I tried to read Anna Karenina. I can accomplish this one thing, I thought. I’ll give it a year, and at the end of that year I will be able to stand up and say I’d read Anna Karenina. I got to page eight-two after three weeks and gave up. I tried to read Madame Bovary. I thought, here’s a book I can learn from, another book about the perils of forbidden love. I’d received the gorgeous translation of Bovary by short story writer Lydia Davis the year before on my birthday, and it had been sitting unmolested in a dusty stack beside my bed. I’ll get lost in this one, I thought. I need to get lost. I made it to page eighty-one. I faked my way through a weekend book club in Los Angeles with dear friends, on Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. I listened distractedly to the plot spoilers. I’d made it to page seventy-four. I remember something about young girls and jealousy, about the difficult love of a difficult man. I was preoccupied with a difficult man. A man I shouldn’t have been preoccupied with. This preoccupation had taken residence in my brain in the same geography that had previously been reserved for books.
In How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays, Mandy Len Catron writes about the way narrative—books, movies, songs—shape our experiences of love and provide a script, a storyline. As a child, Catron recounts watching Pretty Woman, the Cinderella story set against the gritty LA of the late 80s. Pretty Woman traces the unlikely love story of Viv, an unexpectedly wholesome sex worker, and Edward, a difficult, though rich and handsome, businessman. Catron and her sister watched and rewatched Pretty Woman, and she describes an awkward afternoon of dress-up during which the elementary-aged girls wore an approximation of Viv’s thigh high boots and micro mini. In “The Problem of Deservingness,” Catron writes, “Watching Pretty Woman doesn’t make girls into sex workers, but watching ten or twenty or fifty movies in which being loved is the thing that ultimately confirms a woman’s value, does have a cumulative effect.” Because Viv has “no agenda more demanding than enabling Edward to become his best self,” she proves that she ‘deserves’ Edward’s love, precisely because she doesn’t demand it. In Catron’s own life, a college boyfriend who insisted on keeping their relationship ambiguous forced her into practicing this paradox. She wanted a commitment but she’d learned from culture—from stories, songs, and Pretty Woman—that “a virtuous woman never pursues love directly.” She writes, “At twenty, telling someone what I wanted—not what I was supposed to want, but what I really, genuinely wanted—was the most terrifying thing I could imagine.”
How to Fall in Love with Anyone was inspired by a wildly popular essay Catron wrote for the New York Times Modern Love column about an experience she had on a moonlit bridge, with a handsome near-stranger. Using a decades-old experiment designed by psychologist Arthur Aron to create love in a lab, Catron and her would-be beau asked one another thirty-six increasingly personal questions and then stared into each other’s eyes for four minutes. Questions like, “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?” and “If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly would you change anything about the way you are now living?” Not unlike in a fairy tale, the results of the experiment weren’t immediate—the clock hadn’t yet struck twelve. A friendship developed between Catron and the handsome near-stranger first. But after some time, as she explained at her well-attended reading at Powell’s Books in Portland, she and Mark did fall in love. Catron did caution the audience during the Q&A, though: results may vary. Intimacy, not necessarily romance, is the true goal of the experiment. She recounted deathbed encounters in which estranged friends asked one another the thirty-six questions and were able to mend fences. Though that’s very touching, the lovelorn aren’t easily deterred, or at least they weren’t at Powell’s. The audience, and, I imagine, her readers, regard Catron as a kind of love-guru. They want to know how to get what she has. (She and Mark have since moved in together, and judging from his quietly supportive presence at Powell’s, they are quite happy.)
Before I was married, in the pre-dating app era, I did not have a hard time falling in love. A glance, a well-timed question. A gift of something innocuous, maybe a piece of driftwood, a book, could make me see a friend as potentially something else. This made me a terrible candidate for the self-help book that was, at that time, the go-to for my matrimony focused friends. The Rules, a nineties-era tome that promised the fastest path to marriage with the most eligible (read: rich) bachelor, has little in common with How to Fall in Love with Anyone, other than it seems to be a real contender for capturing the love-zeitgeist (it made Khloe Kardashian’s summer beach reading list). But Catron has tapped into what those seeking love in this moment really want: to find someone we can share our most intimate selves with. Someone who knows us and who will allow us to in turn to know them. How to Fall in Love with Anyone possesses a world-weary self-awareness that is notably absent in any other “how to” I’ve read on the subject of love. Catron’s vulnerability with her own story—of that heartbreaking college romance that went on too long, of her parents divorce, and her grandparents unlikely, lifelong union—allows even the most love-jaded among us to see ourselves in its pages. But for me, when Catron’s Times essay came out, during the season I spent looking at my phone for messages from that difficult man, the year my own marriage turned fourteen, I was forced to face the dangers of love. Of innocuous gifts from well-read male friends. Of revealing too much of myself—the goal of the thirty-six questions—something I’d long forgotten had consequences.
After I returned home from the ill-fated book club in Los Angeles, I put down Elena Ferrante for good and picked up Amy Hempel. I could manage Amy Hempel. “For once in my life,” she writes in a one sentence micro-story, “when have I ever wanted anything once in my life!” I didn’t quite know what Hempel’s micro-story meant, but I knew that it was true. Then, I picked up Lydia Davis, not the Bovary, but short stories that read like parables. After a little bit of time I managed Lorrie Moore. I read Moore, and Davis, and Hempel, the way one might read instructions that accompany a life saving drug, or the antidote to a poison. Or the way a child might read Cinderella. Looking for clues. Looking for a heroine, a “how to,” hoping to seeing herself, myself, in its pages.
Eventually, I came to my senses about the difficult man. Then slowly, tentatively, I began to start and finish whole books. It was then that I read How to Fall in Love with Anyone, and through it, came to see how my trinity of short story writers, how fairy tales and Pretty Woman and literature have shaped—and are shaping—my ideas of love.
But I can’t help but wonder what if, in detangling love stories and our relationships to them, Catron is building yet another narrative—an anti-narrative, perhaps—of love. Can an anti-narrative finally free us from Cinderella? Catron believes the thirty-six questions give us agency, more than fairy tales do. I’m inclined to agree. But based on their wild popularity, and on the raw hope I saw on the faces of those the attentive listeners at Powell’s, I wonder if the thirty-six questions are themselves a kind of fairy tale?
I don’t have answers to these questions but I’m glad to wrestle with them. This is How to Fall in Love’s greatest strength, at least to me. It asks the right questions. It’s up to us to figure out our own answers.