Watching John Cusack in Serendipity and Must Love Dogs reminded me that I am indeed a hopeless romantic.

I’d forgotten how much I like to linger over John Cusack on screen, but it all came rushing back this week when I took advantage of the rent-one-get-one-free special at our neighbourhood DVD store and watched Serendipity and Must Love Dogs in a single afternoon.

Serendipity is one of my favourite movies and I’ve seen it more than 20 times, but it never gets old. It’s such a charming little movie, with a perfect cast and a standout performance from Cusack as the quirky hero Jonathan Trager opposite Kate Beckinsale in one of her first big roles.

The story follows Jonathan and Sara Thomas (Beckinsale) from their chance encounter over the Christmas holidays to their lives five years on from the moment that changed everything. In the present, they’re both engaged to other people and have settled into their daily routines, but are reminded, every now and then (and in curious ways) of the evening they spent together and how they connected in a way neither one had believed possible. The spark is clearly missing with their current partners, despite the fact that they’re both good people, and it’s the knowledge that something’s missing which spurs their shared quest to find each other again.

In Must Love Dogs, Cusack stars opposite Diane Lane. He plays Jake, a relationship-wary loner still trying to get over his last big break-up. He meets Sarah (Lane), a kindergarten teacher whose long-term boyfriend traded her in for a newer model when she brought up the subject of marriage and babies. Although their first date in a dog park doesn’t go according to plan, they decide to give it another shot. It’s an up-and-down romance peppered with family drama and personal growth, and it’s thoroughly entertaining.

In case you didn’t know by now, I’m a hopeless romantic. And that’s probably why I find the themes covered in these two films so provocative. Serendipity is a cinematic exploration of the question that most lovers have asked (or will ask) themselves at some point in their lives: “What if?” Two little words that can make or break you. Two little words that can inspire a journey or cripple you with regret. Two little words that are bound to get you thinking about fate, and destiny, and whether or not there’s a perfect partner for every soul on Earth.

Must Love Dogs deals with the debris of lost love, the utter chaos of the journey to find it again, and the latent fear of getting hurt once you do. It also poses some interesting questions about relationships. How do we get over a broken heart? How do we learn to love again when our faith has been shattered? How do we learn to trust again when we’ve been betrayed? Should we open ourselves up to joy and passion and romance while knowing there’s a risk of sadness and disappointment? How do we reconcile what we know about love with everything that we want it to be?

In the final minutes of Serendipity, Jonathan is reading the speech that his best man wrote for his wedding (except the speech is an obituary and the wedding never happened – but you’ll have to watch the movie to find out why, on both accounts). There are two parts that I really like:

“The courageous Trager secretly clung to the belief that life is not merely a series of meaningless accidents or coincidences. Uh-uh. But rather, it’s a tapestry of events that culminate in an exquisite, sublime plan.”


“Ultimately, Jonathan concluded that if we are to live life in harmony with the universe, we must all possess a powerful faith in what the ancients used to call ‘fatum’ – what we currently refer to as ‘destiny’.”

I’ve never really thought about myself and fate – mostly because, like Neo in The Matrix, “I don’t like the idea that I’m not in control of my life”. I don’t like the idea that my decisions aren’t really mine at all, that they’re just pit stops along a path which has already been carved out by destiny (or whatever you want to call it). Because, if that’s the case, why do we have free will at all? Why do we have choice? But let me stop that train of thought before I get sidetracked. What I wanted to share was my husband’s interjection about how our relationship began (and here’s where it gets tricky, in light of my beliefs).

The first time we met, we were both in serious relationships. I was with my high-school sweetheart and he was involved with an Irish woman he’d met while overseas. I was in the middle of a gap year in KwaZulu-Natal and my boyfriend was studying at UCT in Cape Town. So we had plenty to talk about when we were introduced – the challenges of long-distance love being one of the main topics. He had become friends with my boyfriend at university (they were in the same residence) and the two of them, along with Third Gent, had morphed into a little trio who did everything together (including 2am squash tournaments and nightly PC gaming sessions – apparently that’s what happens when you put together three computer boffins in a new city).

Many moons later, I was single and studying in Durban. I’d lost touch with hubby-to-be and Third Gent after the break-up and was spending all my time on campus. One sunny day I decided to go to Musgrave Centre (a swish shopping mall) for a bout of window shopping and a strawberry milkshake. I entered through the same entrance, lingered in front of the same displays and was almost stopped by a velvet hat at a small boutique. I contemplated going in and buying it, but then my deep desire for a dairy treat kicked in. So I got into the lift and headed up to the mezzanine level. And who do you think was standing there when the doors opened? Yes, you guessed it! My Cuddly Bear! And the rest, as they say, is history.

Cuddly Bear is quick to point out that we would have missed each other if I’d stopped to buy that hat. Or if I’d been delayed by a traffic light. Or if I’d stayed home. So many things could have kept us apart on that day, and yet, somehow, we ended up together. So was it fate? Was it destiny? Lady Luck? Venus herself? Who knows?! I don’t care how he wound up with me. I just care that he is with me.

The title of this post is borrowed from the lyrics of American Pie by Don McLean.

Janine Papendorf likes coffee, chocolate and wine. Not necessarily in that order. She’s married to a nerdy biker and they’re raising Cape Town’s cleverest child. When she’s not building Lego castles or watching old movies, Janine likes to send words into cyberspace. She’s a freelance writer and content strategist based in South Africa’s beautiful Mother City. Witness her obsession with pink flowers on Instagram, or contact her to collaborate on a project.

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