A couple of days ago I finished reading the Printz-winning (and deservedly so) I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, and I went online to read some reviews as I sometimes do because nothing feels better than having your love for a book confirmed by the opinions of others. I ran across a couple of reviews that were critical of the “insta-love” between Jude and Oscar. At first I was like, “whaaaaat?!?” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that those “criticisms” were correct. Only…so what?
I would hazard a guess that 90% of all love begins as insta-love. That’s the nature of love. When two people first meet, both are lying. Both are putting forth the best versions of themselves. Both are seeing what they want in the other person rather than what’s actually there. He says he loves Harry Potter and you imagine all the wonderful discussions you’ll have about literature and how you’ll cosplay as your favorite characters and write bad fan fiction together when you’re snowed in. He ignores your bad taste in music and pretends that he loves your favorite movies. When you go to see him, you always wear your best outfits. You make sure your hair is brushed and your breath is minty fresh. You never let him see you with stubble or in that stained Dave Matthew shirt you’re nearly worn threadbare.
And you fall in love. You fall in love with his eyes and his lips and with the promise of a future that you’ve yet to even begin exploring. You fall in love, as John Green says in The Fault in Our Stars, “slowly, and then all at once.”
And then you fall out of it just as quickly. Or you don’t. You realize that he only read the first Harry Potter book and still thinks Snape is a jerk even after learning the truth. Your bad taste in music is cute the first 10 times you play that new Taylor Swift song, but by the 20th time, he’s wishing you’d throw on a little Amanda Palmer or something with an edge. He stops shaving frequently, and you realize he laughs in his sleep when he’s not busy snoring. You discover that his favorite cheese is Velveeta, and he learns that you bite your toenails when no one is looking.
Love, real love, enduring love takes years to fall into. It takes peeling back the layers of fear and pretense you’ve each erected in order to ensnare the other. Sometimes the truth ends in heartbreak. Sometimes it draws people closer together. But it all begins with insta-love. With that first spark, that intoxicating connection that may or may not develop into something deeper, but which is powerful nonetheless.
I read someone describe Rusty and Drew’s relationship as insta-love. And I don’t disagree. They are drawn together by shared pain. They don’t see each other, not really. They each see what they want to see. They fall in love with the person they hope the other will turn out to be. Just like in real life. I can’t count the number of times I’ve fallen in love. With the boy who sat at the table across from me in the courtyard at lunch in high school…the boy whose name I never even knew. With the guy who I swore used to walk by the Sunglass Hut I worked at in the mall just to make me look at him. With the guy I spent a night dancing and talking with and never saw again. Insta-love, all of them. A couple of times, that love deepened into something real. Often, it didn’t. When I met Matt, I knew I loved him within the first couple of months. But now, four years later, I know that what I felt in those first months was nothing compared to what I feel now. Now that I know he snores and doesn’t like to read and loves Cher and will do anything to get out of cleaning the house. It takes time for real feelings to develop, but I never would have given him the time if not for insta-love.
Which is why, in the final graphic novel chapter of Five Stages—that look into Drew and Rusty’s futures—they break up. The “insta-love” that they found together in the hospital isn’t enough to sustain them. But they find each other later, and they fall in love all over again. Real love, enduring love. The love that allows you to overlook used Q-tips on the floor and pee on the toilet seat and repeated arguments over who’s going to drive to the mall.
Gus and Hazel fall in insta-love, but that doesn’t make their love any less powerful or real. We don’t know if their relationship would have endured if Gus had lived. Maybe he would have grown tired of Hazel’s obsession with that blasted book. Maybe she would have grown annoyed with Gus’s incessant need to make a mark on the world. No matter how romantic (if you like poison and suicide) Romeo and Juliet’s story is, I don’t think they ever would have lasted for the long haul. Insta-love brought them together, but it wouldn’t have sustained them. Yet we love their story anyway.
Insta-love isn’t a terminal station. It’s the beginning. A beginning. And, yeah, it’s often irrational and superficial and destined to end in heartbreak, but that doesn’t make it less beautiful.