Beauty, it has been said, is in the eye of the beholder. It's an assertion to which Lucy Gordon's The Italian's Christmas Miracle appears to give some support. Alysa, the heroine,
had never been pretty. Her face was attractive but, to her own critical eyes, her features were too strong for a woman.
'No feminine graces,' she'd often sighed. 'Too tall, too thin. No bosom to speak of.'
Her women friends were scandalised by this casual realism. 'What do you mean, too thin?' they chorused. 'You've got a figure most of us would die for. You could wear anything, just like a model.'
'That's what I said - too thin,' she'd responded, determinedly practical.
But then there was the hair - rich brown, with flashes of deep gold here and dark red there, growing abundantly, streaming over her shoulders and down to her waist, making her look like some mythical heroine. (8)
Perhaps romance, too, is in the eye of the beholder? Alysa finds
herself overlooking the River Arno. A multitude of lights was on, their reflection gleaming in the water, and in the distance she could see the Ponte Vecchio, the great, beautiful bridge for which Florence was famous. [...]
'It's the sort of place people mean when they say that Italy is a romantic country.' [...]
The ironic way she said 'romantic' made him look at her in appreciation.
'It can be romantic,' he said. 'It can also be prosaic, businesslike and full of the most depressing common-sense. Romance doesn't lie in the country or the setting, but in the moment your eyes meet, and you know you're living in a world where there's only the two of you and nothing else exists.' (48-49)
Alysa and her interlocutor have, however, lost trust in the reality of that "world," for Alysa has travelled to Italy
to mourn the man I loved, but who betrayed me, abandoned me and our unborn child, a child he never even knew about, then died with his lover. She had a husband and child, but she deserted them as he deserted me. (11)
Overlooking the Arno, her companion is Drago, the deserted husband, and during the course of the novel they learn the truth about the dead while attempting to shield others from the reality of the motivations of James and Carlotta, a pair of deceased lovers who justified their actions by insisting that "we had to be realistic" (40).
Drago and Alysa's experiences have taught them that romance is unreliable, and perhaps that romantic love renders one unable to see reality: 'We can be fighteningly blind when we don't realise that things have changed for ever [...] And perhaps we fight against that realisation, because we're fighting for our lives" (35). An emotion-free reality, however, is not without its problems.
It was a technique she'd perfected months ago, based on computer systems.
It started with 'power up' when she got out of bed, then a quick run-through of necessary programs and she was ready to start the day. A liberal use of the 'delete' button helped to keep things straight in her head, and if something threatened her with unwanted emotion she hit the 'standby' button. As a last resort there was always total shut-down and reboot, but that meant walking away to be completely alone, which could be inconvenient. (16)
Her solution seems to have dehumanised her and Drago is of the opinion that it has merely substituted emotional pain for "another kind of hell" (41).
This being a romance, Drago and Alysa do, of course, fall in love again. Together, the novel suggests, they have found true love and Alysa tells Drago that "I believe that your love will be with me for all eternity" (185). Nonethless, the novel raises a disquieting question: if emotions (including romantic ones) are part of reality and what make us fully human but are also, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder, or the heart of the lover, can there ever be security in love?
Perhaps only the dead can realistically be said to achieve it. Earlier in the novel, on the Ponte Vecchio, Alysa has seen that the railings around the statue of Benvenuto Cellini
were covered with padlocks. Hundreds of them.
'Lovers put them there,' the shop owner confided. 'It's an old tradition. They buy a padlock, lock it onto the railings and throw the key into the River Arno. That means that their love has locked them together for all time, even unto death.'
'How - how beautiful,' Alysa stammered. A terrible dread was rising in her. [...] 'Even unto death,' she murmured.
'That's the part that always affects them,' he said. 'They know they'll be together for eternity.'
There in her mind was the picture of James and Carlotta, [...] dead in the same moment. Together for eternity. (59-60)
As Lynne Pearce has observed in an article about romance and repetition:
The fact that there is no possibility of death-bound lovers repeating, and hence discrediting, their UR-passion explains why tragedy remains the most cast-iron means of supporting the view that love is exclusive, non-repeatable, and forever. The fact that so many tragic lovers actively seek death as a means of protecting their love from compromise underlines the principle that “true love” eschews repetition.
I'll end on a prosaic (and realistic?) note about iron and binding: the padlocks on the Ponte Vecchio and elsewhere have generally been considered a nuisance by the authorities and months later, when Alysa returns to the bridge, she discovers that "The railings that had once been covered with love tokens were stark and bare" because "the council has ruled against them. If you get caught hanging a padlock there's a fine, and every now and then they clear them all away" (127). Outside the pages of the novel the campaign against the padlocks of eternal love contines: just this week it was reported that
Thousands of 'love padlocks' on a Roman bridge are being removed with bolt-cutters in order to protect the ancient structure. [...] The city council said rust from the locks, which hang off chains, is harming the fabric of the bridge. (BBC)
BBC. "Rome's Ponte Milvio bridge: 'Padlocks of love' removed." 10 September 2012.
Gordon, Lucy. The Italian's Christmas Miracle. 2008, Christmas Marriages & Miracles (Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 2011). 3-185.
Pearce, Lynne. "Romance and Repetition: Testing the Limits of Love." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011).
The image of the Ponte Vecchio is a cropped version of the panorma at Wikimedia Commons,where it was made available for use under a Creative Commons licence by its creator, Grenouille vert.