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Literary Novels Are Using Romance to Talk About Politics

Books like ‘Normal People’ and ‘Immigrant, Montana’ are mixing love and Marxism to interrogate global politics

Joanna Scutts
Apr 24 · 8 min read
Credit: Roc Canals Photography/Getty Images

In the middle of Sally Rooney’s new novel Normal People, one of the protagonists, a young Irish college student named Connell, finds himself “in a state of strange emotional agitation” over a moment of romantic drama in Jane Austen’s Emma. His knee-jerk response is self-deprecating: “He’s amused at himself, getting wrapped up in the drama of novels like that. It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another.” But still, Connell feels drawn to the intimacy of these novels, akin to the intimacy he shares with his lover, Marianne. Their postcoital conversations move seamlessly “back and forth from the conceptual to the personal,” the political to the private. For Connell, raised by his single mother with “good socialist values,” that mostly means struggling to reconcile his affinity for Marxist theory with the bewildering realities of life under global capitalism.

Contemporary literary fiction has long tried to distance itself from romance, even to define itself by that distance, consigning the drama of “fictional people marrying one another” to its own disreputable genre. But in recent years, literary novelists have returned to romantic plotlines as a way to explore how individuals navigate a world increasingly defined by inequality, both economic and political.

Contemporary literary romances, of course, do not look like Jane Austen novels: the traditional marriage plot is diffused into a series of couplings and separations. Yet, even where love is tentative in these books — including Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, Amitava Kumar’s Immigrant, Montana, and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West — it carries the possibility of a political awakening. The potential of romance to cross barriers of power suggests that political differences aren’t insurmountable, and that intimate attachments can change people and change history.

Recognizing and respecting another person’s full humanity, despite their difference from us, is a basic political act.

When Marianne and Connell meet in Rooney’s Normal People, Connell, studious and sporty, is one of the popular kids, while Marianne, smart and savage, is decidedly not. Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s palatial house, and the two teenagers spend time together away from the judgment of their classmates when he picks up his mother from work. The class difference doesn’t matter as much as it might, because it’s offset by a different measure of social value, popularity — Marianne may be rich, but at school she’s a pariah. Between these differences, the young couple finds a delicate balance. Together, they explore an abandoned housing development in their hometown — one of many left unfinished around Ireland after the “Celtic Tiger” boom economy crashed in 2008, and repurposed as a teen party hangout. For Marianne, the place represents the social life she’s excluded from. But to Connell it’s about money, wasted money — the abandoned homes are far bigger, Connell points out, than his own house. He appeals to Marianne, but also some authority beyond Marianne, to explain why the houses can’t just be given away to people who need them. It’s something to do with capitalism, they agree — an arbitrary force without moral meaning, that simply says “yes” to some people and “no” to others.

Marianne convinces Connell to study English at Trinity College, rather than something more practical, like law, on the basis that “there are no jobs anyway.” But once they both enroll, the currency of high school — good looks, skill at football, a convincing façade of normality — instantly gets devalued, upsetting the balance between the two. At Trinity, Connell is treated as a “culchie,” a working-class outsider in tracksuits amid a crowd of well-dressed wealthier students, who “just move through the world in a different way,” he observes. As Marianne’s friend, he becomes “rich-adjacent,” but it’s a precarious status — it’s not until he wins a prestigious scholarship that will entirely cover the rest of his schooling that Connell is able, for the first time, to mimic the rich kids’ unfettered movement. As he travels across Europe by train, looking at art and drinking foreign beer, he starts to see how seductive money can be: “There’s something so corrupt and sexy about it,” he thinks.

The idea that money has more to do with sex and power than, say, work and skill, is endemic to the larger late-capitalist world of Normal People. Considering her own future, Marianne feels simultaneously excited by the power of her intelligence and utterly unable to imagine how it might translate into a career; the path of “marrying an oligarch” strikes her as no more or less likely than anything else. Following the pattern of several jokes that aren’t really jokes in the novel, she later dates the son of a prominent banker, infamous as one of the men who “literally” caused the country’s financial crisis. Property developers and oligarchs hover at the fringes of Normal People the way bankers and speculators haunt 19th century novels, their power pressing indirectly down on those trying to survive in a new Gilded Age.

Sally Rooney has admitted that she’s writing stripped-down, contemporary versions of 19th century novels, and in Normal People she borrows her epigraph from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, a passage describing how it is human connection, human influence, that makes “conversion” possible. At the end of her story, Marianne thinks in similar terms about Connell’s effect on her — “he had chosen to redeem her, she was redeemed.” Eliot’s political vision, like Rooney’s, is one in which a sense of responsibility to a single person develops into a sense of responsibility to a community.

A similar sense of human love as the root of social awareness (and indeed, social revolution) is echoed in Amitava Kumar’s Immigrant, Montana, about an Indian graduate student in New York City in the late 1990s and his various romantic entanglements. Partway through the novel, the narrator, Kailash, receives a love note quoting the Marxist philosopher Gramsci wondering whether, “it is really possible to forge links with a mass of people when one has never had strong feelings for anyone: if it is possible to have a collectivity when one has not been deeply loved oneself by individual human creatures?” It’s a question that Kailash pursues throughout the book, both in his studies and in his relationships, which often falter in the tension between lust and love, possession and compassion.

A love affair can pull someone into a different world or a new fight, far removed from the place of birth or the expectations of their upbringing.

Immigrant, Montana is not a single love story but a sentimental education that takes place, as it does for Marianne and Connell, in an academic setting, where romance is acutely self-conscious, “expressed in the idiom of required reading in the doctoral seminars.” Kailash holds his lovers at a distance, speaking to them in quotations, allusions, jokes, and other defensive modes. Many of his relationships cross racial or ethnic borders, and the postcolonial dynamics discussed in class come into play in his affairs, too — “I’m the sugar at the bottom of your coffee, I’m the color in your cup of tea,” writes Kailash to a white girlfriend, paraphrasing the theorist Stuart Hall, who invoked the quintessentially English drink to emphasize that the transatlantic slave trade and Indian colonialism were impossible to extricate from British history and identity.

At first, like Connell, Kailash assumes that a preoccupation with love is “selfish or immature or plainly reactionary” — in other words, incompatible with any kind of revolutionary impulse. But that belief evolves under the guidance of his mentor, Ehsaan Ali (closely modeled on the Pakistani political scientist and anti-war activist Eqbal Ahmad, who, like his alter ego, was indicted in 1971 as part of a supposed plot to kidnap Henry Kissinger.) Ali blends a domestic paternalism with a radical past, and enchants his international students with stories about crossing boundaries and overcoming alienation to make a new home in the world. Under his guidance, Kailash studies histories of radicalism in which love plays an unexpected part, reading love letters that were used in trials and studying the way a love affair can pull someone into a different world or a new fight, far removed from the place of birth or the expectations of their upbringing. Through reading and writing about this kind of connection, he eventually comes to believe that “the plot of history advances through the acts of lovers.”

Alice, the young aspiring writer who is the protagonist of the first section of Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry, is another lover with a fixation on global politics. The romance between Alice and the much older, much lionized author Ezra Blazer is an unpredictable give-and-take of power, sex, and education that has its roots in Halliday’s own youthful relationship with Philip Roth. Ezra suggests that she write fiction about herself, an idea Alice dismisses as less important than “War. Dictatorships. World affairs.” Yet in the second section of the book, which is eventually revealed to be Alice’s novel within the novel, she tells a story that entwines love and war, revealing “world affairs” to be only human affairs in a different key. Her narrator, an Iraqi Muslim academic stuck in immigration limbo at Heathrow Airport, lets his memories range freely across borders, between Iraq, California, London, Afghanistan, and New York, reflecting on the surreal incursions of the political into the personal.

Migration, so often, is a love story, driven by people’s desire to be together and by the optimism of stepping into the unknown. In the unnamed, war-torn city where Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West begins, a pair of young, curious lovers, Nadia and Saeed, begin to hear rumors of migrants being suddenly able to escape through doors to richer places. In desperation, they travel first to Greece, then London, then the Bay Area, evolving with each move from refugees into migrant workers into, simply, settlers. Eventually they realize that out of this global upheaval, human life is reasserting itself in its universal ordinariness — “people working and living and aging and falling in and out of love, as is the case everywhere.” Nadia and Saeed, whose romance accelerated amid terror and tragedy, also fall out of love in an ordinary way, by simply changing, growing apart. In miniature, their story offers hope that differences do not have to end in violence or hatred.

Recognizing and respecting another person’s full humanity, despite their difference from us, is a basic political act. It’s also, perhaps, a workable definition of love. And it carries particular weight right now, in a global political environment driven by fear and division, in which the act of crossing a border is criminalized and difference so readily weaponized.

For the youthful protagonists of these contemporary romantic fictions, the point of love doesn’t lie in the domestic privacy of marriage, but instead, in its capacity to awaken lovers to the world outside their doors. Overcoming the power imbalances of gender, class, age, religion, and nationality that exist within intimate relationships can generate an awareness of a larger human equality; while growing beyond intimacy raises the potential to forge a larger community. Not all of these protagonists remain sure of the revolutionary powers of their love by the end of their stories: certainty, after all, belongs the young activist and the young lover, and is harder to come by as we grow up.

The epigraph to Immigrant, Montana, from the Russian writer Boris Pilnyak, claims that “the Revolution smells of sexual organs” — passion drives revolt (and it’s always a little revolting). But after the passion, after the revolution, the harder work begins — the work of building, the work of connecting, the work of love.