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Rooting for the Rebound Woman: Can every girl have a happy ending?

by Amy Stone

I’m not ashamed to admit that The Notebook is one of my favorite movies, and perhaps one of the rare instances in which a film outshines the novel it claims to portray. The first time I saw it was in theaters with my aunt, sister, and sister’s friend. I had no idea what it was about; I’m not sure I even knew it was a love story. By the end of the film, we were all crying—and not the type of crying that happens during Titanic or Terms of Endearment or that recent episode of Modern Family in which Phil asserts that no man is good enough for his daughter. It was the type of crying that for me typically only arises at the end of a novel. I am an easy crier; I’ll assume that responsibility. Of course I couldn’t know it at the time—I was only twelve, after all—but the tears I shed at the end of the film signify, to me, that I had taken an intimate and personal journey similar to that of reading a great novel. That is why I’m unashamed to say I love The Notebook.amyI love it for a different reason every time I watch it. Perhaps it’d be more accurate to say that I love it for a different character every time. From Noah’s dad to Lon Hammond to Allie’s overbearing mother, I’m consistently astounded by the complexity built into each personality and the sadness that their relationships are able to evoke. Yet my favorite character of The Notebook, hands down, is the war widow rebound woman. Her introduction into the story goes something like this:

He [Noah] worked out his frustration with life every morning on the creek. And in the evenings, to temper the sting of loneliness, there was Martha Shaw.

It’s a heartbreaking couple of sentences. The narrator describes the routine Noah has taken up as a method of coping with the loss of his true love. Yet we all know that it is an unfulfilling routine, because his only fulfillment would come from having his sweetheart, Allie, back in his arms. This is sad enough, but then we learn that he has introduced not an activity, not a hobby, not a beer-drinking buddy but another woman into his unfulfilling routine. If she’s part of the routine she must be an unfulfilling partner, evidenced by the explanation of the function Martha serves: to temper the sting of loneliness. That’s her purpose; she is the convenient lover who prevents him from drowning in solitude. She is the woman he has, but not the woman he wants. And the worst part? She knows all about it.

A tear slides down her face as she explains to Noah, “Sometimes when you look at me you don’t even see me. Noah, a woman knows when a man looks into her eyes and sees somebody else.”

Oh, Martha. Poor Martha. It used to be that I only cried at the end of the movie, but now I simply can’t help myself when it’s revealed that Martha knows her place in Noah’s life. And I don’t think it’s because the lines are necessarily true—I think men and women alike are wonderful liars capable of tricking their partners and themselves into thinking that this is the person they want to be with. What rattles me about this scene is the simple fact that there are no secrets: everyone—the audience, Noah, Martha herself—is aware that she is not the protagonist of this story. Even if Allie has moved on, even if she makes his life easier to live, even if he loves her, Martha will never be the one. And there she lies next to him in bed, contemplating this new knowledge and longing for the days when her husband was still alive, when she was still somebody’s someone, when she was Noah’s Allie.

Essentially, all rebound women—and men—are Martha Shaws. Even if it isn’t technically a “rebound” relationship by today’s standards, there are plenty of people who have served no greater purpose than to temper the sting of loneliness for another person. It’s a difficult realization to have; it dictates that you recognize you are not the one, that the relationship exists more because it can than because it should. And once you see this you’re left with the emptiness that Martha feels as she leans against the headboard, takes a sip of water, and wipes the tears from her eyes. She doesn’t want to stay in bed, but all she has is a robe and it’s cold outside

There is one aspect of Martha’s characterization that I cannot figure out: what was the aim in making her aware of her rebound status? On one hand, Martha’s awareness makes it easier for us to accept Noah’s character; it isn’t as if he’s leading her on and she is chasing after him, blinded by love. Her understanding of her position essentially gives us a reason not to feel so bad for Martha and not to hate Noah for using her. He doesn’t love her, but at least she knows that. On the other hand, the very fact that she recognizes her position as “second best” adds an unsettling quality to the scene and to her character as a whole. Ultimately, we’re left with the question of whether we sympathize more with the woman who knows or the woman who doesn’t know, and if knowing renders Martha a stronger or weaker woman. Finally, what does it say about Martha if she is aware of her status but still dedicated to the relationship?

I wish someone would take on the cinematic challenge of presenting Martha’s story. Perhaps then I’d find peace with the theory that seems to save all victims of rebound relationships: he wasn’t for you, you’ll find the right guy some day, just give it time, etc. I wish I could experience Martha and Tommy’s love story, see how they fell in love, see their wedding, see the strong yet broken look on Martha’s face when Tommy goes off to Europe to fight. Would it be as beautiful as Noah and Allie’s love story? Would there be as much pain? Would there be as much reward in the end? Does it matter?

Despite the heartbreak Martha’s character undoubtedly endures, her last lines of the film are optimistic: “For the first time since Tommy died, I feel like I’ve got something to look forward to.” I sure hope she’s right. I hope it is true that The Notebook is simply a glimpse into one story, that every heroine of other stories was a Martha Shaw at some point in her life. Because I worry that perhaps Martha herself might find a troubled man to temper the sting of her loneliness, and maybe in doing so she’d risk noticing the one who was willing to go into town with her on a Saturday afternoon, or take a drive somewhere, or look into her eyes and see only her. Perhaps Martha Shaw would have her own Martha Shaw, and that’s a character nobody deserves to be.