I will preface this post by stating that I’m not your typical Valentine’s Day person. I usually don’t go in for the over-the-top, heart-shaped, bow-and-arrow trappings of the holiday, but, in my humble opinion, if you’re doing the Valentine’s gift exchange thing there’s no better present than a book.
And what better book to give (or get!) on Valentine’s Day than one inspired by the holiday? Here are ten of my favorite literary love stories.
For those who enjoy unconventional love stories: Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes. It came as no surprise to me that this book was on many “Best of…” lists last year, and I don’t think I’ve read a bad review. Nina Badzin writing for Great New Books summarized it perfectly:
Louisa “Lou” is a woman down on her luck. She has no money; she lives with her parents who also need money; and she’s been stuck in a going-nowhere relationship as well. Once she loses the food service job she should have left years earlier, she accepts a position as an aid to an extremely wealthy man who is a quadriplegic. Will and Lou instantly dislike each other, but over time their working relationship gets more complicated.
This isn’t a traditional love story. But neither was Casablanca or The Fault in Our Stars (see below). Let me just say this: if you want a life-affirming, gut-checking story that will stay with you long after you close the cover (or turn off the e-reader, as the case may be) get this one.
For as honest a love story as you’ll ever find: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. Where to begin? This is quite simply one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. At its core, it is a love story narrated by 16-year-old Hazel who has overcome stage IV thyroid cancer — for now. Sounds depressing, right? I mean, she is still tethered to an oxygen tank and receiving heavy doses of chemo. But Augustus Waters, a fellow cancer patient at Hazel’s support group, falls for her and together they embark on the journey of their lives. Hazel says, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” It’s about the fine lines between love and disappointment; heroism and bravery; legacy and truth. It’s also about showing up and daring greatly (Hello, Brene Brown). I’m afraid this description doesn’t do the story justice. It feels like this is the story author John Green was meant to tell. When people tell me that literary fiction is pointless, I refer them to this book.
For animal lovers: All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot. Who says that a great love story has to be between two humans? James Herriot was just beginning his career in the 1930s as a veterinarian in the rural areas near Yorkshire, England. As a country vet his patients ranged from dogs and cats to pigs and cows. Herriot (whose real name was Jim Wright) wove his animal tales (pun intended), while painting a beautiful portrait of the windswept moors and the hardy, hardworking farmers (and even wealthy socialite widows). It’s warm, but not sappy; insightful, but not preachy. From caring for his patients in the depths of winter on the remotest homesteads to dealing with uncooperative owners and critically ill animals, Herriot set a charming scene with humor and compassion and love. Pick it up if only so you can use the term “flop bott” at your next cocktail party.
For those who want to celebrate friendship: The Girls from Ames, by Jeffrey Zaslow. Just as a great love story need not be between two humans, neither does a great love story have to be a romantic one. The Girls from Ames (Iowa) celebrates a friendship between 11 women, which began as many female friendships do, in high school. Now, 40 years later, scattered over eight states, the women have maintained a close bond that shaped every aspect of their lives — their sense of themselves, their choice of partners, their need for validation, their relationships with their mothers, their dreams for their children — and reveals how such friendships thrive. The writing is a bit sparse toward the end and at times the descriptions of the friendships bordered on cliche, but it was worthwhile read and reminded me how much I value these important lifelong relationships.
For those who like witty romantic comedies: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. An unexpected friendship between Major Pettigrew, a retired British army major in an English, village, and Mrs. Ali, a widowed woman of Pakistani heritage who runs the village shop. Major Pettigrew believes in honor and duty and tradition. That’s why he wants his father’s heirloom guns returned to him, but his son has other plans–he’s going to sell them for a tidy sum. Major Pettigrew finds an unlikely ally in Mrs. Ali and they discover they have quite a lot in common. The story builds to a page-turner (I won’t ruin it for you) as Simonson brings the fates of the guns and Pettigrew and Ali to a climax. Simonson says she wanted to explore characters who felt like outsiders because that is what makes them so interesting — the part that lies outside the norm.
For a boy-meets-girl story: The Mermaid Collector, by Erika Marks. This novel weaves together two love stories in Cradle Harbor, Maine. More than a century ago, lighthouse keeper Linus Harris left his beloved wife, Lydia, and was lost at sea with three other men trying to reunite with their mermaid lovers in the Mermaid Mutiny of 1888. In modern day Cradle Harbor, the connection between newcomer Tom Grace and Tess Patterson is a woodcarver with a romantic streak. Tom has mysteriously inherited the lighthouse, leaving the townspeople to wonder what he intends to do with it. Only Tess’s step-father knows the truth. I enjoyed all of the characters in the story – too many to list here — they were interesting and complex, but I never lost track of them or felt any were superfluous. If you’re looking for a book with a little bit of history, a little bit of romance and a lot of layers, this is a great choice To read an interview with Erika Marks, check out Julia Monroe Martin’s blog.
For those who like to uncover love behind the celebrity: Call Me Zelda, by Erika Robuck. In the 1920s, the Fitzgeralds were the “it” couple, the equivalent of a modern day Jay-Z and Beyonce (ok, maybe that’s a stretch). Erika Robuck takes a look at the private lives of this very public couple: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. What happens when the shiny veneer of their Jazz Age exploits are worn away, and they have to accept a new reality for themselves? Interwoven in Zelda and Scott’s unraveling is her nurse, Anna, who is in need of some healing of her own as she nearly gets swallowed by the Fitzgeralds’ larger-than-life personas. Anna and Zelda begin a sympathetic friendship that lasts years as they both navigate the road to recovery. A compelling read about a deep, abiding love amid its destruction.
For poetry lovers: Love Poems, by Pablo Neruda. This one is a no-brainer. Although it’s not a love “story” per se, this is a lovely collection to share with a special someone. For those of us who are poetically challenged, it’s amazing the way Neruda spins large passion into an economy of words. The fact that he wrote these poems while living on the island of Capri in Italy, makes it even more seductive.
For those who like to read about love against all odds: Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. As I’ve mentioned before, dystopian novels tend to give me sleepless nights. Never Let Me Go was no different, but the driving force of this story is the love between Kathy and Tommy. They had an adolescent crush when they lived at Hailsham, a private boarding school, where they were kept isolated and taught that their well-being was crucial not only for themselves but for the society they would eventually enter. (I’m not going to give you the spoiler here!) Nearly a decade later Kathy and Tommy are reunited and they fall in love…but (and didn’t you know I was going to say this) there is a dark secret behind the purpose of Hailsham and they must face the truth of their childhood — it’s a matter of life and death.
For those who love the classics: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. A cliche choice? Perhaps. Out of fashion? Never. There’s not much I can write about the proud Mr. Darcy and the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet that hasn’t already been written. This is my favorite of Austen’s novels and as classic a love story as you can find. The esteemed Eudora Welty described it as “irresistible and as nearly flawless as any fiction could be.”
What are your favorite love stories — books or films?
Have a great weekend, everyone.