How do I love thee? Let me count the personalized ways:
I can make us the hero and heroine of a 111-page romance novel, with real-life details in the text ranging from the color of your eyes to the dynamics of our first kiss. I can order a "hand-written" love letter from a California company that specializes in such ready-made expressions as "Sometimes I stop my busy day and wonder if I've told you recently how much I love you." I can even tell that same firm my emotions and they will write "my" letter from scratch.
Cynics aren't going to like this small but very real trend. If you cheered when Bette Davis said, "I'd marry again if I found a man who had $15 million and would sign over half of it to me before the marriage, and guarantee he'd be dead within a year," you probably won't soon be purchasing one of Swan Publishing's Personalized Romance Novels for your sweetie. But hey, it worked for Bob Surowiec.
"After a number of years -- I've been married 29 -- you run out of new gift ideas," says the New Jersey communications consultant. "You name it, I did it -- from trips to clothing to jewelry to candy. The beauty part of something like 'Paradise Dream' is that it's nonfattening and you don't have to dust it. My wife thought it was the greatest thing going."
"Paradise Dream"? That was the Swan novel Surowiec chose for his wife, Eleanor. It's the "Hawaiian Adventure Romance," as opposed to "Lotto Love" ("Find Riches and Romance ... All in the Same Night!") and the rather prosaically titled "Our Love" (spunky gal reporter falls in love with supposed bad man she is sent to expose). All of these are the work of Evelyn Brown, a 33-year-old resident of Placentia, Calif., who started Swan as a combination of her two loves: romance fiction and computers.
Each novel comes in three variations: For $45, you choose the hero and heroine's name and get to insert a personal dedication. For $60, there's the ability to make additional choices regarding the couple's hair and eye colors, hobbies, special song and so on. For $200, you get all the above plus, after filling out a questionnaire longer than the Harvard entrance application, a custom-tailored epilogue.
"The personalization choices are a lot more than I envisioned," says Brown. "I figured I'd just be doing names. Then the notion of dedications came up, and I said sure. Then people started saying 'I always call him "Pookie," ' so I made a list of secondary options. Then it was, 'We had this great wedding,' so I came up with the epilogue. But when you start doing something like this, you just hope to sell one book."
Like the majority of Swan customers, Surowiec opted for the middle version. "I couldn't remember the answers for the deluxe stuff," he says, noting that most of the questions are about a couple's wedding and honeymoon. "It was a while ago."
Brown's novels don't strike much of a blow for literature. Even by romance standards, they're barely adequate. "Maybe I should get a roommate," the heroine of "Our Love" thinks on the second page. "It would be marvelous to have someone to confide in, someone to share this idle time. It may even make my barren life more satisfying."
Or try this passage: "He, having no way to anticipate that a shapely young woman would be poised outside the door amidst an array of strewn luggage, nearly strode right into her. Yet, with unbelievable grace, he sidestepped the impact zone."
Perhaps style is less the point than the novelty of it all. "How many times," asks Brown, "can you give someone a dozen roses? And roses die eventually. This is a keepsake they're going to have forever, something that chronicles their romance." Most of Swan's 3,000 customers in the past three years have been men buying one of the novels for that special woman.
Or, sometimes, those special women. Often enough so it's a noticeable pattern, a man will order two books. For instance, there was the recent customer who had one dedication read "to my wonderful wife and the mother of my children" and the other "to the beautiful woman in the office who has a sparkle in her eye every day." Says a bemused Brown: "What if they ever got the books mixed up? But that's their problem."
Martine Greber of Love Letters Ink, a Beverly Hills operation, sees much the same phenomenon. "We get some men who send five love letters to five different women. And there was a woman this morning who sent letters to two different guys, both about 'how much I love you, and how much you have brought to my life.' We try not to pass judgment."
Love Letters Ink's basic selling tool is a catalogue, which contains the complete text of 100 letters. Most are $17; paper that is fancier than the basic "pastel with deckle edge" is an additional charge. Then there's the delivery fee for the little sealed tube.
It adds up: If Junior is being shipped out and you're in a big hurry to zip him overnight the missive beginning "When you were just a baby, I said I would treasure every moment with you. Every breath, every smile, every new word was a joy of such magnitude that I felt as if I had seen the face of God when I looked at you with chocolate covering your face," it's going to cost $64.
One of the pre-written letters doesn't quite express your dilemma? Greber, the 30-year-old daughter of two psychologists, will be pleased to listen to you describe your problem, and will then fashion a custom letter at $55 a page. These have ranged from an attempt at reconciliation by a husband who had left his wife and son to a note for a father who has renounced liquor to a couple's letter seeking an adoptive child.
"I act," Greber says, "as a translator for their thoughts and feelings. They never have to meet me or see me, never have to speak to me again. It's a superficial intimacy -- the same sort of concept as meeting someone on a bus bench and you tell them your whole life story."
It's easy to mock the pretensions of Love Letters Ink. The letters are dealing in basic emotions, which means the cliches pile up faster than anywhere this side of a Rod McKuen poem. Even if you make your own changes in the basic text -- for a $2-per-line fee -- you still end up with a lot of elegantly printed "Each day I reacquaint myself with just how much I love you."
A more basic problem is that a recipient of one of the standard letters -- including the customized jobs, the firm sold 5,000 last year -- may be in the same situation as the wife who realizes her husband had his secretary buy her birthday gift. Have we gotten so empty we can't even write our own love notes?
Unfortunately, yes, says Greber, who concedes that some people "get kind of hostile" when they hear exactly what Love Letters Ink does.
"For how many years have we all been taught not to say what we feel, to temper our words, to hide our feelings, to say 'yes' when we mean 'no'?" she asks. "If we could all say what we really felt, and had the words that matched the feelings, I don't think I -- or any other ghostwriter, for that matter would be in business." Her success, she says, isn't so much a symptom as a solution.
Insincere? she wonders. "How many on Valentine's Day go out and grow their own roses or mine their own diamonds or make their chocolates? We're conditioned to believe that going to the store to buy these things is acceptable. I'm doing something new, and maybe it will become equally as acceptable as buying flowers and candy."
Or so she hopes. But she's going to have a tough battle against the people who will use this as evidence of the dumbing-down of America, a culture that used to have a hard time figuring out how to think and now apparently can barely talk. I'd spend more time examining the sociological explanations for all this, but I'm at a loss for words.