Young adult author Jennifer E Smith on why we shouldn't be cynical
Having written a novel called The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, I find myself in an unusual position. The question that’s put to me again and again is a logical one: do I believe in it - ie love at first glance? But that doesn’t make it any easier to answer.
All things considered, I’d like to believe it exists. As both an optimist and a romantic, I’m easily prone to this type of belief. It seems a hopeful thing, to put your faith in something as unquantifiable as chance. In many ways – probably in most ways – it has nothing to do with science or facts or even statistical probability. It has far more to do with the mysterious workings of fate.
But like anything uncertain or controversial or just downright inexplicable, it’s difficult to prove, and it’s made me wonder about whether other writers might have run into this sort of problem too. For example, did anyone ever ask Charles Dickens whether he really believed there was a Ghost of Christmas Past? Or did they question W B Yeats about fairies? And what about Shakespeare? Did anyone ever think to challenge him about the way Romeo met Juliet? Or was the conventional wisdom of the time just more accepting of that sort of thing?
Maybe in the late 1500s, it didn’t seem like such a stretch, this whole love at first sight thing. Maybe people were less jaded then, more prone to grand gestures and sweeping declarations. The stories certainly make it seem that way, like everyone just walked around locking eyes across rooms, defying their families and laying down their lives based on little more than a fortuitous glance. I suppose it’s entirely possible that all-encompassing, utterly passionate, instantaneous love was nothing more than the Shakespearean equivalent of our more modern tradition of poking someone on Facebook.
After all, there are so many great old love stories that seem to have started at first sight. Not just Romeo and Juliet, but also Antony and Cleopatra, Scarlett and Rhett, even The Little Mermaid and her prince. It’s the stuff of history, the stuff of theatre, the stuff of fairy tales.
And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe we’ve all gotten too cynical. If we’re told enough times that something is a fairytale romance or has a fairytale ending, how are we ever supposed to believe it could happen for real?
But that’s what art is for: to inspire us, to remind us, to give us hope. That’s why we read the books and watch the movies. It’s why we still find comfort in fables and fairytales. Without love at first sight, Romeo might not have thought it was worth the trouble of waiting underneath Juliet’s balcony. Without that kind of belief, the characters in my own book might still be sitting across from each other at the airport, each destined to spend the flight alone with their thoughts, though I’d like to think they might have met anyway. Because the important thing isn’t that it was love at first sight for them; it was that they found each other at all.
When I wrote the book, I wasn’t actually trying to make a point about the odds of love at first sight. I was simply telling a story about two people who met, largely because of timing, and felt an immediate connection. In fact, the title came along much later in the process; it refers to a line toward the end of the book, an inside joke between Hadley and Oliver, the two main characters. For them, it isn’t so much love at first sight as a kind of instant recognition of each other, a sense of potential, a feeling that this person might turn out to mean something to them.
But there are plenty of people out there who have experienced this phenomenon themselves, and plenty more who believe it on faith alone. Maybe their best friend once saw a guy across a crowded pub, and now they’re married with three children. Or maybe their grandmother met their grandfather only once before getting married, just long enough to know it would be forever. Or maybe they read Romeo and Juliet when they were 14, and just like that, it became a part of them, the way the best stories do. Maybe, even after finishing the book, it stuck with them: not the tragic ending, but that sense of possibility, the hope of a deep and instant connection.
Life is known to imitate art. So why not love at first sight? Just like all the rest of it – the fairies and the ghosts – maybe the point isn’t whether or not it’s possible. It’s whether or not you believe.
The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E Smith is published by Headline.