- How to Fall in Love with Anyone
- Mandy Len Catron
- Simon & Schuster
In Mandy Len Catron's 2015 Modern Love essay, To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This, she resurrects a dated rubric for creating intimacy. The closest humankind has come to manufacturing love in a lab is a list of questions developed by American husband-and-wife psychiatry team Arthur and Elaine Aron. "If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven't you told them yet?" one of the 36 questions reads. In Catron's essay, which became one of the most-read New York Times pieces of the year, she takes us through a dreamy first date. It begins sitting across from a man in a bar and ends staring into his eyes for four minutes on a Vancouver bridge, as the questionnaire dictates. It's a delightful conceit, the idea that you could expose your deepest wishes to a virtual stranger and, two hours or so later, emerge with love, that most elusive of feelings.
Catron's essay makes an appearance at the end of her debut collection, How to Fall in Love with Anyone. Before that, though, she returns to her beginning. The memoir-in-essays is Catron's attempt to reconcile the endings of two formative relationships in her life – her own, which lasted 10 years, and her parents', which lasted 28. As each unravels, she searches for clues in the lore that makes up her family history, looking for scripts that have influenced her own ideals about love. She takes us back to a coal camp in Appalachia in 1944, where her 15-year-old grandmother marries her 31-year-old grandfather to better their economic circumstances. She unearths some complicated truths about her parents' marriage that make her realize it wasn't the wonderland she saw through her childhood eyes.
Catron's essays offer a touching guide for those trying to find their way, especially in love and life's early stages. Her own formative relationship starts with a man vacillating between two women in different cities, refusing to choose or commit – for more than a year. She sticks it out, and later explains that she wasn't sure if or when she was allowed to ask for what she wanted. I was immediately reminded of my 20-year-old self, yearning but not knowing how to articulate that I wanted clearer bounds.
It's difficult to capture ambivalence and Catron, a professor at the University of British Columbia, does it deftly. The decision about whether or not to break up with said man 10 years on weighs heavily on her and on us. And there are tender moments in Catron's prose. The way she describes her long-time boyfriend in the relationship's nascent stages is lovely, that feeling that you've discovered some new way to breathe by watching another person complete the most menial of tasks: "That's how I fell in love with him in college, when we slept belly to back, my nose tucked against his neck, when the daytime was just a placeholder for the night."
But, further on, as she moves away from the distinctly personal, she wonders whether or not our reliance on fairy tales in pop culture makes us better. I'd argue no, and she does too, outlining a number of attachment theories and happiness studies from which we can draw advice and bust up our own myths about long-term monogamous devotion to one person. Love doesn't always strike like a thunderbolt, Cupid and psyche-style. Still, I had trouble with the premise uniting these pieces. Most of the lovers I know have let their fairy tales fall away long ago. Now, they talk about the benefits of monogamy versus open relationships; the cresting and breaking of desire; the efficacy of marriage in an era where women don't need it; the would-be mothers who are racing against time. Catron touches on these themes, but I was left wanting more. That the takeaway of her lyrical exploration of her grandmother's marriage was that Catron has choice where her grandmother did not felt soft. She analyzes Sixteen Candles and Nick Hornby's High Fidelity and Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, contrasting them with the narratives that make up her own romantic mythology to conclude that real love stories are so much messier than our fairy tales allow. But we knew that, didn't we?
I can't help but wonder if the book is missing a coda, one final essay that addresses not how to fall in love with someone but how love endures. Falling in love is easy – it's staying there that's hard, and, now in my 30s, it's that conundrum that keeps me up at night. Proving Catron's ultimate point, I wanted a happy ending, a formula or at least some reassurance, but there was none. People leave. Love fades or, worse, flames out. Reading these pieces left me with a deep, unshakeable anxiety because I know that what Catron says about how unlikely our modern expectations of relationships are is true, but, like so many, my heart keeps on shouting louder than my brain does. The longer I stewed about it, the more I considered that maybe Catron's closing advice is simple because it's all we know for sure: Be kind to each other, as kind as you can be. The rest – attraction, chemistry, timing, circumstance – just isn't up to you.
Katherine Laidlaw is a former senior editor of The Walrus and writes regularly for Toronto Life and Hazlitt magazines.