How Literature Can Help You Find Love

Here's our Q&A with Maura Kelly, coauthor of Much Ado About Loving — a book that explores how the greatest novels contain some surprisingly smart modern-day dating advice.

By Judy Dutton

War and Peace. Pride and Prejudice. The Great Gatsby. We've all heard of these great works, and many of us have read them (or at least watched the film adaptation). Some of the greatest love stories of all time are chronicled in these pages — which is why it should be no surprise, then, that there's some great dating advice in there, too. That's the premise of a new book called Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not So-Great Gatsbys, and Love in the Time of Internet Dating. Curious to hear more, I asked coauthor Maura Kelly how literature has helped her find love — and how it can also help you.

How'd you come up with this book? How did you end up looking toward literature to solve the challenges of modern love?

Whenever my buddy and coauthor Jack and I would hang out, we'd end up talking about the books we were loving, and the people we were
All of us who participate in online dating could learn a thing or two from them.
loving — or trying to love. I was always asking Jack for advice about my dating conundrums. And a lot of times, when we'd be hanging out at his place, he'd start telling me how I should take a lesson from a novel — like how when I was dating a sourpuss academic, I should remember the cautionary tale of Middlemarch. In that book, the main character gets married to an arrogant guy who's devoted his life to writing a scholarly work — and boy, is she miserable. Eventually, I began to think: I should bottle Jack and begin selling him to all my friends. Then I thought, Hey, we should write a book!

Obviously, none of these literary characters ever went on an online date. But did they have some equivalent in their day — i.e., writing letters in lieu of emails? What lessons can these penned correspondences teach daters today?

In the beautiful novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera, two of the characters engage in an epistolary affair; they write letters back and forth for years before spending any significant amount of time together — only for the female to discover, when they get face to face, that maybe they don't have quite as much chemistry as she thought. All of us who participate in online dating could learn a thing or two from them. And when I was reading Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, I was struck by how much Austen's heroines became just as anxious and neurotic as the rest of us when they were waiting to hear back from a guy — even if they were waiting for a footman to bring a note, while we're hitting the refresh button on our email inbox for the 700th time.

Who are some of the most memorable literary characters you got to know while writing this book, and what type of dating wisdom did you glean from them?

Oddly enough, I learned quite a bit from a pretty despicable character: Papa Karamazov in Dostoevsky's masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. The guy is a lunatic! About the best you can say for him is that he doesn't physically abuse his family… although he does pretty much everything else. He steals money from his first wife, for example, and when she dies in ruin, he marries a 16-year-old orphan girl with suicidal tendencies — and proceeds to have orgies with other women in front of her. She begins having terrible fits of hysteria that eventually kill her. Papa K. has had three sons by that point, and he basically abandons them all. Next, he impregnates a mentally disabled young woman. (Or, at least everyone's pretty sure he did it, though he won't admit to it.) The helpless girl dies during childbirth. Papa K. never acknowledges that the child who survives is his, but he eventually makes the kid into his personal servant. I actually learned a very funny lesson from Papa K. about how not to behave on dates. But I'll let you read the book for more details!

What are some "types" to run from?

Workaholics and obsessives, like Captain Ahab, the obsessive captain who devotes his life to hunting whales — and a certain white whale in particular — in Moby Dick. They'll always be out to sea, and you'll always be yearning for more. And in my chapter about The Great Gatsby, I talk about why Gatsby types — the one who fall into mad love — might not be so romantic in real life.

Which literary character or work taught you the most about breakups?

Believe it or not, The Aeneid — yes, I know, an ancient book of epic poetry — contains, among other elements, a passionate love story so intense that it would give the very best romantic drama of today a run for
He demonstrates one of the worst ways to dump anyone.
its money. And it also serves as a cautionary tale about how we should not respond to a breakup. Queen Dido, the female lead, completely loses her mind when our hero, Aeneas, breaks up with her in the most ham-fisted way possible. He demonstrates one of the worst ways to dump anyone (i.e., by trying to sneak off to a foreign land without telling your beloved that you're leaving). But she also loses her mind so severely over him that it's a good reminder to the rest of us that we shouldn't ever take it too personally when some over-achiever like Aeneas cuts things off.

Who would you say was the most in-love couple from literature and why? What did they do right?

Jack would say that it's the Bagnets from Dickens's novel, Bleak House — a long book, sure, but one that intertwines a wonderful fairy tale with a gripping mystery. The Bagnets are an adorable older couple who have made their marriage work through the years. And one of the most important things they did right was trying to make life nice for each other by doing things like fussing over birthdays and always expressing delight and appreciation for each other's efforts. It's no coincidence that the relationship is full of mutual respect and affection.

How has your dating life benefited from literature in a way that it couldn't from a typical dating how-to book — or the advice of your friends?

Our friends often tell us what they think we want to hear because they love us, and nobody likes being the bearer of harsh or unwanted news. Books, on the other hand, are more likely to serve us some cold, hard truths — and if we read them carefully, we can learn a ton about the human heart. But if you don't feel like reading carefully, don't worry; Jack and I have done it for you. Just check out Much Ado About Loving.

Judy Dutton ( is the author of Secrets from the Sex Lab and Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch…and What It Takes to Win.
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