Oct/Nov 2023  •   Salon

Three Love Stories from the Time of COVID

by Marko Fong

Public domain image

It hadn't occurred to me before my latest reading binge, but the pandemic created conditions for writers that resembled the lives of Jane Austen and the Brontes. Many 19th century marriage plot novelists spent much of their lives home bound, socially limited, financially insecure, and in poor health: conditions that must have left them constantly aware of their own mortality. All four died young, perhaps no coincidence. Continuously contemplating the apocalypse in 2020 brought well-deserved attention to dystopian pandemic novels like Emily St. John's Station Eleven (actually written in 2014) and Sequoia Nagamatsu's How High We Go in the Dark (published in 2022, but much of it was conceived prior to 2020). Less predictably, the pandemic also midwifed at least three novels by women writers that happen to be very much in the marriage plot tradition.

I certainly get this opposite reaction. What could be more depressing than sitting at home writing about the end of the world? What could be more restorative than writing a love story with a happy ending? Ck Chau's Good Fortune, Curtis Sittenfeld's Romantic Comedy, and Ann Patchett's Tom Lake are to varying degrees products of the pandemic. We once saw the marriage plot novels of an earlier century more as diversions than serious statements until feminist scholarship reconsidered their significance. Where do these three COVID influenced romances fit in?


Good Fortune

Pride and Prejudice is both the most rewritten novel in the English language and the template for the modern rom com (there's a Mr. Right, but it's never, for various reasons, Mr. Right Away). In addition to Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary (moved to modern day England), Austen's best known work has been turned into a graphic novel with zombies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), gone Bollywood ("Bride and Prejudice") with Aishwarya Rai going full colonialist with a white American hotel magnate, gone "Upstairs Downstairs" with Jo Baker's Longbourne, and gone gay with the movie "Fire Island." Chau, who works in publishing when she's not rereading Austen, used the COVID lull to add a New York Chinatown circa 2002 wing to Longbourne Manor. Was 9/11 the good old days compared to COVID?

To get off the ground, a competent Pride and Prejudice rewrite must go beyond remapping the plot, which Chau does quite well in this, her first novel. It requires a bit more talent: keeping the story brisk while retaining Austen's wit. In Good Fortune, Chau deftly takes Longbourne Manor from stately and comfortable if not quite Pemberley-level awe inspiring to semi-Dickensian squalor:

In space, as in life, the Chens did the most with less. Caroline took in as much as her system would allow: crumpled grocery bags and half-open backpacks, piled carelessly along the wall, towers for plastic storage containers, threatening to come down on their heads as they passed... It defied taste. It defied order. It broke every law of interior design and skirted the laws of physics.

Here, Chau plays on "space" as real estate and theoretical physics term. She delays the payoff with choice details of cramped Chinatown apartments before surprising the reader with the transition from "laws of interior design"/ aesthetics back to the ingenuity it represents with "laws of physics," satirizing the ramshackle quality of the apartment while appreciating its peculiar genius. It's something totally outside what Austen could have imagined, yet completely in keeping with her elevated wit. In Chau's version of Longbourne, the "entail" goes from being lines in a will to the extension cords connecting the combo TV/VCR to the plug over the radiator.

By comparison, Chau's repartee is more straight to streaming romcom than Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Chau's narration: "Neither achieved success. So Jade pursued a realty license, Vincent ran somebody else's restaurant, and they called it an American dream."

Chau's repartee:

"You might want to get a ladder," he said. "If you're planning on cleaning the whole thing."

"Oh!" she cried. "Well, I was going to climb on top of Charlotte's shoulders, but now that you put it that way."

Still, Chau's rewrite clearly gets off the ground. Does she make it past the Karman line, that point where earth's atmosphere ends and space begins? For the Austen rewriter, the Karman line comes somewhere between "fan fiction" and "literary." In addition to being a "fun read," the rewriter has to have something to say. Chau takes this seriously. Where Elizabeth Bennett is something of a dilettante (not by choice) who seems vaguely uncomfortable or at least aware of her country mouse status, Chau's more socially conscious Elizabeth Chen, with her state school background, interviews for internships and wants to protect her community from commercial exploitation.

While Chau doesn't bring it up overtly, her reversal of the country and city mice roles resonated with me. If you're my generation of American Born Chinese, you likely remember a time when we—quite foolishly—saw the recent Chinese immigrants (often refugees) as underdressed, unable to communicate, and—well—uncool. Of course, many of our families were managing or working in restaurants, laundries, or groceries: hardly the top of the socio-economic scale. In Good Fortune, the Chinese born are the city mice: Ivy or Oxbridge educated, fully bilingual, high fashion wearing foodies who vacation in places not in France but with French names. The Chens, who have been in New York for decades, are clearly the bumpkins compared to Darcy Wong and his "Crazy Rich Asian" circle. If it's not us on top, at least the people on top look like us.

Are these updates flourishes or substantial statements? I'm not sure. Unlike Fitzwilliam Darcy, Darcy Wong doesn't wind up being the rescuer of Elizabeth and the rest of the Chen family beyond helping Lydia, but the revival of the community center also doesn't seriously address the lingering questions about the future of urban Chinatowns (melting pot or salad?). For one, it's not clear why Darcy and Brendan are investing with Lady Catherine who appears to be something of a slumlord, at least when she's not coaching tennis. In the end, New York Chinatown has more or less the same future prospects as the one hour film developing shop where Elizabeth works part-time.

Even if Good Fortune doesn't turn out to be a novel people will be reading much less rewriting in 100 years, it's an entertaining read that gets in sight of the literary Karman Line, and it should satisfy both lovers of Austen and Crazy Rich Asians (maybe a bit more socially conscious ones). I'm grateful for this non-toxic byproduct of the pandemic.


Romantic Comedy

As it happens, Curtis Sittenfeld rewrote Pride and Prejudice in 2016 with Eligible, where the characters move to Cincinnati. I haven't read it yet, so I'm ineligible to comment on it. She's better known for her first novel, Prep (based loosely on Groton—she's class of '93) and her fictionalized take on a renamed Barbara Bush (American Wife) and an alternate history where Hillary Clinton chooses not to marry Bill (Rodham). Her seventh novel Romantic Comedy has a pandemic-based plot and appears to be something of a product of the pandemic itself. Can such a work manage to be both romantic and funny?

When Hollywood or Bollywood does its version of marriage plot novels, they too frequently change one major detail. The heroines in Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre are pointedly not candidates for the Victorian version of People Magazine's 50 most beautiful list. Jane is clearly considered the prettier sister in Pride and Prejudice. Part of the charm of Jane Eyre comes from the way Rochester and Jane tease one other about their looks or lack of them. It even gets a bit strange when Rochester loses a hand and an eye after the fire. In the movies, we get Keira Knightley and Aishwarya Rai as Elizabeth Bennett and Susannah York as Jane Eyre. Romantic Comedy takes on the movies' subliminal message that only really hot women deserve romantic love with conventionally handsome wealthy men. Somehow the 19th century marriage plot of ordinary looking but stellar personality woman getting much wealthier mate morphed into endless romcoms where dorky looking guy charms super hot woman. Most recently, I've seen Seth Rogen paired with Charlize Theron and Andrew Barth Feldman paired with Jennifer Lawrence.

Sittenfield's heroine Sally Milz is not the sort of beauty men get excited about. She happens to work as a comedy sketch writer on "The Night Owls" (TNO), a thinly disguised version of "Saturday Night Live." As the only female writer on a staff no more attractive than she is, Sally is acutely aware of the Danny Horst rule: "The phenomenon where... men at TNO date above their station, but women never do."

Danny, a fellow writer who bears some resemblance to Pete Davidson, is maybe not even an ordinary looking guy, who happens to be married to some version of Ariana Grande or Cate Beckinsale, a woman who should be way out of his league except for the fact that he's funny. Sally's certainly every bit as funny (fwiw, Sittenfeld is also quite funny), but the best she's done in the recent past is bag a fellow member of the writing staff. As the plot moves forward, we go from "Why doesn't this happen in reverse?" to "Can this happen in reverse?"

The latter question is answered by the show's guest host, a heartthrob pop singer from a prep school background (sort of a younger James Taylor without the ongoing addiction issue), Noah Brewster, "a cheesily handsome extremely successful singer-songwriter who specialized in cloying pop music and was known for dating models in their early twenties." It happens that Sally and Noah are both 36. He turns to her to coach him through his sketch appearances for the show, something he takes unexpectedly seriously.

There's clearly a spark from Noah's side, but Sally behaves as if the Danny Horst Rule were an actual law of nature. At the after show gathering, she awkwardly freezes him out by alluding to Noah "dating supermodels."

Rather than ruin Sally's romantic prospects, the pandemic improves them: via a re-meet cute where their relationship gets reduced to disembodied words, literal "antibodies." Sittenfeld's romcom plot goes E-pistolary with the emphasis on the "E." Richardson's Pamela might be both the original marriage plot and first epistolary novel, but Sittenfeld's take is more Rostand's Cyrano. A flirtation blossoms when Noah starts teasing Sally about her maybe having other "penpals." They later ask, "Is a disembodied voice better—Or—worse than a digital consciousness?"

In Sally's case, the question is purely rhetorical. The isolation imposed by the pandemic lets her bypass her neurosis about the physical attractiveness asymmetry of the Danny Horst rule, and flirtation becomes genuine intimacy. Interestingly, this turns out to be just the comedy's second act, as the emergent relationship goes on to be tested by the end of the quarantine and actual physical proximity, paparazzi, online gossip, etc.

One interesting aspect is the way for both Sittenfeld and Patchett, celebrity stands in for Austen's 10,000 pounds a year of income. As fun as Sittenfeld's takes on Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (Charley Blackwell) are, her female protagonists tend to be her most fully realized characters, possibly because she mostly writes from a female point of view. The E-pistolary is sort of the exception in her novels, because we do hear Noah's own voice/perspective. Still, if I have a qualm with Romantic Comedy, it's with Noah. Where Sally is a wonderfully entertaining hot mess, Noah is essentially a "perfect" suitor who just happens to be saddled with the burden of celebrity. In actuality, he's so modest, he serenades her with an Indigo Girls song in place of one of his own. He's so normal—despite the personal trainer, chef, and home jam sessions with fellow famous musicians—he'll run to Target and sing for the neighbors. He's given some complexity via WASPy parents who don't quite get him and a rock star tragedy early in his career, but both feel formulaic in the same way Noah's sister feels more like a shout out to Darcy's sister in Austen than an actual character. I would have preferred a more dimensional Noah with his own set of insecurities to match Sally's. Instead, we get more or less an updated Darcy.

Like Good Fortune, Romantic Comedy is a fun read with clever plot turns. It's maybe not a serious feminist statement, and I suspect Sittenfeld didn't intend to make it one, either. To get there, I'd hope to see a real match, a male character who feels as fully dimensional and complex as Sally rather than Noah's "perfect guy," but for being really famous and really conventionally good looking. There's a point in the novel where Noah proves his boyfriend material worthiness by telling Sally she's a "rockstar" in her world, too. I think the more interesting question and conversation might be a corollary to the Danny Horst rule: Why does a woman, in order to become an A-list celebrity, so often still need to be physically beautiful and dress just so at all times, while guys just need to be funny or sing well?


Tom Lake

Ann Patchett's ninth novel Tom Lake was supposedly inspired by a flight delay at the Traverse City, Michigan, airport, after Patchett appeared at a McLean & Eaken, an independent bookstore in Petoskey (Patchett owns an independent bookstore in Nashville). Someone handed her a paper cup filled with cherries, and the exquisite taste of the fresh cherries in the setting of an airport waiting area conjured the muse. This Northern Michigan take on Proust is certainly preferable to being in an embassy and watching an opera performance while being taken hostage by Marxist terrorists. Where Patchett's Bel Canto was high drama and operatic, Tom Lake is quiet and contemplative, a reflection on love rather than a more wrought tale of love blooming from the ashes of tragedy.

COVID provides the setup for the novel. A middle-aged couple quarantines with their three adult daughters on the family's cherry farm in Northern Michigan. As in Romantic Comedy, the pandemic is more part of the setting than driver of the action. Testing, vaccines, and actual illness due to the virus never play much of a role in the plot. Instead, as both a source of entertainment and deepening intimacy, mom shares the story of her affair with the guy who preceded their dad. Prior affairs are uncomfortable for any parent to discuss with their kids. It’s multiplied here because it turns out that the old boyfriend was Peter Duke, an A-list actor. Basically, it's two love stories intersecting in various and somewhat manipulative ways. The dueling love stories eclipse one another in the plot, but it's up to the reader to figure out whether it's the sun obscuring the moon or the other way around.

While Jane Austen hovers over Good Fortune and Romantic Comedy, Thornton Wilder's Our Town plays an outsized role in Tom Lake. Lara, the mother, was once an actress whose career began and ended with two different productions of Our Town. Lara is so natural, she quickly gets an agent and a role in a Hollywood movie. The agent then discourages her from taking acting classes. "People take acting classes to learn what you're already doing."

While she waits for her much-delayed movie to play in theaters, Lara goes to Michigan to join the Tom Lake Summer Stock Company production of Our Town, but she's also cast as Mae in Sam Shephard's Fool for Love (that title is no coincidence). Peter Duke, a charismatic young method actor, quickly becomes Lara's boyfriend (attracting male attention also seems to come naturally to Lara; she's no Sally Milz looks-wise) and her castmate in both plays. At some point, Lara recognizes she's good in the right role, but "I had the range of a box turtle." In the meantime, she witnesses Peter's mix of extravagant talent and commitment to doing whatever it takes to express it. A series of unexpected events including a double betrayal end the summer, but not before Lara visits what becomes her family's cherry orchard. It's no accident it's not far from Tom Lake. In one of the novel's many layers, Our Town is a paean to the ongoing significance of the ordinary. At the same time, the Tom Lake production includes a number of individuals in various stages in pursuit of celebrity. It's never mentioned directly, but there are occasional whiffs of Midsummer Nights Dream with Tom Lake as Arden much like there are echoes of Chekhov in the novel's cherry orchard.

Patchett fully exploits the resonances both from the plays within the novel and between the frame story of the mother revealing let's say most of the truth about her romance with Peter Duke and the inner story about summer rep in Tom Lake, Peter's saintly brother Sebastian, and Lara's time as a starlet in waiting. In the frame story, she's left it all behind, yet we learn early on she's named her eldest daughter Emily. Even though daughter Emily convinces herself for some time that Peter Duke is her real father, it's Lara's youngest daughter who longs to be an actress. In any case, the family develops a weird custom of watching Peter Duke movies together. Patchett's definitely having fun interplaying the various layers of her story, and she brings this reader right along. Even simple lines like, "We remember our hats. The day is clear and bright as we walk out to take our place between the trees," start to take on resonance.

In one especially layered moment, Lara and her husband sneak out of the house to see Peter Duke's first role in a genuinely serious film, one their daughters are still too young to see. Lara describes a scene where Peter Duke so convincingly smokes crack, he's quite likely really smoking it, something that echoes their time working together in "Fool for Love." It's clear, however it played out, Peter Duke was less the one who got away, and more the one Lara did well to get away from. As an actor, he knows no limits. As a friend or lover, he's not fully available. Decades later, he's longing for things (not Lara) he left behind that summer.

Elsewhere, Lara sums it up: "I have long been at peace with Duke the famous actor, but my feelings for the person who walked into my bedroom at Tom Lake that first day are more complicated... You wake up one day and don't want the carnival anymore. In fact, you can't even believe you did that."

This threads back to a line from one of the daughters: "Dad smells like the cherry orchard."

Carnivals are exciting yet transient. Cherry orchards have deep roots and bear fruit year after year. The two metaphors appear several chapter apart from one another, yet still speak to one another without Patchett having to comment.

While Good Fortune and Romantic Comedy are about finding and winning Mr. Right, Patchett take on the marriage plot explores something more complex: what it takes to build a life around love. All three COVID books are entertaining and well written, but Tom Lake will probably stay with me the longest. In the meantime, it's nice to know COVID didn't extinguish all thoughts of future joy. May our own endings be so happy.