane: I was far different at 21 than I was at 18, but not so different at 31 vs 28 and probably even less so at 41 vs 38.

  9. Janga – I totally agree with you Deborah Smith often has her characters having pretty profound relationships as children. Judith James’ new one has it too and I find it really believable. When it’s done well it totally cements the idea that these two people aren’t meant to be together. When not done well it’s utterly creepy.

  10. I don’t always find it believable, but I do usually buy into it. Sure, you change a lot during your teens and twenties, and in many respects a relationship that starts during those years is going to change a lot too. That’s not to say that you can’t change together, though.

    I’d put myself up as an example. I married my husband when we were both 19. We met when we were 15. It wasn’t love at first sight; we didn’t actually date until right after high school. But then we married in short order, which was partly because of our religious beliefs at the time. We’re still married 21 years later. Yes, we’ve had our ups and downs, and both of us have changed in some ways. That didn’t make us incompatible, though.

    I wouldn’t suggest that everyone do what we did, but neither do I think that meeting and marrying later in life is any kind of guarantee of happiness. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I think it depends a lot on love, a lot on forgiveness, and a lot on determination and hard work.

  11. I have a true story. My mom and dad grew up in the same farming community and attended the same little country school and the same church. As early as first grade they held hands on the playground–as friends, of course, but when one would fall and skin a knee, the other was there to console.

    When they became teens, their friendshp became shy flirting and finally dating. After a couple of years of college, they married in 1960 and had me and my four younger siblings. They remained together until my dad’s death in 2001. I know without a doubt my mother will wed no other.

    It may be a rare thing to happen in this world–but it does happen. My parents are proof. I think it was probably much more prevalent in days gone by, when communities were small and tight-knit and you really did know your neighbors.

    So no, I don’t find it at all hard to believe.

  12. I had my first crush in first grade. His name was Jay and I would ask to borrow his pencil. Sometimes that aggravated him, so maybe he didn’t return my feelings. Actually, I hadn’t thought about this in years until I read this blog. When it comes to stories, I like the ones where people meet a bit later in life when they know what they want and can appreciate the right person. Young love so rarely lasts, that it doesn’t seem realistic. I mostly appreciate characters that have loved and lost and then met their soul mate. It gives me inspiration that there is hope for all of us to find love.

  13. I think Sherry Thomas does a wonderful job at childhood crush in Not Quite a Husband. His slow, steady adoration of her throughout their childhood is really endearing and gives some heft to his dedication to her later.

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  17. This is a bit late, but the comments section on the “Ugliest Colleges” post is turned off. In defense of my alma mater, Northeastern University, the picture shown is of the Dedham campus, which is a satellite campus. The main campus, located in the heart of Boston, is very beautiful and well-maintained. It has plenty of flowers and trees in addition to lots of well-constructed buildings that use a lot of glass and brick. It is actually one of the nicer campuses of the Boston schools, especially since plenty of the Boston schools don’t have a central campus like Northeastern.

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