The title of this book does not do justice to the elegance and freshness of the argument presented here. Although Modern Love covers over-discussed topics (yes, another book about the crisis of marriage) and familiar material (advice literature, canonical novels, and popular movies), it organizes cultural material in a way that is both novel and illuminating. Thus the value of this book lies less in its central thesis or theoretical argument than in the interpretations it offers of the themes of love, romance, and intimacy in a variety of cultural products that range from Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, It Happened One Night, Philadelphia Story or When Harry met Sally to Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, John Updike's Couples or Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
The central thesis of the book is inspired by Anthony Giddens's much discussed The Transformation of Intimacy (1992), which argues that throughout the twentieth century and more clearly after the 1960s, a new and historically original discourse about love emerged. Giddens (and Shumway) dubs this new outlook the discourse of intimacy. Although it may seem as if "intimacy" is closely associated with love, it in fact displaced and transformed the more traditional discourse of romance. Where Giddens's thesis remained historically vague and empirically muddy, Shumway shows how the wide cultural production from the 1930s to the 1980s can be organized, analyzed, and interpreted around the shift from romance to intimacy.
Relying on a wealth of historical and literary analysis, Shumway suggests that romance is defined by its triadic structure, that is, a [End Page 243] structure in which the desire of one character for another is made difficult or delayed by the presence of a third. The narrative structure of romance always contains a pair from which a third is excluded. Such triangular structure has the effect of creating narrative tension and of exacerbating the very act of desiring. The classical love triangle is adultery, but as Shumway argues, this need not be the case, as romance—conceived as a particular way of involving the reader in the act of reading—can be deployed precisely around the question of whether the protagonists will marry and/or whom they will marry. Affirming a natural and inevitable connection between love and marriage is what much of the ideology of romance is about. This helps Shumway make a further claim: intrinsic to the genre of romance is the positioning of romance as a highly desirable experience.
In one of his most interesting interpretations, and contra Cavell's own well-known interpretation, Shumway suggests that the genre of the screwball comedy is about intensifying the erotic tension between the protagonists, thus further mystifying the image of marriage. Where Cavell argued that screwball comedies offered a (demystifying) reflection on the nature of love and marriage, Shumway suggests that in the screwball comedy, desire and marriage are in fact happily reconciled, thus further reinforcing the ideological link between romance and marriage.
From the 1960s occurred a cultural shift, with the discourse of intimacy progressively emerging, and coexisting with the discourse of romance. How do the former and the latter differ from each other? The difference is not only in "content" but also in the "modes and forms" with which relationships are portrayed (Shumway 149). Mostly, its primary—but not exclusive—locus lies now in advice literature, and not, as was the case with romance, primarily in fiction. The discourse of therapy and psychology played a crucial role in shaping the new discourse of intimacy. Another difference is that intimacy is often presented under the form of the case history in which a problematic couple is being helped by a doctor or therapist. If in romance it is the triadic structure that draws the reader emotionally, here it is rather identification around such questions as: Do I behave like him or her? Does my relationship resemble this one? Do I have the same problems?
In the intimacy discourse, relationships, love, and intimacy are the object of analysis. Because intimacy also uses the language of...