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The Return to Romance: Love Stories in Recent French Women's Writing Diana Holmes LOVE AND DESIRE ARE CENTRAL to literature and to storytelling . Happy, mutual love perhaps lends itself more to poetry or music than to narrative (or as Colette put it, "L'amour parfait se raconte en trois lignes: 'Il m'aima, je /'aimai, Sa présence supprima toutes les autres présences; nous fumes heureux'".1 However, the unfulfilled desire for love's object drives a narrative of quest that is both hermeneutic (everything about the beloved is interesting and invites interpretation) and adventurous (the quest to win the beloved, to overcome obstacles, rivals, rejections in the pursuit of happiness is the stuff of stories from fairy tales to Harlequin romances). If love has figured more prominently and consistently in women's than men's writing over the centuries, this is unsurprising since in most cultures and at most levels of the social hierarchy women's lives—until quite recently—have been largely restricted to the private domain, and their dramas of self-discovery and the quest for happiness have necessarily been played out on a domestic and private stage. Though there are many remarkable exceptions , the plot of courtship, marriage, adultery has been the mainstay of women's writing through the centuries, from La Princesse de Clèves to George Sand and on to Françoise Sagan, taking in the durable form of the popular romance. Women's desires to explore the world and to live intensely have often been figured through narratives of passionate love. Throughout the twentieth century, women in Western societies entered the public world in increasing numbers. As their lives played out on a wider canvas, marriage, or even unmarried coupledom, ceased to be so powerful an imperative. The love story no longer seems to be the essential plot of female lives. Second wave feminism contested the "ruling myths of female sexual dependency and sexual availability"2 and downplayed the romantic love-plot in favor of a script of sexual liberation in which marriage spelt oppression, women's desire was by nature neither uniquely heterosexual nor monogamous , and True Love was shown to be an ideology that served to legitimize oppressive relations at both domestic and state level. In most serious or literary French women's writing of the late 1960s and 1970s, the heterosexual romance fades away or is carefully deconstructed. Annie Leclerc (at least in her most influential work Parole de femme), Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray Vol. XLV, No. 1 97 L'Esprit Créateur re-define female sexuality as profoundly different from male sexuality, but are little concerned with the dynamics of attraction to male otherness.3 Christiane Rochefort's heroines follow the socially prescribed script of the love story only to find out that romance is the sugar on the pill of female dependence and powerlessness, and moreover that marriage is the antithesis of eroticism.4 Rochefort's preferred model of heterosexual relations plays down otherness and emphasizes a comradely, sensual bond without commitment. Marie Cardinal is fully aware of the attraction of the romantic hero, and of the origins of this attraction in early relations with the father. Her novels acknowledge the power of romantic attraction but also treat it with great caution, locating the heroine's self-realization elsewhere.5 Duras's writing, it is true, deals persistently with love, revealing both a fascination with sexual difference and the attempt to disrupt it. The theme of love and desire does not disappear from women's writing at this period, but it is either marginalized or very self-consciously problematized. So what becomes of the female-authored love story in a postmodern, some would say a post-feminist, age?6 There is no doubt that the romance remains most women readers' preferred form of fiction. Harlequin France, the "leader de roman d'amour" as its website claims, is the second largest paperback publishing company in France, publishing over 500 new titles and selling 12 million books each year. Though a new collection is about to extend Harlequin's range beyond the "roman sentimental," the vast majority of its immensely popular novels are heterosexual love...


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