Meandering Words About Sacrifice

13111733I started reading this book the other day. I didn’t really know much about it except that the cover had a gun, blood and a flower on the cover. Apparently that’s all it takes for me.

Turns out this is YA. Good thing I didn’t know that because there’s very little chance I would have read it. It’s kind of awesome. So unique and immersive, about these teens trapped in the mafia underworld.

I’m reading and stumble across this:

“Even though Beatrice married someone else and died young, Dante loved her his entire life. The love was a part of him, because to him, Beatrice was the ideal. He barely knew her, had only met her twice, but yet he truly claimed to love her. Can anyone tell me why?”

No one spoke up. Carmine sighed exasperatedly. This lesson was becoming frustrating to sit through. “Because he really loved the person she made him. It has just as much to do with how he felt as it did with who he was.”

And because I like to pretend I know everything, I was like psshhhhh, yeah. But then I thought about it and I was like huh. NOW I understand The Great Gastby, Heathcliff, Odysseus and even fucking Atlas Shrugged and basically every single old-ish book that has a love story wherein the hero and heroine barely speak to each other but are madly in love.

Because, while I’m not sure whether we’re calling these “in the romance genre” or not, the love story is important and sometimes central. Yet the interactions between the hero and heroine are at a minimum. How the hell is that love? Related: What the hell is love?

When I was in middle school, the song How Do I Live by Leann Rimes came out. So I’m hanging out with my best friend at the time. Her idol was Captain Janeway from Voyager and she once dressed as her for Halloween. Seriously.

So How Do I Live comes on the radio and she’s like, “Ugh! How stupid! What kind of dumb girl can’t live without a guy?”

I was like, “psshhhhh, I know, right?”

But secretly I was like oh-my-god-I’m-so-stupid. Because I’d liked the song and thought it was a sweet sentiment and not really literal anyway but hey, I wanted to be a smart girl. And independent and not desperately reliant on men for my happiness. RIGHT??? *cries*

The idea stuck with me, the question of how much you had to give up to be in love. Whether it would be worth it. Carefully weighing things with logic and career and feminism. It manifests in big and small ways, like if I get to write fiction for small amounts of money or write code for lots of it. Like whether I can do things like workshops and conferences when my hubs has to take care of the kiddo.

Awhile back I went to one such weekend workshop by James Scott Bell. He said that every novel is about death. Impending death, and the protagonists goal is to not die. There are three types: physical death, professional death, and psychological death. I think emotional death would be a better descriptor.

A romance novel, by this definition, is all about emotional death. The hero and heroine are trying not to die. And that’s what Leann Rimes was talking about, I assume. And now I understand why a cover with a gun, blood and a flower is so compelling. It’s more than shock value, it’s exposing the guts of the book right on the first page.

I know for sure I like books where sacrifice is a major theme and I feel like that’s a counterpoint to some of the posts I read about feminism in novels. Because, okay, a lot fictional women have had to sacrifice stuff so maybe that gets annoying, but I’ve had to sacrifice stuff in my marriage, so what’s up with that? Am I doing it wrong? Related: This is the only way I know how to do it.

I’m still wondering, how much do I have to give up to be in love? Or like Dante and his Beatrice who he loved from afar, do we gain something instead? I know sacrifice sounds like a loss, and it is, but it’s an optional one when we do it for love, I wonder if it’s also like a trade. Like if something was sacrificed for love, then it’s proof something was gained after all.


About Amber Lin

Amber Lin writes sexy romance about messed up people, because everyone deserves a happy ending. Find her books or sign up for the newsletter at her website
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10 Responses to Meandering Words About Sacrifice

  1. Shari Slade says:

    Oh, emotional death.

    *all the bells ring inside my head at once*

    And now I’m thinking of the “petite mort” of it all, and how robbed I feel reading romance without it (a lot of it *cough*)…because that tiny death is a mirror and a BATTERY for the whole universe.

    Love that “optional loss” you mention. I like sacrifice in romance that is more about “giving” and less about “losing”, if that makes any sense. Gifts of self, burnt offerings…give until it hurts, because it hurts good.

    I love this post so much I had to comment before coffee. Sorry. <3

    • Amber Lin says:

      That was beautiful, Shari. And yeah, you bring up a really good point. Sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice would be empty, that sacrifice has to give something to the partner, something they really need. So it’s another way that the hero and heroine lock together like puzzle pieces, one filling out the hollows of the others and thus binding them together.

  2. Ruthie Knox says:

    I love this post. I’m someone who has a really hard time with sacrifice in romance (sacrifice as romantic gesture), and I don’t know why. It might have to do with my acknowledgment that sacrifice IS part of my married life, and I have to grapple with the consequences every day. They aren’t very romantic consequences. But then, I’m always saying I want more day-to-day realism in romance, so … I don’t know.

    • Amber Lin says:

      Yeah, I hear you. In general I think I want more realism in romance but there are also things that are very true but I don’t want to see. And sometimes I don’t even want to think about *why* I don’t like that trope. It’s kind of crazy how much these fictional experiences are, as Shari said above, like a mirror. Crazy but it’s also proof that the books we write in this genre have a deeper meaning beyond the fantasy/escape aspect.

    • Amber Lin says:

      Another thing I was thinking about was that if the sacrifice you make to avoid emotional death results in another kind of death (like actual physical death, professional death, or another type of emotional death) then that’s not a happy ending. So that doesn’t explain why you might not like sacrifice as a whole but even though I do like to read that sometimes I’ll still get mad at the way something plays out. I read a novella awhile back where in the beginning, the hero was a SEAL and felt like that job and his wife were the two most important things to him. Then he was faced with losing her and decided to quit to be with her… that made me uncomfortable, because I never saw how it would be okay for him. Quitting a job doesn’t necessarily imply professional death but in that case it felt like it.

  3. Amber, this post is amazing.

    It makes me think of an expectation I have for my romance that when its met, makes the book satisfying for me–I want to see that the h/h seem *younger* at the end of the book than they did in the beginning.

    Your dismantling, here, of what sacrifice is or might be or what we want it to be or what it actually is, with our beloveds, articulates better what it is I am looking for. Often when we meet our h/h at the beginning of a book, they are burdened. They are shouldering external pressures or conflicts, or they haven’t worked out an interior struggle, or their sense of self is unfair or perhaps their responsibilities are. It may even be that these pressures and conflicts and struggles and responsibilities make them noble, or more likely, sympathetic. Their appeal is in what roughness encases them and has maybe even taken root and twisted them.

    They are old, our h/h–when we meet them all these stuff *is their life.* It’s them, and what they’ve been going through and getting up with, every morning.

    The love without knowing that you talk about, here, Gatsby-love, in a good book, always seems symbolic of the hope that a character has for themselves. I’ve played with Gatsby-love in my own work because, for me, it argues that this character, despite their rough exterior bark, despite all the twistyness inside, has hope that life can be different. Their hope is projected on this distant beloved, like Gatsby’s green light.

    More, too me, Gatsby-love is childish, it is the purview of children, it is how we practice love when we are young. I am madly in love with the boy in my math class with whom I have never spoke–I can worry and test and observe this love inside of myself safely. I can give myself the ability to experience love without any terms but my own. If there is sacrifice, I’m giving away something about myself I didn’t want in the first place. It’s an impetus to change myself, for myself.

    I’ve always maintained, for example, that crushes, at any age, are entirely healthy. A crush is a manifestation, I think, of something you want for yourself. It’s not that you want that person for yourself, it’s that the crush is a big signal that there is something about that person or what that person represents, that you need or want for yourself. A crush is like a cough that is the first sign you’re coming down with something–you’ve been sick, you’ve been yearning, for some time and that crush is the undeniable symptom that you *want.* Perhaps even that you’ll do something about it.

    And then you move so beautifully, here, into sacrifice. And I so think you can sacrifice in such a way that it is only for yourself–Gatsby-love style–as a way to shed roughness that you are ready to leave behind. However, you point out the sacrifices associated with death, with love, and these are those that I think leave us younger, but not childish. These are sacrifices that we ask of ourselves, but we also ask of our beloved. We have to know, then, our beloved, really know them, to ask them to sacrifice and to ask them to sacrifice things we know will untwist their growth. We have to sometimes answer our beloved with sacrifices that we simply cannot know the outcome of, for ourselves, and trust that this person knows us well enough to see something we simply can’t. It’s a kind of youth where we know ourselves better, but we’ve made ourselves vulnerable enough that someone else knows us as well.

    So, I think, it’s really a kind of sacrificing *to* another, rather than something we sacrifice *of* ourselves. What you say here, something is traded, or gained.

    This post is an instant classic, thank you.

    • Amber Lin says:

      Thank you, Mary Ann! I love what you said about the older/younger thing, a lot. I read a Presents, Bond of Hatred by Lynn Graham, where the author played very strongly with the age concept, both the hero and heroine appearing older at the start and looking and acting younger as the book went on. I appreciated the theme there but didn’t generalize it, but I will definitely keep an eye out for that in the future.

      And more generally the burdens becoming lighter and the characters making themselves more vulnerable, and how sacrifice can figure into that to become something beneficial to the person making the sacrifice.

      This and the other comments here have made me realize how broadly I was speaking about sacrifice even though it’s so important what it is and how it fits into the overall story. If a billionaire hero gives someone a necklace, that wouldn’t even count as a sacrifice. But if he were to give up his whole job and identity as a businessman, assuming that is integral to him, then it would be too much. I’ll have to do some thinking about what’s just right.

  4. Shari Slade says:

    YES, to vs. of!!

    I think that’s a little closer to what I was trying to get at with my pre-coffee ramblings about gifts & offerings.

  5. OMG, I love this post! I feel like I want to crack it into little pieces and put it up all over my office to remember and think about it. It is sometimes tempting for me to make my heroes and heroines to take physical risks over emotional risks for each other. Oh, this really is just so good.

  6. Amber Lin says:

    Thank you, Carolyn! And that’s a great point about physical vs emotional risks. I love romantic suspense so I’m definitely into the physical risks, but it needs some kind of emotional backing to be meaningful.