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Are today’s awful love triangles drawing inspiration from The Phantom of the Opera?

 Are todays awful love triangles drawing inspiration from The Phantom of the Opera?

Monsieur Leroux, I have something I want to say to you. Although I’m quite sure–mostly–that you didn’t mean it, you’ve been a terrible influence on the reading public.

Let’s take a moment to stroll through my bookshelves, shall we? Why yes, it’s a fact that they’re bristling with books featuring hideous love triangles and deviant suitors–often both, actually. There’s some sort of obsession with men who lurk in the shadows, who tempt dull and interchangeable women into their icky webs, and who lure them away from, well, the world. There’s this preoccupation with stalkers, with lurkers, with abusive blokes whose definition of  love is not so far from a criminal act, and which any normal person might describe as abusive, belittling behaviour. And, maybe worst of all, they have these saviour complexes going on. From both sides, actually: the women want to redeem the basest, most brutal of men through nothing other than the sheer power of lurve, while the guys want to rescue those poor little damsels. And keep them in a shack with no human contact.

Before you start protesting, I should say that I know that you’re not entirely to blame. Literature, I know, is filled with all sorts of love affairs that should have been hacked off at their weedy little roots the minute they started to slink out from the mud. And I know that this book was actually only a minimal success in your time–it wasn’t really until the various stage and film adaptations made from it that the voice of your phantom began to reach such a large audience–so it’s not like you ran about encouraging everyone to submit to a crazy chap with a hankerin’ for killin’.

I also know that you had no idea that a hundred thousand young adult paranormal romance writers would leap upon the relationship dynamics in your book and turn them into something–wait for it–appealing and desirable.

I mean, let’s take this Erik chap, shall we? Hearts have broken not just for your Erik but for all the Erik-inspired characters out there in the world. The broken man whose humanity has been denied him because of his disfigured visage. The love interest, really, of so many paranormal romances today. Never mind that your Erik gets about emotionally tormenting the woman with whom he’s apparently “in love”, cutting her off from her friends and, you know, kidnapping her and threatening to do away with a whole bunch of others if she doesn’t agree to marry him. No, of course it’s not stable behaviour, and of course you didn’t mean for him to be some sort of delicate flower who just needs a little bit of TLC. Yes, you meant Erik to be sympathetic in a way, to be lost and mad from the utter denial of his right to walk amongst other humans, but you didn’t mean for him to be actually a viable love interest, did you?

I mean, Christine, even if she is a little bit of a non-entity–what does she do, really, other than blink a lot and become beholden to any man who shows a modicum of interest in her, no matter how clearly sociopathic?–even Christine says no to your Erik in the end. Because, honestly, no matter how much weeping and sobbing and please-forgive-me business goes on, kidnapping and attempted murder is a bit of a deal-breaker, after all, isn’t it? Especially with that whole jumping the shark with the jungle in the mirror-room and the turning grasshopper thing. It seems self-evident, but you’d be surprised if you saw how many Eriks managed to get the girls in books these days. As Erik says, if people know how hideously deformed you are, just whack on that mask, and they’ll manage well enough. And who doesn’t want to live underneath a lake with a man with no face and a penchant for dropping chandeliers on people?

But let’s be honest here, you didn’t mean either Erik or Raoul to be decent romantic options, did you? Neither really seems to know anything at all about Christine, do they? After all, if you’d swapped out Christine for just about any girl (or possibly guy) Erik probably would have done the same thing–he just wants to be loved, after all, am I right? No matter how much brutality that takes. Because being shunned by society is entirely reason enough to go about seeking violent justice. I mean, Frankenstein’s monster took the same approach, and that wasn’t morally ambiguous at all.

And about that Raoul. I saw what you did there, don’t think I didn’t. He’s really just an Erik in miniature, isn’t he? Although better looking and not quite as murderous, admittedly. But he’s just got this whole thing in his head about Christine loving him because they were friends as kids, yes? Raoul, really, is just in love with the idea of being in love. He has this whole rescue narrative thing going on–he kind of loves that Christine is all damaged and crazy, because he can sweep her off her feet and show off how manly and heroic he is, right? I mean, he’s fixated on the fact that he rescued her scarf as a child. Really. That does not a relationship make, you know. (And it’s not a very impressive pick-up line at that, either, but that’s by the by.)

But I think you knew that when you wrote of Christine and Raoul’s depressing nuptials, and of Christine’s return to bury the heartbroken Erik. None of that sounds very pleasant: because, after all, choosing the slightly less rotten of two bad eggs is still far poorer an idea than simply saying no. You knew that, some hundred years or so ago, so what’s with all of these violent beasts who continue to beat their chests over these damsels in distress today?

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16 comments

  1. THANK YOU for this!
    While I’ve seen the stage version of the book half a million times in various countries, I’ve never really understood why everyone has this passionate hatred of Raoul (for being controlling, no less), and yet all think this Phantom guy is such a great choice.
    But then if you compare him to Edward Cullen (another “romantic” lead I despise), then I guess I’m just wired differently to a lot of people. Stalking and controlling behaviour aren’t my idea of true love, and yet you can hardly escape these guys in fiction at the moment!
    Excellent post!

    • Stephanie /

      I just found the entire thing so utterly creepy–both Raoul’s behaviour and Erik’s is honestly pretty unconscionable. It’s obsessive and cloying and violent and abusive, and like you, those aren’t exactly things I seek out in a relationship! I’ve had the same problem with so many novels of late: these worrisome love triangles are just so ubiquitous. I guess they’re drawing on that sort of gothic appeal and that “us against the world” whirlwind of passion, but frankly I don’t see why a relationship that entails cutting yourself off from your normal life is at all desirable. It’s saddening that it’s actually worth mentioning it when I do come across a healthy relationship. It goes to show how rare those are in fiction at the moment.

      • Even ignoring the creepy romantic leads, I can’t remember many (any?) books where a love triangle worked for me. Especially if it’s supposed to be a romance: someone’s always going to end the book in a bad place.
        It seems to be THE thing in YA at the moment, with the “hot bad boy” always winning the girl – naturally!

        • Stephanie /

          I agree, Sonya. I actually have a blog post forthcoming with Walker Books about the problems with love triangles in YA. Some of the issues I touch on include the fact that the love triangle is often used to define and validate the female central character, that it undermines the male characters, and that it creates needless and false suspense. It can also undermine how we feel about the main character, because we become frustrated by her back-and-forth between the two love interests.

  2. Great post – it summed up a lot of things I’ve been thinking when reading books like Twilight and 50 Shades.

    • Stephanie /

      It’s astonishingly common. Obviously we can’t expect all books to portray happy, healthy relationships, but the fact that there are so many of these sorts of books out there–and particularly in the young adult genre–is really quite frightening. Not only are the heroes these truly creepy, terrifying men, but the heroines are painted as helpless and hopeless without them.

  3. OMG This was SUCH a refreshing and candid post. So first, I should say thank you. It’s nice to know I’m not alone when it comes to finding obsessive, controlling, dangerous men absolutely abhorrent. It’s pretty despicable and speaks of nothing but weakness when the women of their desires just can’t say no. It’s unrealistic and far too creeptastic! And sure, I know stories are meant to take you to a place far away but, c’mon man! Give me someone who is sure of herself. Give me a man of morals and values and substance! I know nobody’s perfect but attempted murder and kidnapping… really? That’s what makes you swoon? Something’s seriously wrong there. If I thought today’s society was desensitized to violence, you’ve just made a great case for the fact that it’s been this way for quite some time.

    Brilliant post.

    • Stephanie /

      My pleasure, Nikki. I agree entirely! I know that the whole “overcoming adversity” and “black moment” thing is huge where romances are involved in fiction, but surely they don’t need to be quite so dramatic and, well, abusive, as what we’re regularly seeing?

      In terms of your final point: it’s disturbing that all of this is so popular in spite of the advances of feminism. You’d think that we’d see so many more heroines running away from these situations rather than being lured into them, but that’s not the case. I wonder whether this is part of a backlash against feminism? Perhaps people are looking for some sort of return to the oh-so-dramatic gothic tales of the past not just because of the apparent passion of these relationship, but also because things were “easier” in a sense–because somebody else would take responsibility (and control of) their actions? I think a lot of women (and men) are quite conflicted over changing gender roles because there has been so much change it can be overwhelming, and some people are looking for a sort of escape from the challenges that emancipation brings.

      • I think you make a very valid point, Stephanie. It does seem easier to submit than to take control of one’s destiny. It’s just frustrating because I try to put myself into a character’s place and when they don’t make smart choices, I just want to shake some semblance of sense into them.

        • Stephanie /

          I know exactly what you mean, Nikki. I guess I expect all characters to act like me! I was reading a news article recently about a woman who married a guy who was on parole for murder, and about how he was subsequently arrested for a series of rapes a year or two later. I just couldn’t fathom how on earth that woman even ended up in a relationship like that, because for me, a murder record is a bit of a dealbreaker! It was fascinating in a way, because the woman was so clearly working with a completely different set of values/beliefs from what I do, which is something that I guess we can easily forget.

  4. Ebony McKenna /

    You knew I wouldn’t be able to resist … I love me a good romance.
    I don’t mind a semi-triangle where a girl has a taste of romance with one bloke, it goes sour, then she finds the real thing with a new bloke (who was the right one for her all along). But the love triangle that keeps going round and round like a Spirograph does my head in.

    Give me a heroine who is an advocate for her own happiness!!!! :-)
    Lol

    Tell you what, they do the love triangle in reverse all the time over on The Bold & The Beautiful and it’s just as insane, two gals fighting over a bloke … A bloke who can’t make up his mind between two gals … It demeans them all.

    • Stephanie /

      I find it really frustrating when one character is so obviously just there to create tension between the other two, or just to drag out the plot. I really think it undermines the heroine as well, because it just makes her look indecisive, or even beholden to the *idea* of love rather than actually being truly interested in either of the guys. I completely agree with you about heroines and happiness!

      Ha, there’s someone on my Twitter feed who uses the hashtag #ohbrookeohtaylorohbrooke every day–I’m assuming that’s what you’re referring to? :)

      • Ebony McKenna /

        Hahaha, #ohbrookeohtaylorohbrooke has continued to the next generation with #ohsteffieohHopeohSteffie #OhPassMeTheSickBag. Lol

        And yes, when it’s a gal who can’t make up her mind between two amazingly fabulous blokes, she comes across as indecisive and unsympathetic …. It doesn’t feel real to me. Maybe I’m just jealous that I didn’t have blokes throwing themselves at my feet in high school?

        • Stephanie /

          Wow, I’m totally behind the times. I did watch Passions for a bit during high school, but that’s about it. :)

          I completely agree with you about the indecisive and unsympathetic thing. And not to mention the lack of realism–I’ve heard so many people complain that it’s so clearly a wish fulfilment thing, because love triangles are so rare in real life. Love relays (where A loves B who loves C), on the other hand? Sure!

  5. Awesome post! I agree, neither Erik or Raoul are very good prospects, though I never really understood the people who are all, Team Phantom! You know, that dude who kidnaps her and murders people and all… HOT.

    Unless we’re talking Gerard Butler. Ahem.

    • Stephanie /

      Neither especially appeals to me, although I suppose I’d take hero(ine) worship and wish fulfilment over kidnapping if I had to…

      Honestly, I’d write the most boring romances in the world. “And then she met a nice guy. And there were no mind games. And they respected each other as equals. The end.”

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