10 Love and rules "to prevent its aberrations": Nora Roberts’ Three Sisters Trilogy

In the title of this chapter I refer back to Mr. Stanley's words in Hannah More's Coelebs in search of a wife (1808), through which he expressed a legalistic caution about love: “love itself requires some regulations to direct its exertion; some law to guide its motions; some rule to prevent its aberrations; some guard to hinder that which is vigorous from becoming eccentric” (332). Nora Roberts' Three Sisters trilogy advocates for such an approach inasmuch as it depicts a variety of ways in which love can become destructive and suggests the need to evaluate and assess experiences of love in order to be certain that it will indeed be beneficial. The trilogy, comprised of Dance Upon The Air (2001), Heaven and Earth (2001), and Face the Fire (2002), explores various aberrations which arise from love, or what purports to be love. The first novel examines a possessiveness which resorts to control and violence, the second focuses on a vengeful response to the loss of a loved one, and the third outlines some of the damage which can be caused by over-dependence on a beloved. The series can, then, be read as a legalistic warning that possessiveness may, at least initially, be indistinguishable from love, and that it is important to guard against the development of perversions or “aberrations” of love such as revenge and despair.

The novels are set at the beginning of the twenty-first century but refer back to events which took place at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries. In this earlier period a demonic “dark force” (Dance 252) was responsible for the deaths of “innocents” (Heaven 336) as a consequence of the witch-hunts in Salem, Massachusetts. Three white (in terms of their magic, as well as their skin colour) witches named Air, Earth and Fire escaped, however, to Three Sisters Island, which they created as a haven “from hate [...] from fear, from death and scorn” (Dance 4). The three lived on the island they had created but were “fated to love and to lose” (Face 1); as a consequence of romantic love they too were, after a time, “destroyed” (Heaven 336). In the present day the three witches’ descendants, Nell, Ripley and Mia, who have inherited their magical abilities and also inhabit the island, must learn from their ancestors’ failures: before these three present-day heroines can defeat the “dark force” of evil and save the island, they must find true love. However, the ascendance and subsequent defeat of the demon may serve as an illustration of C. S. Lewis’s claim that if we “give our human loves the unconditional allegiance which we owe only to God [...] they become demons. Then they will destroy us, and also destroy themselves” (The Four Loves 10). Roberts’ trilogy certainly demonstrates why the legalistic mode insists that love must be properly regulated.

The witch “known as Air wished for love” (Dance 94) and left, marrying a man who beneath his “golden and handsome” exterior “was dark” and “killed her for being what she was” (94). It is implied that his actions were motivated by the demon intent on destroying the witches and certainly “The force that was unleashed centuries ago” uses Evan Remington, the modern-day counterpart of Air’s husband, “as a conduit” (Face 129). Nell, the new air witch and Evan’s wife, senses “A kind of cold, deliberate madness inside him” (Dance 304) and Mia names it as “evil” (Dance 304). Evan “couldn’t stay sane when forced to face what lived inside him” (Heaven 107) which, as Ripley discovers, is something “very strong, and very dark” (Heaven 295). Air’s story may therefore serve as a warning that care is required in the search for love, since individuals may not be all they appear at first sight.

The witch known as Earth, filled with “rage and [...] grief” (Heaven 1) at Air’s death, “built her hatred stone by stone until it had become a wall that no one could breach” (Face 2). With her love for Air thus displaced by an all-consuming hatred for Air’s murderer, she called down “vengeance” upon him; in doing so she “corrupted” her own power, inadvertently killed her own husband, and “sacrificed her soul” (Heaven 3). Since Earth’s modern-day counterpart, Ripley, possesses an “instinct to protect who and what she loves” (69), it seems safe to conclude that Earth’s act of vengeance was also motivated by love. The third sister, Fire, certainly met her death due to love:

She who was Fire found a silkie in human form sleeping in a cave near a cove. And taking his pelt, she hid it and […] took him as lover, as husband, raised her children with him […]. But the day came when [...] he found his pelt. And though he had loved her, when a silkie has his pelt, the sea beckons. He forgot her, their life, their love, their children – as though they had never existed – and left her for the sea. [...] Without sister, without lover, without husband she pined, and pining, despaired. She cursed her magic for bringing her love, then stealing it away. And abjuring it, leaped from the cliffs to the sea where her lover had gone. (Heaven 225)

Thus Air’s wrongly directed love destroyed her, Earth’s love led her into hatred, vengeance and destruction and Fire, in despair at losing her beloved and deprived of the support of her sisters, “killed herself” (Face 73).

As the series opens, the three modern heroines have already survived experiences very like those which killed or corrupted their ancestors. Nell has escaped her violently abusive husband, Evan, by undergoing a fake death and taking on a new identity. Years earlier, Mia and Sam’s love-story paralleled that of Fire and the silkie, since Sam “had exiled himself, deliberately, from the island and from Mia” (Face 6), leaving Mia “a wreck” (Heaven 283). Due to the strength of the bond between Mia and Ripley, Ripley “felt what” Mia felt, and “experienced, physically” (Face 87) what Mia experienced. Since “the longer it went on, the more angry” (Face 87) Ripley got, when she eventually imagined what she’d do if someone “hurt me that way [...] a bolt of light shot out of the sky. A black bolt of light, barbed like an arrow. I sank Zack’s boat [...] Nobody was in it, but they could have been” (Heaven 283). Ripley’s vengeful anger only missed killing her beloved brother by a matter of “twenty minutes” (283-284).

Ripley’s anger in response to loss is in many ways the simplest of the “aberrations.” Revenge is condemned on the grounds that, as Fire told Earth, “You have no right. [...] If you cause harm, you’ll have broken your vows. You will have corrupted your power” (Heaven 2-3). This mirrors the injunction in Romans 12:19: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” There is condemnation, then, of revenge as a response to the loss of a loved one, but no critique is offered of either Earth’s love for Air, or Ripley’s love for Mia. Rather, what Ripley must learn is how to control an instinctive response to lash out in defense of, or in response to harm to, those she loves. It is therefore through the exploration of the relationship between Nell and Evan, and between Mia and Sam, that a deeper understanding of true love emerges.