What a novel character taught me about choices, indecision, and trying to have it all

Have you ever read a book where the main character irritated you so much that you couldn’t read it anymore? I have. They’re too perfect or too aimless or too much like me. 

Case in point.

A few years ago, a respected reviewer recommended a particular mystery series. (I won’t name them.) It had features I liked: complex female protagonist, interesting time period (Britain in the 1930s), strong writing, all things I enjoy. So I picked up one book from the series and read it. I read a second one and liked the female private investigator less. By the time I had read three or four of the mysteries, I was aggravated with her. Really, really aggravated.

An upper class man is in love with her. When she’s near his family estate, she lives there, sharing his bedroom and being referred to as “Lady (insert his last name)” by the servants even though they aren’t married.

He proposes. She can’t decide. She wants to be with him, but she wants her independence as a single woman, without the constraints she is certain a husband (and particularly an upper class husband) would place on her.

Over the course of several novels, she still can’t decide. Again and again the issue of her dueling desires arises. She wants him. She wants independence. In her mind, she can’t have both. Considering the time period and social obligations for his class, she’s probably right. Actually being Lady X would bring responsibilities that would conflict with her private investigation business. Giving up her private investigation business means giving up a vital part of herself, she feels. So instead of being or not being Lady X, she plays at being Lady X.

Yes, she’s uncomfortable when the servants call her that, but not enough to break off the relationship.

Yes, she likes being with him—sexually, socially, intellectually—but not enough to marry him.

She wants the benefits of both singlehood and marriage. This isn’t an option.

Some choices are like that.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth . . .

Like in Robert Frost’s poem, there are two roads. You can choose one road or the other road but you can’t simultaneously be on both roads.

As in Frost’s poem, one road isn’t more highly traveled and desirable than the other, though it may appear to be from the vantage point of the other road. (How many unhappy married people are there who’d love to be single? How many unhappy single people are there who’d love to be married?)

In many cases, you can have a great life no matter which path you choose.

e2d52dae4b794fdd9363de547a3cc86fYou just can’t have both.

I tend to be rather indecisive. Back in my teenage years, I was told by numerous well-meaning adults, “The decisions you make as a teen will affect the rest of your life.” This terrified me. It terrified me enough that I didn’t dare make any decisions because I might make the wrong choice.

I’m not talking about whether or not to do drugs, that sort of thing. I didn’t dare to choose between two or three good choices: be in choir, take up a sport, try to finish my novel, pick a college, go out with a guy. I couldn’t risk it. What if I made the wrong choice?

By not deciding, I was deciding. I was falling into the default decision to do nothing.

How different would my adult life be if I had made those decisions?

  • Being in choir or on a team wouldn’t radically change my life now. I’m still unmusical, but I run and lift weights.
  • Trying to finish my novel. I might have a head start on the novel-writing craft, but not much.
  • Pick a college.Would things have been different if I’d gone to a state school? Would I have avoided depression, etc.? Probably not.
  • I could’ve married badly, true. But the guy was asking me out for coffee, not kneeling on one knee and holding out a diamond ring. No need to fret over lifetime commitments yet. Besides, both being single and being married—while very different (as the female P.I. knows)—are good. You can have a wonderful life as either. (Just not both.)

But beyond the risk, I was fearful at what I might give up. Just like the female lead in this mystery series, I didn’t want to give up certain things—for her, independence; for me, the safety of the default, no-failure-possible choice—and I didn’t want to take the risk that comes from making the decision and living with the consequences.

Even if the consequences were morally acceptable.

Even if both possible consequences were desirable, though very different.

Even if the consequences weren’t that big of a deal.

So I stood at the metaphorical fork in the road, looking down each path, trying to figure out which one to take. If I were a novel character, I’d be similar to the female protagonist: irritating.

She tries to go down both roads and stand at the crossroads. I just stood at the crossroads, waiting for someone else to decide for me (or run me over with their horse and buggy).

While trying to read this series, I became so frustrated with this character that I stopped reading. In real life, I couldn’t ditch myself. I just had to learn how to decide big and small things and live with the results, both the benefits and the drawbacks. I had to because I can’t go down both paths.

I have to choose.

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3 thoughts on “What a novel character taught me about choices, indecision, and trying to have it all

  1. This is excellent – very timely for me right now! I’ve been feeling like I have to start all over in my late thirties. I didn’t go through all the ‘normal’ stuff so I’ve almost felt like I have to go through it all and have felt overwhelmed and paralysed, although my deepest desire is just to serve God and to reflect His light.

    As for characters so bad I couldn’t bear to read any more – the protagonist (if that’s the right word) in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (whose name escapes me). He was just vile.

    Like

    1. I’ve been feeling that same way, too. Late thirties, finally dealing with some junk from college; I spent my 20s and early 30s dealing with the bipolar diagnosis. Maybe a lot of people have this mid-life (quarter-life? third-life?) crisis around this time?

      Crime and Punishment does get better, I promise. He is caught and sentenced to Siberia. At the end, as Sonia reads the Bible to him, he starts to wonder if there could be grace even for him. But yeah, he’s vile.

      Liked by 1 person

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