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Impossible Pursuit of Happiness

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Herman Rosenblat came to the attention of Oprah Winfrey in 1996, over 10 years ago when Herman’s love story with Roma Rosenblat began to pick up momentum. Herman began telling a fantastical tale that everyone bought, despite the improbable details.

Herman was imprisoned in Buchenwald, a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, at a young age. At age 12 he was forced to carry bodies from the gas chamber to the crematorium. During one of these trips, Rosenblat noticed a young girl, maybe age 9, standing behind a tree across the barb wire fence.

The girl would not talk to him at first, until he spoke to her in Polish. He asked her if she had something to eat and she responded by throwing him an apple and some bread. This became an evening ritual until Rosenblat was transferred to a different camp. Rosenblat immigrated to New York and was set up on a blind date with a young woman, Polish like him. During the evening, Roma, the young Polish woman, shared that during the War she would throw apples and bread to a young boy in a concentration camp. Herman knew immediately it was the girl from Buchenwald and this became the story of “Angel at the Fence.”

It was a story that was so heart warming that everyone wanted to believe it was true, no matter how brow raising the circumstances. (The AP reporter wrote before the hoax was revealed: "It all seems too remarkable to be believed.”) Oprah called the romance “the single greatest love story” she had ever aired.

The fundamental reason that Rosenblat’s fabrication was believed by so many is the desire that we all have for hope and happiness. We want to believe. For all the derision leveled at romances, there is one thing that cannot be denied. There seems to be a near universal yearning for the happy ever after ending, particularly after the triumph of near impossible odds.

The critical darling Slumdog Millionaire is really more than just a tale of a slumdog making it good. It’s the story of two people, Jamal and Latika, who met as young children and are separated time and again before destiny writes the last chapter. When the epic movie Australia was prescreened for critics, the movie was derided for its unhappy ending which originally saw the Hugh Jackman character die after three hours of torment and agnst.

In real life and in our escape from real life, we look for happiness. It’s part of the Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness. There is an even scientific basis for our pursuit of happiness. Endorphin are opiate like chemicals that our body can produce through various means such as exercise, sex, laughter, chocolate, chili peppers, massage, even meditation. These neurotransmitters tell our brain that we feel good. Happiness makes us feel good.

I don’t have a doubt that romance novels serve to engage our “feel good” neurotransmitters. The best ones take us through a range of emotions because without pain, there is no appreciation for the corresponding emotion of joy. The need for good endings is universal. It is not the exclusive province of the romance reader. It is not a crutch of the emotionally weak. We, as a people, seek happiness. It’s instinctual. It’s base.

Every time we crack open a romance book, we know therein lies a story of hope, inspiration, and happiness. The answer then to the question of why we read romance is, “why don’t you?” Romance, it’s our fundamental right.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

49 Comments

  1. Jennifer Y.
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 05:39:49

    Hear, Hear!!! I completely agree with everything you said! I especially like that last part as it is exactly why I read romances…for hope and to read that happy ending. And while the endings may be predictable, the various journeys to that happily ever after is what keeps me intrigued.

  2. Nora Roberts
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 06:54:17

    Of course, I agree with everything. But mostly I want to say: Ooooh, happy, happy elephant!

  3. Barb Ferrer
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 07:15:47

    Oprah called the romance “the single greatest love story” she had ever aired.

    And the irony there, of course, is that Oprah has never chosen a romance for her book club because she says they’re “unrealistic.”

    Unrealistic or not, so many of us want to believe in, if not the full out happy ending, at least the promise of it. The hope.

    And of course, happy elephants. *g*

  4. katiebabs
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 07:36:52

    I am all for many happy elephants. :D

  5. Jennifer Estep
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 07:39:43

    I was sad when I heard that there were problems with the story and that it probably wasn’t true. Because it is such a great story.

    I have to wonder if it would have gotten as much attention as it did if Rosenblat had just said it was loosely based on his experiences (or something like that) or just fiction — instead of being exactly how things happened. Probably not, I imagine. Journalists love writing about these kinds of (supposed) real-life stories because they are so uplifting and inspiring, just like you said.

    I always like to see the killer caught, the disaster thwarted, the kingdom saved, etc. To me, romances are a bonus because you get a great love story too, along with everything else.

  6. Jessica G.
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 08:00:49

    I just read a book recently where the ending was happy enough, until she fast forwarded and said what happened to every character, even that the woman died of old age. Think ending of Phantom of the Opera.

    It was good, but I really want to be on happy clouds at the end of a romance novel.

    Riding a happy elephant too.

  7. GrowlyCub
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 08:19:57

    I agree with your conclusions, but I have to admit I’m conflicted about your mention of the Rosenblatt fake since it seems to somehow condone it.

  8. Jane
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 08:45:25

    @GrowlyCub How so? By talking about how it is fake and that it preyed on people’s desire to believe that out of the dark comes something beautiful?

  9. joanne
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 09:11:10

    Beautifully said Jane. (and add me to those who love a happy elephant)

    I didn’t see the use of Rosenblat’s story as a condoning of his lies but as a reason why it was originally so successful in it’s sales to the millions of us who want to see humans find happiness in a world that is often harsh and cruel, at best.

    What angered me the most about the discovery of Rosenblat’s lie is that his REAL story had a HEA. He survived the concentration camps. He married a woman he loved and he lived a long life and prospered in the aftermath of the horror that was the Jewish experience in WWII. He could have written both stories. One a memoir and one a fictional romance.

  10. vanessa jaye
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 09:17:19

    This is exactly why I read romance, to be entertained and transported, for the experiencing emotional catharsis of the characters, and ultimately the reward of their HEA. No other genre quite delivers.

  11. GrowlyCub
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 09:28:19

    Jane,

    I’m not sure I can articulate this right. I think it’s because while you point out that it was a fake and explain why people may have wanted to believe it, the rest of the article is all about affirmative, positive feelings.

    Even knowing better, I somehow was left with a feeling that because we all love feeling happy, somehow his trying to make a happy ending story for people was okay, even though it was all a fake.

    It just left me vaguely disturbed, even knowing full well that you were not endorsing him in any way.

  12. Silver James
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 09:47:45

    Oooh….elephant!

    I don’t remember which romance author said it, and I am paraphrasing her, but when asked condescendingly why she wrote romance novels, she replied, “You have something against happy endings?” (Taken from an article in the RWA mag – don’t have it in front of me to double check source and exact quote so I can give credit where due. My bad.)

    With all the unhappiness in the world, what’s wrong with the idea, even fictionalized, that someone got their HEA? I vote for romance.

  13. Heather
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 09:52:12

    @Jessica G.: We must’ve read the same book. lol I really didn’t need to know that the heroine died in her sleep and was buried by the stream. *sigh* The happy ending two pages before was enough.

  14. GrowlyCub
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 10:03:30

    Heather and Jessica, would you share the title and author, please? I want to make sure I stay away!

    Thanks!

  15. Shiloh Walker
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 10:19:58

    Every time we crack open a romance book, we know therein lies a story of hope, inspiration, and happiness. The answer then to the question of why we read romance is, “why don't you?” Romance, it's our fundamental right.

    Dang, Jane…. that gave me goosebumps.

    And I’m also oohing and ahhing over the cute elephant. =)

  16. Anion
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 11:38:56

    Ditto Barb Ferrer. It’s amazing how Oprah puts down romances, when the books she picks tend to be* the literary equivalent of movies-of-the-week; books she thinks make her seem intellectual but are actually just printed reruns of that terrible “Queen for a Day” tv show.

    (*I said “tend to be”, not that they ALL are. I know she’s also had some quality work in there and some classics. But in general I think her taste is execrable.)

  17. Kalen Hughes
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 12:11:30

    Speaking of fake . . . you do all know that’s the (fake) baby elephant from the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland, right? Or am I the only one who’s spent waaaaaay too much time there? *grin*

  18. Leah
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 12:23:24

    by Kalen Hughes January 20th, 2009 at 12:11 pm
    Speaking of fake . . . you do all know that's the (fake) baby elephant from the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland, right? Or am I the only one who's spent waaaaaay too much time there? *grin*

    Nooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    (shuffles away, head bowed, permanently disillusioned).

  19. Kalen Hughes
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 12:36:06

    Sorry, Leah. *insert evil grin here*

  20. Barb Ferrer
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 13:18:08

    It's amazing how Oprah puts down romances, when the books she picks tend to be* the literary equivalent of movies-of-the-week;

    I always thought of it her unabashed joy at dwelling in the Bitter Barn. The books she chooses tend to be so unrelentingly grim, even the “lighter” fare she chose in the early days were of the sort that gave women’s fic the reputation for being habitually morose and depressing. (The Pilot’s Wife and an Elizabeth Berg novel that I can’t even recall now.)

    I just always got the impression that because she chose such dark books, she was proving that she was a better reader. That she didn’t have to retreat into fantasy. For someone who prides herself on self-improvement and on giving to the greater community to would withhold such a gift not only from herself, but for the readers she might lead to the genre makes me absolutely nuts.

  21. Jaci Burton
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 13:41:46

    The pursuit of Happily Ever After in romance is what keeps us turning the pages to the very end.

    And I love the happy elephant. *ignores comment that it’s a fake elephant* ;-)

  22. Lizzy
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 13:50:40

    Oprah has been the arbiter of America’s book-buying habits for far too long.

    (I almost typed “America’s literary tastes,” but realized that was far too complimentary; also, I worried someone like Francine Prose might reach through my computer screen and slap my hands off my keyboard.)

  23. joanne
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 13:51:37

    @Barb Ferrer …. Bitter Barn?
    LMFAO!!!
    OMG, I’m going to have that imprinted on note cards.

    not a fake baby elephant

  24. Barb Ferrer
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 13:53:59

    And you know, usually, I edit myself better, but I’ve been cutting back on caffeine lately.

    *cringes at typos*

  25. Robin
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 14:17:02

    And you know, usually, I edit myself better, but I've been cutting back on caffeine lately.

    *cringes at typos*

    Coffee has been my best friend since I heard it can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, lol. Not that I make less typos, but hopefully I can stave off even greater mental incompetence.

  26. Lizzy
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 14:26:07

    @Barb Ferrer: Re: The Pilot’s Wife. Exactly. Except Anita Shreve and Elizabeth Berg are hardly literary fiction. That’s the obnoxious and misleading part. Call me when she wants to tackle some really hard, symbolic shit that doesn’t have accessible characters who follow nice, linear plots. Moreover, as for her “classic” picks? Well, I know she picked Anna Karenina, and I think she did Madame Bovary, too — Look, these are important books, the kind of works that inform all later things. Bovary is perhaps one of the most significant novels of all time. Point being, if you’re waiting for The Big O to tell you to pick it up, I’m sorry, the cause is already lost.

    My mother can’t stand Oprah’s “look how I’m making you all so literary now!” crusade either. But, she concedes, at least millions have picked up more books because of Oprah. I am not nearly so generous. I get frustrated when people read exclusively in their comfort zones — any comfort zone. This applies to people in little patch-sleeved tweed blazer as well as pulpy paperback readers, too. And obviously, it applies to people who can’t pick up a book merely because it sounds interesting or exciting or even difficult and new, but will only do so because some celebrity on the glass tit tells them to do it.

    Gah! End of tirade except to say that if people read more and with less bias and reservation, they’d all surely be surprised at their experiences. HEAs included.

  27. Janet Miller/Cricket Starr
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 14:39:20

    @Speaking of fake . . . you do all know that's the (fake) baby elephant from the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland, right? Or am I the only one who's spent waaaaaay too much time there? *grin*
    :
    Nope, I recognized it right away. But then again I probably do spend too much time with the Mouse.

    Look at it this way. That baby elephant has been making people happy for more years than most of us have.

    Oh and I agree completely with what’s been said about people wanting that satisfying ending with the bad guys routed and the lovers united.

  28. Moth
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 14:48:12

    That was always my favorite part of the Jungle Cruise… :D

  29. Barb Ferrer
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 15:04:50

    Coffee has been my best friend since I heard it can reduce the risk of Alzheimer's, lol. Not that I make less typos, but hopefully I can stave off even greater mental incompetence.

    They’ll pry my morning coffee from my cold, dead hands, I swear. But in the interests of trying to actually sleep at night, I have been trying to cut back from 4-5 Diet Cokes a day (in addition to the aforementioned coffee…) to 1-2. I keep telling myself, sleep is a very good thing.

    Gah! End of tirade except to say that if people read more and with less bias and reservation, they'd all surely be surprised at their experiences. HEAs included.

    Lizzy, I think you and I are firmly in the same corner on this one. It frustrates me no end that so many people make their reading choices based on what Oprah says is good. Or anyone. One of the facts that has remained most vivid for me with respect to the Oprah Book Club was when she chose Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and his publisher immediately upped the run from 80K books (which is a great run for most novels anyway) to over 650K. I remember thinking at the time that it seemed absolutely surreal that one woman should have so much control over an entire industry. And I couldn’t help but wonder– how many people who picked up the book because it had that telltale “O” on the cover actually liked it. And how many people if asked, would ever actually admit it?

  30. Jessica G.
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 15:15:16

    @GrowlyCub:
    Crap gotta dig it out of my Reader, I totally forget.

    Ahh the Secret Lover by Julia London. Damn I can’t even look at the last page without my heart crunching.

  31. Kalen Hughes
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 15:21:15

    That baby elephant has been making people happy for more years than most of us have.

    I love that fake baby elephant (and pretty much everything else about the Jungle Cruise and Disneyland).

  32. Lissa
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 15:24:42

    RE: Oprah and her choices.

    I would be much more inclined to read what Oprah was putting forth as “important works of literature” if she chose the books on the merit of content and writing and less on the color of the author’s skin, the gender of the author and how she perceives the ‘newsworthiness’ of the book to be. Same goes for the her choices in the movies and plays she chooses to produce and the scholarships she gives out. Bigotry is bigotry regardless of the color of your skin. I personally think her choices of books would be considerably different if she read the book without knowing anything about the author.

    As for why I read romance? For the HEA of course! Couldn’t be for the witty dialogue, the well developed characters, the heart-wrenching love scenes or the emotionally feel-good stories. Everyone who is anyone knows that those things don’t appear in ‘chick-lit’. (Heavy sarcasm there in case you couldn’t tell).

    I also read several other genres of books – of all my re-reads or keepers the vast majority are romance. Murder mysteries don’t hold the same appeal after you already know who dun it.

  33. GrowlyCub
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 15:27:31

    Thanks, Jessica. I’ve never read Julia London, but now I know to stay away!

    I totally understand how you feel. It occasionally seems silly to me that I’m so affected by the books I read, but I am and even a throwaway line can ruin a book for me, not to talk about what you described for this book.

  34. Heather
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 16:07:03

    @GrowlyCub:
    Hmmm…there’s apparently more than one that do this. Mine was “Promise Me Forever” by Lorraine Heath.

    (As an aside, I’ve been on a Lorraine Heath kick lately and have enjoyed several of them.)

  35. Lori Borrill
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 16:11:27

    Well said and beautifully written, Jane.

  36. GrowlyCub
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 16:23:25

    Heather, thanks! I’ve read Heath before, even though I wasn’t too thrilled; I’ll have to be extra careful not to pick that one up.

    What a downer to think that there are romance novels out there like that!

  37. orannia
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 16:34:13

    The elephant made me smile and then the post made me smile. Thank you Jane! It’s also very appropriate, as one of my New Year’s resolutions is to discover what makes me happy. (Yes, something I should probably have worked out ages ago :)

  38. veinglory
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 16:45:28

    Also ironically: the elephant is a statue and therefore not happy at all, beyond the level of happiness fibreglass can be said to possess.

  39. Leah
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 16:49:07

    Firmly agree on all the Oprah comments. On the one hand, she’s worked so hard and tried to do wonderful things with what she’s been blessed with. On the other…you all said it better than I could.

  40. Robin
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 17:05:23

    They'll pry my morning coffee from my cold, dead hands, I swear. But in the interests of trying to actually sleep at night, I have been trying to cut back from 4-5 Diet Cokes a day (in addition to the aforementioned coffee…) to 1-2. I keep telling myself, sleep is a very good thing.

    Sleep is a very good thing. Although I’d argue that the fake sugar and carbonation are going to kill you first, lol. I can’t drink caffeine past early afternoon or I’m up all night, so I get it. At least you’re trying to cut down rather than going for the caffeine-free stuff.

  41. Jessica G.
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 17:38:30

    @GrowlyCub:

    Noooooo don’t stay away! Her first series (Pleasures of Pursuing a Prince, etc) was awesome! Honestly, so was this one, it was just the last five pages that killed me. She’s never done that before. But since you know ahead of time you can read the whole book and just skip the epilogue :)

  42. Phyl
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 19:29:01

    Well I don’t mind admitting that I thought the Julia London epilogue with the heroine on her deathbed was wonderful–it was brave of JL to write it and her publisher to print it. Instead of a room full of babies, we were treated to a life well-lived. It was also romantic as the hero refers to the park where they used to meet one another early in the book. I read that book several years ago and I still think about that epilogue. I know lots of people hate that epilogue, but not me.

  43. Holly
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 20:59:33

    The only time I ever come close to being a taste snob is the subject of literature. I’m an English major and a librarian. I read romance, SF and mysteries (and history). I’m also Southern, programmed since birth to be polite. But when someone starts in on the “why do you read romance (or science fiction)” or, even worse, “I can’t read romance, it’s just so silly”, they end up listening to 30 minutes of very civil ass chewing. I always start by asking if they read, and if so, what and how often. None of ya’ll would be surprised to find that many of the “oh, I can’t read anything that silly” people, when hounded, will admit they don’t read much at all.

    Sometimes if I’ve had a lot of sleep and I’m in a really good mood, I’ll throw in literary references that I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t get. Cause the truth is that, while I have read a good many of the classics, there’s a good many more that I haven’t, and no one would ever know because I can discuss them all as if I did.

  44. Barb Ferrer
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 21:18:29

    I'd argue that the fake sugar and carbonation are going to kill you first, lol.

    But I’ll leave a well-preserved corpse. :-P

  45. Lorraine
    Jan 20, 2009 @ 23:30:08

    I don't have a doubt that romance novels serve to engage our “feel good” neurotransmitters. The best ones take us through a range of emotions because without pain, there is no appreciation for the corresponding emotion of joy.

    I always “feel good” when I finish reading a romance novel. The whole experience of getting lost in another world, going on the journey with the H/H to HEA is yummy for me. The best books have me laughing, crying, oohing and aahing.

    Thank you to all the wonderful, talented authors who’ve given me so much reading pleasure!

  46. Kalen Hughes
    Jan 21, 2009 @ 08:54:36

    Sometimes if I've had a lot of sleep and I'm in a really good mood, I'll throw in literary references that I'm pretty sure they wouldn't get.

    I lurveâ„¢ Holly.

  47. GrowlyCub
    Jan 21, 2009 @ 09:14:47

    Phyl, to me such an epilogue seems more appropriate to a family saga a la Barbara Taylor Bradford than a romance novel.

    Jennifer, I know I could not *not* read that epilogue. If it’s in the book, it gets read, and I know it would destroy that happy endorphin glow I get when finishing a satisfying romance novel, so I’ll stay away from this one and the Heath. There are so many other books I know won’t leave me feeling bad, so those are the ones I’ll search for.

    Thanks for the input! :)

  48. Phyl
    Jan 21, 2009 @ 09:23:18

    GrowlyCub, I understand. You know yourself best and you’re wise to stay away if it would ruin the book for you. But for others who may be on the fence, I’ll say again that I loved the fact that it was such a non-typical epilogue.

  49. Amy Wolff Sorter
    Jan 21, 2009 @ 13:50:09

    I don't have a doubt that romance novels serve to engage our “feel good” neurotransmitters. The best ones take us through a range of emotions because without pain, there is no appreciation for the corresponding emotion of joy. The need for good endings is universal. It is not the exclusive province of the romance reader. It is not a crutch of the emotionally weak. We, as a people, seek happiness. It's instinctual. It's base.

    Yes, yes and yes, Jane. This is why romance does so well :-). It’s escapism, pure and simple. Case in point — I believe I have a wonderful romance with my soul mate, my husband. But we also go through the every day junk as well. He snores. I get moody. We argue. We’re tired. One of us isn’t in the mood. Etc., etc., etc.

    I don’t think we read romances to look at “real life,” though :-).

    I’ll also second Nora’s comment. That elephant does look like he/she is having a wonderful time!

    Happy (belated) new year, all.

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