Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not So-Great Gatsbys, and Love in the Time of Internet Personals


“A treat for any book lover, happily mated or cheerfully single” (USA TODAY)—two popular journalists give hilarious relationship advice borrowed from the most famous characters in literature.

In our quest to reach romantic nirvana, we turn to self-help manuals, daytime TV, magazines, talk shows, friends, relatives, and shrinks. But we’ve forgotten a far better source of wisdom: the timeless stories written by the great novelists. Jane Austen was around long before Oprah—and ...

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Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not So-Great Gatsbys, and Love in the Time of Internet Personals

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“A treat for any book lover, happily mated or cheerfully single” (USA TODAY)—two popular journalists give hilarious relationship advice borrowed from the most famous characters in literature.

In our quest to reach romantic nirvana, we turn to self-help manuals, daytime TV, magazines, talk shows, friends, relatives, and shrinks. But we’ve forgotten a far better source of wisdom: the timeless stories written by the great novelists. Jane Austen was around long before Oprah—and though ladies in tight-laced corsets didn’t have to deal with Internet profiles or speed dating, they can help us better understand why first impressions shouldn’t necessarily be lasting (Sense and Sensibility) and why sometimes it’s okay to date bad boys (Jane Eyre).

The authors of Much Ado About Loving have combined expert dating advice with literary criticism. Maura Kelly and Jack Murnighan have gone through as many romantic highs and lows as Bridget Jones and Don Juan combined. They’ve also stayed in plenty of nights, comforting themselves with great novels and learning a few lifetimes’ worth of lessons in the bargain. Whether they’re talking about Moby Dickheads or why brides are prejudiced, each chapter will get you thinking—and keep you laughing all the way to a great relationship.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Murnighan (Beowulf on the Beach) and freelancer Kelly share tales about their own romantic messes alongside wisdom they’ve gleaned from favorite classics. The Bell Jar teaches us to own up to our intimacy issues before seeking love; Madame Bovary shows that cheating isn’t justified when it’s the easy way out of an unsatisfactory relationship. Although the essays ramble and Kelly’s voice grows irritating, this is a clever, amusing hybrid of lit crit and relationship advice. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"As I've been told on more than one occasion, my expectation that a courtship will mimic a Victorian novel's plot might lean toward the unrealistic. But when seeking advice to bolster [my] love life...I shy away from current romantic self-help books... Enter Much Ado About Loving, in which dating blogger Maura Kelly and sex columnist Jack Murnigan comb classic literature for love lessons." —Elle

"A treat for any book lover, happily mated or cheerfully single." —USA Today

"A clever, amusing hybrid of lit crit and relationship advice." —Publisher's Weekly

"Like a Cliff Notes for the lovelorn, as told by two authors who've 'been there.' Much Ado is as sage as it is funny. " —Lucinda Rosenfeld, "Friend or Foe" columnist at Slate and author of the novels, I'm So Happy for You and The Pretty One

"I’ll take my advice from Toni Morrison over Suzanne Somers any day, even if it doesn’t come in bullet-point format, with a weight-loss chart. Wisdom rarely does. [Much Ado About Loving] is a clever mash-up of dating advice and literary discussion, with the authors alternating chapters and subjects...That’s probably the first time Virgil has been used for romantic advice, at least in this century - and that alone is an achievement. " —The New York Daily News

"I find reading novels to be more entertaining than reading advice columns, so why not combine the two? Dear Jane instead of Dear Abby." —Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

"In Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not-So-Great Gatsbys and Love in the Time of Internet Personals, authors Kelly and Murnighan demonstrate that most literary classics contain great lessons about romance that are still relevant today... The authors take a magnifying glass to some of literature’s great and not-so-great hookups, injecting some of their own dating triumphs and faux pas, both relatable and comical." —The New Jersey Monthly

" Much Ado About Loving… plumb[s] great literature for relationship advice."
New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451621259
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 1/8/2013
  • Pages: 204
  • Sales rank: 959,263
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jack Murnighan

Jack Murnighan has a Ph.D. in medieval and renaissance literature from Duke University. His book, Beowulf on the Beach helped tens of thousands of readers rediscover their love of the classics. His two previous books, The Naughty Bits and Classic Nasty, were critically acclaimed tours of sexuality in the history of literature. He lives in New York City.

Maura Kelly has been a staff writer for Glamour, a daily dating blogger for Marie Claire, and a relationships columnist for amNew York. Her work has appeared in publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, More, The Boston Globe, and Rolling Stone. She received her BA in psychology from Dartmouth College and her MFA in creative writing. She lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Maura Kelly

I’ve made a living in a rather peculiar manner over the past few years: by writing about relationships. Unfortunately for me—but fortunately for my career—I always seemed to have a crazy new dating tale to tell. Like the one about the accomplished scientist who’d had a thick shaggy mane in every picture he’d posted online—though in person he was about 94 percent bald. We sat down to dinner at the nice restaurant where he’d invited me to dine, and he promptly ordered a banana, despite the fact that “individual pieces of fruit in phallic shapes” were not on the menu. “Charge me whatever you’d like!” he told the befuddled waitress. Come to think of it, that’s more or less what he said to me when the check came. His exact words were: “We can split it, or I can pay, or you can pay.” Never had I been given so many options. It was after we divvied it up that I made like a banana and split.

Or there’s the story about the very tall young gentleman—I use that term loosely—who was studying for a PhD in economics at Columbia. Over tapas, he explained that he was kinda stalking another chick but went on to assure me that I had nothing to worry about—I wasn’t pretty enough to make him crazy. I responded with typical unflappability: I locked myself in the bathroom for twenty minutes and sobbed.

There was also the dude I met up with in Prospect Park one summer, after we had a brief phone discussion about our lives and likes, including our favorite foods. He brought his guitar to the rendezvous and serenaded me with a song he’d written especially for the occasion. It began: “Maura Kelly is a nutter . . . who likes peanut butter.” That’s probably as close to immortality in verse as I’ll ever get.

Because of my unusual professional specialty, friends and strangers often seek out my advice—asking me about, say, how they should interpret not having heard from a date for a full twenty-four hours since their first hang-out session, how long they should wait before having sex with the person they’ve recently begun seeing, or how it might go over if they mention the recent passing of their beloved cat in their Internet dating profile. When this kind of thing first began to happen, it made me really nervous. I’m a dating columnist, after all—which is essentially the opposite of an expert on blissful romantic commitment! Could I really provide helpful counsel?

Heck, I was always turning to friends to ask how they thought I should handle the latest Lothario in my life. In particular, I sought out my cowriter Jack Murnighan. When he and I first got to know each other—after I was assigned to write a piece about his previous book for The Daily Beast—he dazzled me, and not only with his erudite yet engaging personality. There was, too, the thick gingery hair, the high cheekbones, the strong jaw, the wide smile full of perfect teeth, and enough lady-killing charm to fell an army of Amazons. As if that weren’t enough, he could effortlessly quote from Proust or cite David Foster Wallace. Jack had spent the better part of his life extracting the wisdom from literature (majoring in philosophy and semiotics at Brown, getting a PhD in literature from Duke); he was an unusual mix of bookworm and pretty boy. Surprising, too, was how incredibly down-to-earth he was. In fact, there was so much to like about him that I was relieved to hear he had a girlfriend; that meant the question of his not being interested in me romantically was removed from the equation.

It began to happen that if I was in Jack’s part of town, I’d swing by his apartment—a crow’s nest of a one bedroom, perched high above Chinatown, lined wall to wall to wall with books; we’d make some dinner, or have a little tea, and talk about our love lives. He always had the most satisfying takes on mine. Possibly that’s because he’d once been a very scrawny and lonely boy, so he could relate to my fear that no one would ever understand the truth of my hopeful but hapless heart. Or maybe it had more to do with the fact that he read so much. He could empathize with certain female characters—like self-punishing Katerina from The Brothers Karamazov and underassertive Mrs. Ramsay from To the Lighthouse—as much as with me. And he’d gathered some great lessons from the brilliant psychologists who have written the world’s great novels.

Not long after we became buddies, I stopped over to see Jack on my way home from a hotel-bar party in SoHo, thrown by the literary journal Open City to celebrate its latest issue. Not one guy had given me the time of day. Did my new black cocktail dress mean nothing to those louts? I was demoralized.

“Is there any way for me to become one of those chicks who casts a spell over every dude she meets?” I asked Jack. “Because there are some women who just—I don’t know—they have that je ne sais quoi. They’re not necessarily outstandingly gorgeous or brilliant or successful . . . but they know how to rock it.”

When Jack stood up, I assumed he was going to make me a cup of tea while telling me I shouldn’t let it bother me. Instead, he plucked an enormous slab of literary sustenance from his shelf and put it down in front of me: War and Peace.

“Read that,” Jack said. “The character Natasha? She’ll show you all you need to know about being alluring.”

I frowned. “It’s rather long, isn’t it?”

“I thought you said Bleak House was one of your favorite novels. That’s long, too.”

“But it’s also awesome.”

Jack pointed at the cover. “You’ll love this. You won’t be able to put it down.”

“I will when my arm starts cramping as I try to keep hold of it.”

Despite my grousing, I started reading the book. I hadn’t had an easy time getting into Anna Karenina but Tolstoy’s other biggie sucked me right in; a vivid soap opera of love triangles, family dynamics, and bad matches, it deserved its reputation as the world’s most beautifully told epic. But if there was anything particularly illuminating about the behavior of the main female character, Natasha, I’d missed it. She was basically just pretty, wasn’t she? It wasn’t like she was consciously doing anything to make herself more appealing. Right?

Jack was quick to correct my misreading. And once he’d explained Natasha’s secret—read his chapter “Scorin’ Piece” to find out what it is—I had an epiphany worthy of a lightning-struck religious convert.


Like that, I was more in control of my romantic destiny.

When I passed on Jack’s instructions to one of my dearest friends, she grumbled, “It’s not fair that you have Jack all to yourself.”

I began to think maybe she was right. I began to think he should write a book about how serious reading can make us all smarter about relationships. And then it occurred to me that we should write it together . . .

That’s how we ended up here.

In these pages, we’ll be considering all kinds of romantic conundrums. Like the case of a young woman who was snubbed by a stuck-up rich kid because he thought her parents were too déclassé. We’ll talk about a dude who just couldn’t cure his infatuation with the prettiest girl in town, even though she wouldn’t give him the time of day. We’ll consider a girl who was in love with a guy whose mother was so jealous of her son’s crush that she tried to break them up. And we’ll look at a couple in a long-distance relationship who try to keep the flame alive by writing each other long notes—even though they’ve never had a meaningful face-to-face conversation.

Are you thinking that I’m conversant in such dramatics because my friends have been in predicaments like those I mentioned? It’s a good guess, but the examples above were actually pulled from novels that have endured through the years: Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Sons and Lovers, and Love in the Time of Cholera, respectively. Clearly, not much has changed through the centuries when it comes to romance.

Then again, plenty has. The Victorians, for instance, sure weren’t discussing the statistical appeal of Internet dating sites (like ’em or not, they up your odds of meeting somebody cool), or trying to determine if a woman would blow her cachet if she pursued a relationship with the guy in her office, or trying to figure out how to handle “friendships with benefits.” They didn’t have to deal with all the strange, new-fangled, often painful methods we have for meeting people. (Speed dating? Ugh.) They had pretty strict dating mores that made things a lot less confusing (if also more constraining) than they are today. They didn’t have the same kind of expectations that we do about finding the perfect partner—sexual dynamo, emotional stalwart, and best buddy all rolled into one.

Between all the pressure we put on ourselves to find a soul mate and all the possible ways to couple up, it’s no wonder we single people are a little shell-shocked. It’s not surprising that we’re constantly fretting over our personal lives—trying to figure out if the ball is in our court after an ambiguous ending to a date, if we should compromise on that factor we thought was so essential in a mate, if we should swear off the head cases we always find ourselves attracted to . . . and all the rest.

Hoping to arrive at true love much sooner than later, we turn everywhere for answers: self-help books, daytime TV, magazines, radio talk shows, friends, relatives, and shrinks. But the real experts on love have been around for a while, as Jack and I have realized, and their insights ring true generation after generation. Part of the reason the great novelists are so great is because of the timeless lessons they impart.

All the same, we understand that a large part of the reason more people don’t read these books is because nobody has the time. That’s why we did it for you; we went through some of our favorite classics, looking for clues that would help us solve today’s romantic dilemmas.

But does our simply being voracious readers—and veterans of the dating scene—and people who’ve written extensively about our personal lives—mean you should listen to us? As I’ve indicated, I’m perennially single. And Jack has been engaged twice. We’re not exactly the poster children for happy love lives. So . . . ?

I’m going to put off addressing the question of our expertise for another few moments while I ask you to consider the personal life of a certain female author, one whom gajillions of young women—and at least a few hundred young men—have turned to when looking for wisdom and solace about relationships. The novelist of whom I speak has served as inspiration for generations of sassy single girls. She was writing books that were essentially romantic comedies long before Renée Zellweger was born, let alone chosen to star in Bridget Jones’s Diary; books in which the heroines, preoccupied with finding husbands, eventually end up with the right guys and live happily ever after. But the writer herself never married. The one and only time she was proposed to, she acted as one of her heroines might: She considered accepting the offer because the guy had lots of money—but turned him down because, from the sounds of things, he was an unbearable prig. When her young niece asked her for advice about a man she was thinking about marrying, the author wrote, “[I] entreat you not to commit yourself farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.” One of her characters repeats her words almost exactly when talking to her sister Lizzy—the heroine in Pride and Prejudice. I’m talking about Jane Austen, of course.

Think about Tolstoy—a writer whose two most important novels are gorgeous meditations on how to find contentment in life and love even though by all accounts the man himself was a bitch of a husband. As his long-suffering wife wrote in her journal: “All the things that he preaches for the happiness of humanity only complicate life to the point where it becomes harder and harder for me to live . . . I devote so much love and care to him, and his heart is so icy.”

Keep in mind, too, Charles Dickens, whose first-person narrators can be so self-deprecating, affectionate, and purehearted; whose wonderful stories about the redemptive power of love and kindness have helped me get through some of my, um, bleakest moments. The man left his wife in middle age—after they had ten children together—because he’d fallen in love with an eighteen-year-old girl!

So, yes: Dickens, Tolstoy, and Austen have provided me with great psychological knowledge—and yet they certainly struggled in their romantic lives, as I have. But they weren’t asking us to behave as they did. They were asking us to observe their wonderfully, terribly lifelike characters—the good ones and the bad—in order to learn from them. They were offering us ideals (and nadirs) of behavior by which to guide ourselves, wisdom that might help shed light on the motivations of the people around us, and hope to keep us going. In the same way, Jack and I are offering up our stories about our failures and successes, alongside our thoughts about our favorite novels, so you can learn from them without experiencing quite as much humiliation, agony, and loneliness as we have! We’re not here to say: Do as we have done—far from it. If anything, we’re here to say: Read. Live. And think. It’ll help you to love.

© 2012 Maura Kelly

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Table of Contents

Introduction ix

Much Ado About Loving

Prepping Yourself for Something Real

1 The Hell Jar

Why It's Your Problem If No Guy Is Good Enough 3

2 Overly Great Expectations

Why Idealizing Someone Can Come Back to Bite You 11

3 The Heart Is a Lonely Little Guy

What to Do with All That Longing 18

4 Bride and Prejudice

Does Wanting to Get Married Give You Champagne Goggles? 22

5 Lightbulb in August

How to Have a Clue When He's Just Not That Into You 30

As You'd Like It (or So You Think)

Mistakes We Often Make

6 Jane Erred

Why It's Silly to Put Principles Over Passion 37

7 The Tragic Mountain

Beware of Leaping Before You Look 44

8 Bright Nights, Big Shitty Hangovers

The Perils of Drinking and Hooking Up 49

9 Love in the Time of Online Dating

Why Too Much Emailing Can Be Dangerous 54

Tragicomedy of Errors

Types to Watch Out For

10 Not-So-Great Gatsby

Is It Flattering or Creepy When a Guy Persists? 61

11 Infinite Gesticulating

Why Do Men Talk So Much? 65

12 Farewell to Charms

The Macho Man-Can He Have a Soft Side? 69

13 A Real Pain in the Aeneas

Sometimes It's Really Not You-It's Him 74

The Taming of the ... Who?

The Seduction Process

14 Scorin' Piece

Tolstoy's Surefire Way to Be Wanted by Everyone 83

15 Sex and Sensibility

Are Relationships That Start with Wild Passion Doomed? 87

16 Remembrance of Things Passed On

Don't Try to Get Back Together! 94

17 The Blabbers Karamazov

The Dangers of Revealing Too Much Too Soon 99

All's Well That Ends with an Orgasm

Ah, Yes, the Sex

18 Tropic of Romancer

Henry Miller Knows How to Get It On 109

19 Lady's Chattering Lover

Ten Things Not to Say after Sex 114

20 The Sun Also Rises (But Sometimes Not the Penis)

How to Handle "Male Issues" 120

21 Sabbath's Peter

How to Have Hot Sex at Any Age 128

Midsummer's (or Any Other Season's) Nightmare

Signs You Should Abandon Ship

22 Moby Dickheads

Why Workabolics and Other Obsessives Are Bad News 137

23 The Brief Wondrous Life of My Last Relationship

Are Men Genetically Coded to Cheat? 142

24 Revolutionary Road to Hell

Lose That Guy Who Is Still Trying to Find Himself 148

25 Sons and Mother-Lovers

Yes, He Can Love His Mom Too Much 154

Love's Labors Found

Making It Work

26 To the Doghouse

How to Deal with Unfeeling Men 163

27 Rabbit, Run Screaming

The Problem of Boredom in Marriage 169

28 Madame Ho-Vary

Is Cheating Ever Okay? 174

29 Manna Karenina

What If a Lover Just Drops from the Sky? 179

30 Bleak House? Not This One

Dickens's Recipe for the Perfect Marriage 185

31 Coward's End

What Happens If You Sacrifice Your Politics for Love? 191

Conclusion: Mistaken Lonelyhearts?

Trust Us-Advice Columnists Don't Know Everything 199

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