The novels in my adolescence that have most acutely changed me turn out to be sprawling love stories, teeming with people more vivid than most I’ve met in the flesh and spanning many fascinating places and years.
At present I can think of Gone with the Wind, which I just finished in absolute awe, The Thorn Birds and Old Sins as prominent among such books. Beautiful, tragic, blistering with the pain of human misunderstanding and blunder.
I do not believe I owe my transformations to the romance. After all, I have never even remotely approached falling in love, and I do not change much after reading of most tumultuous, chemistry-charged affairs, à la Wuthering Heights and The Other Boleyn Girl. Maybe I do not understand the couples in those beloved tales well enough to feel akin to them in any way. Or maybe I am uninterested in having what they have, I who seek a steady, sweet candle of purity.
The appeal instead seems to be the ever-present moral ambiguity and the struggle to reconcile honor with both desire and necessity. They unfurl best in disparate situations with challenging questions—what would you do? what would this action say about you?—among characters who breathe, truly and surely, who refuse to be forgotten.
My worldview has shifted again, though I cannot yet name how and perhaps never will be able to. I may be like Scarlett, unanalytical of people because of my own simple notions, wondering from time to time if everyone else has learned a code that I blindly fumble past, stubbornly intent on having certain things, confused about the difference between wanting to be good and wanting to look good. And I may be like Ashley, idealistic and impractical, preferring at times to live in my own head, extremely concerned with my integrity in a society that has largely moved on. But I’m beginning to discover Melanie’s quiet strength, and with her I share a tendency to look for the noble in everyone, as well as a sheltered incomprehension of evil. Oh, I have read and heard about what people do to one another, and I might even sound practical when I deplore the state of humanity, but I speak from a place of no real understanding. I know sadness in many forms, but all the anger that bears violence and hate and cruelty remains foreign to me.
Then there is Rhett, my favorite, but I do not know if I have anything in common with him. From the beginning I sensed him to be an upright, brave man, righteous despite all his ostentatious iniquities. I cried for him and pitied him and wished fervently for his better nature to emerge at every turn. What a touching enigma he proved to be.
Margaret Mitchell said in an interview that Gone with the Wind is about survival. I feel indistinctly yet confidently that this book has taught me how to survive, and it will keep imparting lessons as I return again and again throughout the decades ahead.
I realized I didn’t need anything from you,
but in truth I have a very good feeling about us.
You’re my baby and I love you so.