In our reading of Anne of Green Gables, we keep encountering the word “romantic,” and each time the girls ask me to clarify what exactly it means. The only time we had come across the word before was in our reading of Sunrise, Sunset, a beautiful picture book adaptation of the song from Fiddler on the Roof which Daniel and I received as a baby gift when Matan was born. The text of the book is comprised of the words of the song, accompanied by illustrations of Tevye’s oldest daughter Tzeitel and the little boy, Motel, who starts out as her playmate and becomes first her lover, then her husband, and then the father of their beaming little baby. But there is one two-page spread that has no words. I know I ought to pause there and just let the kids take in the magnificent field of sunflowers where Tzeitel and Motel dance together in the joy of their blossoming young love, but instead each time I sigh and say, “So romantic.”
Back when I read this book to the twins, they were too young to realize that these pages actually don’t have any words, and that I was making them up. Back then, “romantic” was one of the many English words we encountered in literature that they didn’t understand, and they never bothered to ask me what it meant. But one time when we received the gift of a bouquet of sunflowers from a visiting houseguest, the girls were reminded of “Sunrise, Sunset” and pronounced that the flowers were “so romantic.” Our guest—a former student of Daniel’s who needed a place to stay overnight for a local celebration—was understandably puzzled. What had Daniel told the kids about faculty-student relations?
By now the girls know that “romantic” is not about sunflowers—or not necessarily about sunflowers, perhaps I should say—but they can’t figure out what exactly it means. Anne tells Marilla she wants to be called Cordelia because it’s such a more romantic name; Anne, she insists, is terribly unromantic. “Is Liav a romantic name?” my daughter asks me. For a moment I try to imagine Liav standing in a field of sunflowers with a young man holding her arms and gazing into her eyes lovingly, whispering, “Oh, Liav.” Falling in love and experiencing the joy of requited love while still young is one of the life’s greatest blessings, regardless of what ultimately comes of the relationship; I fervently pray that it happens for all my children. But Liav is eight years old, which is not what I mean by young. Is Liav a romantic name? Someday it might be, I hope.
“My life is a graveyard of buried hopes,” Anne tells Marilla when she realizes that she may not be allowed to stay at Green Gables after all. When Marilla objects to Anne’s description, Anne tells her that it’s the most romantic way she can think of to comfort herself. “Oh, so romantic means sad,” Tagel tells me. “Like when you’re really disappointed, that’s romantic. Is that right?” Liav tries to connect it to what we read the previous day. “So Anne is a sad name? Really?”
I appeal to Daniel, who is teaching a class on the British Romantics this semester. He tells me that that romantic “with a small r” means guided by sense rather than sensibility. Anne is romantic because she’s governed by her feelings and passions, unlike Marilla, who is primarily guided by reason and practicality. That makes sense, so to speak, and it accords with the dichotomy between Anne and Marilla throughout the book, but I’m not sure it’s something I can explain to Liav and Tagel, who are still years off from reading Sense and Sensibility, let alone the British Romantics. Besides, I’m forever telling them to think before they act, and not to lash out at their younger sister just because they’re frustrated. “Don’t let your emotions get the better of you,” I tell them. But how does that accord with Anne’s valorization of romanticism? Do we all become less romantic as we age? I don’t think I want to know the answer.
When Anne is in the depths of despair because Marilla has told her she can’t go to the school picnic, Anne declares she can’t eat dinner; as she tells Marilla, boiled pork and greens are so unromantic. No sooner do I finish the sentence than I rush to ward off the inevitable. “No,” I pre-empt the girls. “Unromantic does not mean it’s not kosher. I mean, yes, boiled pork is not kosher, that’s true. But it’s also a boring, ordinary food, and Anne wants to eat something unusual when her feelings are so….deep.” I tell them. I explain that’s also why she insists she can’t wash the dishes when she’s so excited about the prospect of a reunion with her best friend Diana; washing the dishes is so unromantic, as she tells Marilla. I try to explain to the girls that romantic is the opposite of the ordinary and the everyday; it’s about something special, idealized, and infused with great feeling.
The next day Daniel wakes up early to exercise on our porch, and then he heads straight to minyan, without drinking. He comes home and tells me he fainted during the silent Amidah prayer, and the other men revived him with a drink of water. “Anne says fainting is very romantic,” Liav informs us all knowingly, and it’s true; Anne tells Marilla that she wishes she could faint because it would be awfully romantic. (Later when she falls off the ridgepole and actually faints from the pain, she changes her mind.) Maybe the girls think that Daniel fainted because he was so overcome by powerful emotion when he was davening. In any case, they seem far less concerned than I am, which is not a bad thing.
I wonder whether the girls understand the connection between romance and love. Anne tells Marilla that Lover’s Lane—which is what she calls the Birch Path—is such a romantic name, and she declares that her classmate Ruby Gillis’ sister’s marriage proposal is insufficiently romantic. But Anne herself does not fall in love until the third book, when she receives marriage proposals from the right man, then the wrong man, and then the right man once again. I don’t plan to read that book to my girls for a while. When I read them All-of-a-Kind-Family two years ago, back when they were six, we stopped before the final book about Ella, because I decided they were too young to appreciate the romance between Ella and Jules. I feel the same way about the later books in the Anne series. We will read them. There will be romance in my girls’ future. But not yet.