I love romance fiction.
It’s a guilty pleasure of mine, but I don’t care. For me, and millions of others, judging by how popular Romance is as a genre and how voracious the readers are, Romance offers an escape. We can read or watch contentedly, knowing in our hearts that the girl will get the man and her happy ending. At the same time, Romance tugs on all the emotional and physiological levers to produce a frenetic, ghostly replication of what it actually feels like to fall in love, or at least into infatuation. We’re kept on the edge of the seat even though we know the happy ending is coming. Will they overcome the barriers between them? Will they fight for love, or even let themselves love in the first place? Will the misunderstandings tear them apart?
It would be an understatement to say my parents had a loveless marriage. My childhood was filled with screaming arguments and lessons in what not to look for in a relationship. At the end of these, either my mother or my father would take us aside and lecture us on what to look for in a partner. They had very high standards. The implications were clear. They were so exhausted and frustrated with their relationship that they never wanted us to go what they went through. They wanted the best for us. They were united only in their love of us, and that was the sole reason they stayed together, although I wish they would have separated earlier for everyone’s sake. To this day, it’s my firm opinion that a divided but peaceful household is better than a warring one.
I grew into adolescence and couldn’t help viewing romance through the lens of my parents’ marriage. I still never, ever want to find myself in a relationship as toxic and bitter as my parents’. Back then, I even started having a fear response to the word ‘marriage’. I couldn’t contemplate it. It sounded like a prison sentence to a life of misery.
Still, I would go to my friends’ houses and see their parents. I would see them talk with each other without screaming. I would see the jokes and casual ribbing All around, I looked at my friends’ parents and saw what I thought were loving relationships and I knew that’s what I wanted. I understand now many of them were probably facades as well. Today, the facade is starting to slip but I’m sure for many it’s still there. Divorce statistics are staggering, and even those don’t show the people trapped in miserable relationships.
So I don’t think it’s surprising that I and so many dive into Romance, even as I recognise all the problems with many of the stereotypical relationships. Even when I grew older and realised that most of them described infatuation and not love, because love itself is not all that sexy to write about. If infatuation is a bright bonfire, then enduring love is banked fire carefully tended to last through the years, and sometimes even then it goes out. Not particularly happiness-inspiring. I read romance to escape from that terrifying fact.
Which is why I was so intrigued to watch Season 1 of the 2013 Korean romance/comedy/thriller/drama Let’s Eat which is currently on Netflix.
Long story short, Let’s Eat brings together some of my favourite things: flawed characters that make you fall in love with them, a long, slow, awkward romance that had me alternating between screaming hysterically into a pillow and melting with adoration, and food. God, I love food. Ironically enough (spoiler alert) something taught to me by my fiancé and soon to be husband. Yes. After all of that, I somehow managed to get lucky and meet a man I could build a relationship with, that was more than just infatuation and love. After twelve years, we’re still going strong. In fact, we watched Let’s Eat together and had fun guessing what was going to happen with the love quadrangle (it’s almost pentagonal, which is insane) and laughing at the ridiculous faces the actors made as they devoured delicious Korean food. And of course, falling in love with the main relationship between food-loving, paranoid divorcee Soo-kyung and arrogant, heart-of-gold food blogger and insurance salesman Dae Young.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that after all the drama and laughs and thrills, there’s a happy ending. And I loved it so much. The writers of Let’s Eat did what all good romance should – they made it feel like falling in love again, with all the thrills and infatuation. Which is why, after we watched the Season 1 credits close on an adorable couple, I sank back, satisfied, looking forward to the next season… only to discover it’s set some time after the first, when the main couple you’ve just spent almost 16 hours getting to know each other, fight past the barriers, and then finally fall in love, have inexplicably split off screen because only one actor from the main cast (Dae Young) decided to return for Season 2.
And now Dae Young is looking for someone new.
I immediately lost it. And by lost it, I mean I refused to watch the second season, stormed up to bed (in my defence, it was incredibly late anyway and way past my bedtime) and fumed the whole time before I went to sleep. Those idiot writers! I understood they were constrained by the lead actress not returning, but why couldn’t they do it as a prequel? My mind kept turning and turning. Finally, I announced to my amused fiancé that the only reason I would ever accept Season 2 would be if, after many years of happiness, Soo-kyung had been tragically killed by the serial killer (yes, there’s a serial killer) and Dae Young was looking for someone to heal his heart.
My fiancé promptly told me I was scary and seriously, go to sleep.
Grudgingly, after a night’s sleep and a good think, I’ve realised this ending (while still infuriating), is actually the closest to real life I’ve ever seen a romance story. Because good people do break up. Often. Next month, I’ll be marrying the man who started off as my first and only boyfriend, but that’s rare. I’m a statistical anomaly. People usually fall in love for the first time. Then something goes wrong and they separate. Because, as writer Mark Manson expresses beautifully in one of his many searing articles, Love is Not Enough. And because many of those same people naturally don’t just give up on love, even after it’s hurt them, they naturally go looking for another person.
Which makes Let’s Eat, shaped by the constraints of different writing teams and the vast majority of the main cast not returning in Season 2, actually one of the most realistic Romance stories I’ve ever come across. Which I have to grudgingly applaud. Apparently, this sort f realism is a staple of Eastern drama that I haven’t appreciated before, and which I should expose myself to again.
At least, that’s what the rational part of my brain is saying. The emotional part is still feeling shocked, betrayed, and in denial. I’ve already constructed an alternate reality in my head where Soo-kyung and and Dae Young are still happily together, having many food babies. And at the same time, feeling angry with the writers. Because there were other options to having them inexplicably break up off screen, even with the constraints of the actress not returning. I’ve thought up many in my anger (including the serial killer one), but ultimately I’ve settled on this: having it literally as an alternate reality where Soo-kyung and Dae Young never met. Recognising that love often comes out of a series of accidents or happenstance. I would have never met my fiancé if he hadn’t decided to switch schools (after changing his mind previously and pulling out of the waiting list), and if I’d never shared a class with the guy who eventually became our mutual friend and introduced us, and if… and…
And even though we’ve made it this far, I know it could still go horribly wrong. The banked fire might go out. People wake up years later out of love with each other. People screw up relationships all the time. People walk in front of buses. All of which is definitely incentive to treasure every moment and keep working on the relationship and not take anything for granted. Not romantic perhaps, but real. Turning the Romance genre into a gentle cautionary reminder, or even comfort to people grieving break-ups that life will move on, rather than an escape.
It’s an interesting side of Romance I’ve never seen before. It breaks the lie of the always-happy-ending but is still powerful. It’s not an escape, it’s a reminder. It’s something new and troubling and powerful, and I think I’m going to have to grit my teeth and accept it.
That may be the only thing that gets me through Season 2.