Entering the Fantasy Suite: What the Bachelorette can learn from her literary sisters, from Flaubert’s M.me Bovary to Ferrante’s Lenù

by Rita Furgiuele

TORONTO – The current season of the Bachelorette, starring Hannah B., the former  beauty pageant contestant from Alabama with the blinding smile, is wrapped up. As the final two suitors prepare to choose the requisite Neil Lane engagement ring, Hannah B. must make her choice, amid the necessary storm of conflicting emotions, including her avowal of love for both Tyler and Jed, and the impact of her parents’ clear preference for Tyler’s promise of a stable future for their daughter as against Jed’s predilection to pursue his own dream of becoming a Nashville star. During his interview with Hannah’s dad, Jed answered pointed questions about how he would provide for Hannah in a round about way, alluding to various sources of financial income, including a recent contract with a dog food company (he’d written the jingle for it). Meanwhile Tyler has shown unfailing support for the love of his life: her decision-making process, her mistakes (her long foray of putting up with Luke P was a test of my and the entire household of bachelors’ patience) and her repeated call for authenticity from her contestants. Wait. We’ve seen this picture before.

Wasn’t Elizabeth (Lizzy) Bennet completely and shamelessly taken by the self-serving (and let’s be honest) sleazy charms of Colonel Wickham, just as, all the while, Mr Darcy, aloof and brooding as he seems, comes through with a plan to save her family from humiliation, standing by to hnor and preserve the family structure? Then there’s Lenù, whom we watch pass from well-meaning, honest but boring Pasquale to Pietro, her university scholar-husband and father to two children. This fellow helps to get her work published but hasn’t the faintest clue about division of labour in the household, merely shrugging and suggesting Lenù find a house cleaner to help her. He does not get the rose, but Nico, her childhood crush, manages to enthral and win our heroines’ devotion for far too many pages. Nico is Luke P. for the reader: self-aggrandizing, stunningly unaware of his own misogyny and inherent contradictions where sex, fidelity and women’s autonomy are concerned. Luke P. quotes scripture and born again values to give voice to his “battle” with self-serving sex and sin, whereas Nico gives the appearance of liberal values first as a university paper editor and later political activist , until his true colours emerge.

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Poor Emma Bovary doesn’t fare better with her three options. Quickly and utterly bored by her husband Charles’ conversation, professional mediocrity and the small life he offers up to her, as “flat as a sidewalk,” she longs for the masked balls and gallant ways of the romances that feed her imagination. She toys first with the cautious and devoted clerk Léon’s attentions, but is disappointed when he moves to Rouen, frustrated by the impossibility of the match. When Emma plunges into a bold love affair with Rodolphe, the aristocratic, horse-riding resident of the castle next door, she’s all in. She wakes early and walks across fields, passing curious farmers and stable boys in her urgent mission of love, and she doesn’t care who sees her. She’s looking very much like Hannah driven by lust. Rodolphe soon tires of her and doesn’t show up on their designated day of escape from Yonville. Emma was getting too real, actually expecting they build a life together. This proves too much for Rodolphe, already imagining he would have Emma’s girl Berthe to look after, as well as deal with Emma’s need for grand gestures and daily proclamations of love. He was there for the wrong reasons, evidently. 

Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary

Fast forward to 2017, Ireland, and Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends. Here, our narrator Frances listlessly and sort of passionately slides into a relationship with the handsome, occasional actor Nick, whose passive, self-effacing style proves irresistible to Frances – that plus the fact he’s married and perhaps 15 yrs older. But Frances, though a slam poet with creative potential, according to her best friend Bobbi (a one-time mate with a searing intelligence but little ambition) lingers in this no-win scenario because she doesn’t particularly like Nick’s wife Melissa (though she covets all that Melissa has, much like Emma Bovary continually eyes the elegant, costly decor of Rodolph’s rooms while deprecating her own modest apartments) and maybe because Nick is a ready distraction to the alternative of facing the father whose depression and poverty humiliate her, and a mother whose own damp hope can only offer her platitudes and appeals to families sticking together. Why does Melissa choose to stay with this inarticulate Nick who can only offer vague apologies for not calling her? Why not make a go of it with Bobbi? What’s wrong with you, Frances?

As Bachelor Nation watches the connections wane or flourish week after week, we are by turns pulling out our hair in disbelief over Hannah’s missteps or else leaning forward to savour the sincere and often sweet avowals of the frontrunners. The Bachelor franchise has tapped into our age-old fascination with the promise of romantic true love. Producer Mike Fleiss improves the odds by procuring not 3 but 25 eligible contestants, yet the important question remains: are any of these gents viable matches? Considering the stats can only point to 6 married couples over the show’s 17 year run, clearly other considerations keep us watching as Hannah does her thinking out loud during the requisite side interviews. She has no “life-lines” (host Chris Harrison, of course, also hosts Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) except for her parents and a few sibs who get to meet the final two contestants. Predictably, she, like most bachelorettes and bachelors, resists their advice, and the drama continues. I have to wonder whether a consult with a best friend or sister would provide the longed-for clarity. Is that too prosaic? Who is Hannah’s Jane Bennet to sister Lizzy? Lila to Lenù, or Bobbi to Frances? Would Emma Bovary have lived if she had confided in her maid Félicité? Whose story is it anyway? 

In one of Elena Ferrante’s rare interviews, the author points to the primacy of tone as guiding principle in the writing process. Ferrante believes if she can’t figure out why she has to tell the story, nothing in the tale will ring true. The reader can follow the thread of this desire along the entire web of inter-related characters across the 4 books in the Neapolitan series, where she skips the temptation to vilify the cads or praise anyone too much, showing instead how longing or fear shape us. So Lenù in the end, is “seeing” a man whose name is undisclosed, and we realize she is more anchored in the knowledge of her place in the world because she knew Lila, her childhood friend, her brilliant friend. 

If  Jane Austen’s hallmark is ironic wit (we sense her smiling at Emma Woodhouse’s or Lizzy Benett’s continuous errors of judgment until they see that Mr imperfect Right was in front of them all along), then Sally Rooney’s tone, in classic millennial style, is a giant ironic shrug. Frances will go on stumbling through her relationship with the (still) married Nick, until, who knows? She may find herself applying for a spot on the Bachelor, and this unsatisfying match will become her defying back story to spill during a tearful one-on-one. Rooney doesn’t make it clear whether Bobbi and Frances’s friendship can be salvaged, but it seems to be the best shot for Frances’ own emotional stability. Flaubert, who famously proclaimed, “Emma Bovary is me!” apparently didn’t get the memo about the role of friendship or else ignored it, seeking to isolate his heroine in an increasingly harsh social hierarchy predicated on saving face. Mme Bovary turns to one, then the other of her lovers, for help in paying off debilitating debt. But other men have already compounded this situation, everyone from the sanctimonious town priest, to the self-serving pharmacist, to the shrewd shop owner who opens her Visa account, so to speak. There is no community here, only the sound of wind across the empty town square, blowing leaves against  the windows behind which the town (mostly women) watches Emma’s coffin pass.

To watch Hannah admit she made the wrong choice on live T.V., you can see she is buoyed by the support of Bachelor Nation. She will survive. She can own her choices. My fervent wish for this girl is to find other girls (or guys) she can trust to build friendships with. Let’s celebrate that.

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