Friday, July 12, 2013

Cassandra Clare: Master of Love Triangles

“Sarah, have you ever heard of The Twilight Clause?” This was Sarah Rees Brennan at a Books of Wonder reading a few years ago, quoting a piece of advice her agent gave her about her Demon’s Lexicon trilogy. The Twilight clause (I am paraphrasing from memory here): in any young adult novel in which romance is involved, sales increase if the love occurs in a triangular formation. This may be true, or it may be that everyone in the publishing industry decided it was true because Twilight sold. Either way, love triangles have become a pervasive device in the YA fiction world. And just like any popular trope, some instances of the love triangle seem to have been opportunistically dropped into a story where they don’t belong. And then there is Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices series, which reminds you just how great love triangles can be when wielded with skill and mastery.

(By the way, Sarah Rees Brennan is quite skilled at triangles herself, but she tends toward subversion of the convention, which is another conversation entirely.)

MAJOR spoilers ahoy for The Infernal Devices, as well as Twilight and The Hunger Games. If you haven’t read these books, I suggest you stop right here.

Part of the appeal of a one-girl-two-guys triangle, at least for straight female readers, is the fantasy aspect. In Twilight, Bella lacks specificity as a character. Her defining attributes are clumsiness, a love for her parents, and a feeling that she is invisible—all things that most teenagers have felt at one moment or another. This makes it easier for a reader to insert herself in the story in Bella’s skin, to imagine that she is the one who thought she was ordinary but is actually so special that two hot boys are fighting over her.

In The Infernal Devices, the reader can still imagine herself in Tessa’s place, but her character is far more specific. Here, the triangle is not mere plot device; it takes on a thematic purpose. Tessa is half-demon half-Shadowhunter, raised human and now pulled into a mystical world she never suspected, pulled between love and loyalty to her brother and love and loyalty to her new friends who saved her life. She is learning about her magical power to transform her appearance just as she is deciding which face she will wear in the world and which boy goes with that face.

Triangles cannot be sustained indefinitely. The thrill of the protagonist’s dilemma eventually fades, until readers are shrieking, “Just pick one, already!” This is where things can get tricky. If the author has done a good job creating a true love triangle, the reader should be just as stymied as the protagonist over which boy to pick. But inevitably, readers have their favorites, and some will feel she made the wrong decision because it’s not the one they would have made. For all the Edward fans, there are just as many who think Bella’s a dummy for not picking Jacob (although he ended up with her daughter so I’m not sure how that would have worked for them, but still, Team Jacob 4-Eva!!!). For those of us who know that Katniss never could have been with Gayle after the war was over, even if he hadn’t killed her sister, that only Peeta could have helped Katniss transition to a peaceful life, there are a million and more who still say Gayle is hotter. It’s supposed to be thrilling when characters finally get together, but love triangles inevitably disappoint in the end.

So how does Cassandra Clare deal with this conundrum? How to choose between Jem and Will? She doesn’t.

Clare brings the triangle to a point of tension (Will’s revelation to Tessa, which comes too late after Jem’s proposal) and lets it simmer (Jem’s sickness and the race to the alter) and then burst in a series of explosions (Jem’s supposed death, Tessa and Will get together, Jem is actually not dead but in the Silent Brothers). Thus, Tessa and Will end up together with Jem’s blessing and without betraying him. They live a full life, with children and grandchildren, before Will dies. But here’s the thing: Tessa’s demon half gives her immortality. So she grieves Will, but then she has to keep on living. And that’s when the genius of Clare’s resolution kicks in.

It’s modern-day London. Tessa is meeting Jem on the bridge as she secretly has once every year since he joined the brotherhood. But this time, he’s not in robes. He’s a human again, finally cured of his illness, and he wants to spend his life with her.

It’s not a completely happy ending; Jem’s humanity means that one day he, like Will, will die, and Tessa will have to grieve him too. But until then, she finally gets the time with him that she was denied so long ago. And Clare has figured out a clever way to give readers what they really want out of every love triangle: a way for the main character to end up with both boys.

“Some people have one great love in their life,” Magnus Bane tells Tessa. “You are lucky enough to have two.” Joy and sorrow, demon and Shadowhunter, Will and Jem.

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