In case it had escaped your notice, this Friday is Valentine’s Day, an event in which the martyrdom of a Roman priest in the third century has strangely transmogrified into a festival of romantic love, cellophane-wrapped teddy bears, identikit red roses and social media showboating.
But halt! You don’t need to go out for the overpriced set menu, or show the world how #blessed you are with your perfect partner, when you could shut yourself alone in a room with a good book. What could be more romantic?
For as long as writers have touched ink to paper, they have explored the agonies, ecstasies and ambiguities of romance, from the medieval tradition of courtly love (note to Petrarch: she’s just not that into you) to the modern novel. Literature is at its best when it prods at the constraints society places on people, making love the perfect topic: a battleground between our most basic biological urges and the changing social mores around what constitutes an acceptable relationship.
In this round-up of literary love stories, constraints are explored in all their forms: from lovers crossing the spidery cracks of class differences in Georgian England to those stepping across dangerous chasms that have divided people based on sexual orientation or faith. Some celebrate romantic success, some help you feel you’re not alone in your heartbreak, others question the boundaries and meanings of love itself.
Click through the gallery or read below to see the 10 greatest love stories:
10. The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion
Let’s start with something light: a successful relationship usually means adjusting to how someone else sees the world. This is more of a challenge when that someone is Don Tillman, who cooks exactly the same thing every week according to The Standardised Meal System, calculates everyone’s BMI on first glance, and decides to find a wife by distributing a questionnaire. Enter chaos in the form of Rosie, who meets none of the criteria but nonetheless, well, ticks his box. Beneath the fun and the fluff there is a quietly profound exploration of the assumptions around autism and what it means to have an atypical – or a typical – brain.
9. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Marquez
This is a luscious, complicated tale of lingering teenage passion, told by Colombia’s Nobel prize-winning master of magical realism. Two young lovers, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, are parted by the latter’s disapproving father. Fermina marries someone else; they live separate lives and grow old. Once Fermina is widowed following an unfortunate incident involving a mango tree and a parrot, they meet again and become a couple. The novel explores what it means to be faithful and the subtle nature of a successful marriage.
8. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Love and marriage belong in two different boxes in this sprawling, epic account of the married Countess Anna Karenina’s doomed love affair with Count Vronsky. Her brother’s womanising is tolerated; Anna’s less so. Caught between fierce love, insecurity, hypocritical social pressures and the plodding presence of her husband, she finds it impossible to extricate herself. It does not end well. If you’re having relationship problems, think: “What would Anna Karenina do?” Then do the opposite.
7. The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald
What’s the difference between love and obsession? Not a great deal if you’re rich kid Jay Gatsby, standing on your lawn under the stars and sighing after Daisy Buchanan. This elegant and elegiac novel pairs a decadent moment in American culture with the solipsism of romantic fixation. Gatsby projects his own needs onto Daisy, and the gap between imagination and reality is beautifully exposed.
6. Under the Udala Trees, by Chinelo Okparanta
One of a number of Nigerian writers to draw inspiration from the country’s Biafran war, Chinelo Okparanta uses the conflict as a backdrop to this love story about two young women. Ijeoma is a Christian Igbo, and Amina is a Muslim Hausa. Suffice to say, things are complicated. This is an evocative portrayal of how passion pushes against the strictures of faith, family, class and pretty much everything in its path.
5. Middle England, by Jonathan Coe
Do opposites attract, or will marriage between a Remainer and a Leaver always end badly? This is one of the many questions deftly explored in Coe’s funny, touching novel about Britain before and after Brexit. While the conventional relationship is between two gently mismatched lovers – university lecturer Sophie and driving safety instructor Ian – it’s the relationship between dreamy novelist Benjamin and his sister that warrants the inclusion here. Not in a Game of Thrones kind of way: Coe’s novel is a reminder that we fetishise romantic love and overlook the significance of other bonds.
4. A Single Man, by Christopher Isherwood
The opposite of a “happily ever after”, Isherwood’s novel explores what happens when the person you love dies. The bereaved in question is George, a gloriously prickly professor struggling to get over the loss of his partner, Jim. His isolation is compounded by the homophobia of the Sixties. This concise novel captures the legacy of love and the utter discombobulation of grief, as well as showcasing Isherwood’s laconic brilliance.
3. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
From the red room of childhood nightmares to the mad woman locked in an attic, this Victorian novel has lent us some powerful symbols. It also stands as an enduring love story between the overlooked but fiercely intelligent governess of the title and Mr Rochester, who gradually learns to value what’s in front of him.
2. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
Even while dealing with terminal illness, the teenaged characters in this book pulse with life. A support group for kids with cancer isn’t the obvious setting for a romance, but this emerges as a tragicomic triumph. It’s a hymn to the importance of being in the moment, with a twist at the end that would make a sociopath snivel.
1. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
There is a reason this novel is basically synonymous with romance, spawning endless tributes and adaptations over 200 years after it was written: it captures what so many people long for in a relationship. No, not an ornamental lake and a man in britches, but for someone to see your true value. Darcy puts aside his concerns over Elizabeth’s lower social standing; Elizabeth moves past his terrible line in small talk. There’s a beautiful symmetry in the way their relationship sloughs off faults on both sides, while Austen’s barbed prose is a timeless joy.
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