Essays ponder the vagaries of romance

Social experiment sets stage for love

In 1997 social psychologist Arthur Aron published a study about his laboratory experiment on falling in love. In the experiment, strangers answer 36 questions ranging from, “Would you like to be famous?” to “What is your most terrible memory?” and end with staring into each other’s eye for four minutes. Years later, when Virginia native Mandy Len Catron came across the study, she was riveted by the fact that two of Aron’s test subjects had married six months after first gazing at each other.

Catron had an opportunity to try out the questions with Mark, a fellow writer in her creative writing group whom she found attractive. On a trip to a museum, Mark opines that, “Given a few commonalities, you could fall in love with anyone. And if that’s the case, how do you choose?” Catron mentions Aron’s study and Mark says he is willing to try it.

As it so happened, Catron and Mark began dating and three months into their relationship, Catron published an essay in the New York Times Modern Love column about her tryst with Aron’s experiment, including the fact that she and Mark were in love.

The essay, “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This,” went up on a Friday, by Sunday it had gotten 8 million views. She followed it up with a Ted Talk on the subject. Catron’s essay collection, “How To Fall in Love with Anyone,” dives even deeper.

Catron’s debut is not a primer on how to fall in love. Instead, over 10 intensely tender personal essays, she delves into her own love stories, as well as her parents’ and grandparents’ loves stories, including marriages and divorces. Consequently, she explores what falling in love means, the evolution of love, choosing partners and, most importantly, how to stay in love.

Love in Catron’s world comes packaged in confusion and loss. When her parents end their 28-year marriage, Catron’s faith in stable, enduring love is shaken. Even more perplexing, Catron writes, “my parents offered no explanation other than to say that they no longer loved each other the way they once did … There were no infidelities, no obvious betrayals, no secret addictions.” Her parents’ unexplained falling out of love forms the nerve center of the book’s quest to understand love and all its attendant myths.

Catron’s very first essay, “The exploded star: The myth of the right person,” candidly charts her decade-long relationship with her college beau Kevin, their brief troubled marriage and its subsequent disintegration. Catron says, “There is a strange logic to the idea of a soul mate. To believe that such a person exists is to believe that destiny is a real and active force in our lives. But it also means believing that there are wrong people, and wrong choices. Accepting both rightness and choice requires simultaneous investment in the forces of fate and free will.”

All the essays revolve around two main questions. Is there such a person as a soul mate? And can one fall in love and marry without some degree of socio-economic expediency? Catron’s maternal grandmother, Mamaw, exemplifies the connections between romance and practicality. Catron beautifully and astutely probes Mamaw’s love life in “Coal miner’s daughter: Love in context.”

Sharp and delightful, the Appalachian born and bred Mamaw is easily the most riveting persona in these essays. When Mamaw leaves school to take care of her ill mother and her toddler brother, she “became a housewife at 11 years old.” After her mother dies, her father remarries a woman who mistreats Mamaw. When she is 15, Mamaw runs away and eventually marries a WWII soldier thrice her age. It is 1944 and such an age gap is not an anomaly. Anyway, now Mamaw has a husband and a home of her own. In other words, she has financial security. But Mamaw also contends that she was in love.

Catron employs gentle, wry humor to go behind the scenes of her grandmother’s life in order to untangle the bonds of love and pragmatism. When Mamaw is widowed, she forms friendships with many men, but she never remarries because, she says, “I just always loved your Papaw.” But also, if she had gotten married, “she would’ve lost the military benefits that supported her all these years.”

Catron liberally douses her essays with quotes from books, journals, films and magazines to reinforce her ideas on love. Along the way, much wisdom is imparted. “In her essay ‘This is the Story of a Happy Marriage,’ Ann Patchett says you choose someone who makes you better … Does your husband make you a better person?” Catron is at her best when arguing about the cultural impact of stories such as Cinderella and deconstructing the romantic tropes, class biases and white privilege in films such as “Pretty Woman” and “Maid in Manhattan.”

Therefore it’s surprising that Catron’s discussions about love matches based on family and community recommendations only lightly touches on the arranged marriages of South Asian cultures. She would have done well to recommend Aron’s 36 questions, which are happily provided at the end of the book, as a route toward rapid intimacy.

Overall, “How to Fall in Love with Anyone” is a fun, fast-paced and informative read on a topic dear to many hearts.