We’ve all had a first love, but for many people it involved a real person with which they had an actual relationship. For me, it happened through a book.
I read Little Women when I was thirteen. It was my gateway to a lot of firsts—the first time I read a classic novel, first coming-of-age story, too; first time I truly identified with the protagonist, the first time I fell in love with a fictional character, and the first time that my heart got broken by that character. In many ways, it was my initiation into the reality of love. I understood it and didn’t at the same time. How could two people who go along well and seem to be perfect for each other not end up together? I was stumped. The movies were wrong.
At thirteen, I knew little about how things around me worked. I barely understood fractions. I had no idea how many bones were in the body. I didn’t understand why I had to wake up at 5 AM for school; it wasn’t technically morning yet. And after reading Little Women, love was included in the already countless things that baffled me.
The novel was a challenging read because it was so long, and it seemed like a book that only grownups could appreciate. I don’t remember exactly what made me decide to go from reading The Baby Sitters Club to Little Women, but I remember the feeling when I was first introduced to the March sisters. It was like reuniting with long-lost friends. And I remember the first time I encountered The Laurence Boy. I think it’s safe to say that Theodore “Laurie” Laurence ruined men for me very early on. He was perfect. Articulate, a lot of fun, a bit moody but charming, very thoughtful and caring, Laurie is literally the boy next door. And he loved Jo. Usually, with that kind of formula, the story ends happily ever after. But theirs wasn’t the happy-ending variety. It was tragic.
John Green supposedly said, “We romanticize the people we adore.” But when you fall in love with characters, it’s already there. The romanticizing has already been done. All you need to do is fall. So when you believe in something, and the author shatters it for you, it’s like sweeping the rug from under your feet so suddenly that you hit your head and you’re left with a terrible headache that lasts for years.
But this is not a pathetic confession of my inability to see beyond the fact that fictional characters are exactly that—fictional. Quite the opposite, this is to say they are more real than others set them out to be. At best, these characters are a combination of all the things we wish we (or others) were. At worst, they are personifications of all our fears.
The point is that today, fractions still confuse me, I’m not sure if there are 205, 206 or 207 bones in the body, and I still don’t think it’s fair to make little children wake up at 5 AM for school. But one thing did change. Laurie showed me what it means to love someone. And how, after a rather horrific heartbreak and rejection, you could find yourself again. And isn’t that the point of first love? More than show you that it will not last, it gives you insight into yourself and other people through the characters.
I got over my frustration over Jo and Laurie many years ago. But just like any other first, I will never forget their story and what it taught me.