As a writer, I love me some slow-burn, will they/won’t they, long sighs and significant glances romance. But as a reader, I don’t understand the pushback against what many call “instalove.” Love at first sight. Soulmates. The characters lay eyes on each other and just know. People deride it as unbelievable, and even lazy writing. One reviewer said she threw a book across the room in disgust when “I love you” happened on the third date.
And that’s confusing to me, because I’ve lived it.
When I laid eyes on my now-husband, I knew. It had nothing to do with a riot of hormones (although they were involved). It was like I had a best friend my whole life that I hadn’t met until just that moment. We moved in together after three months, and we’re still married ten years later (not that the validity of a relationship can be measured by its duration.)
But I still see the rants against “instalove” sprinkled through book reviews with almost hipster levels of derision. For this Valentine’s Day, I want to break down some of the possible interpretations of what a reviewer means when they say that a character’s love at first sight is “unbelievable.”
1. “The author didn’t sell me on it.”
This is perhaps the most charitable interpretation of the complaints about “instalove.” If this is what the reviewer is saying, I’m right there with them. Sometimes, love at first sight is lazy writing. As a reader, if a character falls desperately and immediately in love with someone who treats them like dirt, or has few positive personal features other than killer abs, I’m usually going to be unhappy with the book. Chemistry is chemistry, but a willfully shallow and self-destructive MC isn’t going to be sympathetic for me, and the author will need to find a way to sell it masterfully for me to believe it.
2. “That’s not real love…”
Usually this discussion involves moving goalposts, with phrases like, “that’s lust, not love,” and “how can you say you love someone you don’t even know that well?”
It’s fine to have a specific definition of love that you apply to your own relationships. It’s not fine to assume that those definitions are universal, or yours to enforce on others. Because strong attraction and emotional connection are not only based on intangibles, but they are also absolutely a valid form of love. It may have a different “flavor” than your ideal or current relationship, but then, every relationship does. There are no human universals when it comes to feelings or behavior, and the person experiencing the emotion is the only one in a real position to judge its validity.
3. “I’ve never experienced it, so it can’t be true.”
The least charitable reading of the pushback against love at first sight, and one that is almost never stated so directly. As subtext, the argument suggests extremely poor personal boundaries as a best-case scenario.
Any time you suggest that your own experience is universal, the burden of proof is squarely on your head. How could love, a thing that is so strongly influenced by cultural norms, personal identity, psychological makeup, personality, and emotional state, possibly be monolithic? How could it possibly be completely understood by a single individual? Heck, researchers and philosophers can’t even agree on what love is, much less whether it is a verb or an adjective.
4. “It’ll never last.”
This falls directly into the trap of our cultural assumption that a relationship can be judged by its end. Under this assumption, the only valid relationships end in the death of both partners. That’s it. All or nothing. Anything less is a “failed” relationship, no matter how much happiness or personal growth it provided the people in it.
But get a little distance from the heteronormative, monogamy-centric areas of our culture, and you’ll see that there’s a lot more to the story than HEA. If you’re open to expanding your worldview, read blogs and books by queer and/or polyamorous authors. You’ll find a rich and dizzying array of relationship arrangements and perspectives that are more galaxy than spectrum. You’ll find lifetime partners with no interest in getting married, short-term partners that move easily into fast friendships deeper than many marriages, asexual relationships that defy hormonal assumptions about attraction, and the concept that souls can have as many mates as fit a person’s journey through the world.
But the diversity of love is not a dilution. At the root of the arguments against HEA, I think, is the idea that love at first sight somehow invalidates the investment of time and emotional energy into sustaining a long-term relationship. Saying that there is only one way to be in love is like insisting that there is only one kind of flower. The existence of roses in no way diminishes the validity of lilies.
Your love is valid, even if it doesn’t look like a fairy tale. It’s also valid if it does.
And when elves and dragons are filling the bookshelves, love at first sight is hardly the dealbreaker when we talk about realistic writing.