The One with My Favorite Literary Love Stories

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.

Me Before You by JoJo MoyesFor 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.

The Fault in Our StarsFor 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.

All Creatures Great and Small, by James HerriotFor 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.

The Girls from AmesFor 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.

Major Pettigrew's Last StandFor 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.

The Mermaid Collector, by Erika MarksFor 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.

Call Me ZeldaFor 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.

Love PoemsFor 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.

Never Let Me GoFor 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.

Pride and PrejudiceFor 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. 

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29 comments

  1. The only two books I have read on this list are Herriot’s and Austen’s, both great choices. I haven’t read Never Let Me Go, but saw the movie and it made me cry and cry. The first two are already on my To Read List. Will be adding the others! There are just… so many books!
    Have a great day, Jackie! Give your significant furry others a Valentine’s kiss from me. =)

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  2. As you know, I’m not much of a book-reader, but I did happen to read Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” and I thought the film adaptation was one of the best adaptations of story to screen. Even though it is a tragedy, it’s one of my all-time favorite love stories. My dad loved it, too, and said that even though it was about two men in love, he identified with the emotion. It made him think about my mother and how much he misses her since she died. Another on-screen love story that I thought was terrific was “Away from Her”, an exquisite film by Sara Polley based on Alice Munro’s heartrending short story, “The Bear Climbed Over the Mountain.” Gee, I guess when I think about love stories, I lean in the direction of tragic; time to re-watch a Marx Brothers movie over here to regain my equilibrium.

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    1. I believe that the script for Brokeback Mountain followed nearly line by line the short story. I think that’s one reason the film adaptation was so good. Don’t mess with a good thing.

      I think you’ll need a good dose of schmaltzy love stories to counteract your tragic favorites. Maybe something on the Lifetime Channel would fit the bill. 🙂

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  3. Great idea for a Valentine’s post, Jackie. I have to agree, there’s not a better gift than a book. I had forgotten about “Never Let me Go.” I read that several years ago and really enjoyed it. Happy Valentine’s Day from Sara and me. Hope you are enduring the snow. Sounds pretty bad in you neck of New York.

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

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    1. I heard on the radio this morning that we’ve had 52 inches of snow this winter. And more is falling right now. I’m so ready for spring. I should have made this a list of “beach” reads to think warm thoughts. 🙂

      I hope your Valentine’s cards were a big hit!

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    1. I hadn’t heard about Jamilia but I did a search and am now completely captivated! What a story! I’ve added it to my list. I’m looking forward to reading it. Thank you for the recommendation.

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  4. I still haven’t read The Fault in Our Stars, but boy do I want to after reading that one line. Beautiful. You included some of my favorites — All Creatures Great and Small and The Mermaid Collector and of course P & P. Great selections, Jackie! Happy Valentine’s Day a day late and I agree, a book is a perfect gift. Thank you for giving me some of those!

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  5. Jackie, you are so, so kind to include The Mermaid Collector among so many cherished stories. We must be psychically linked because just last night I downloaded episodes of All Creatures on Netflix because we LOVED that show in our house growing up and it’s so romantic, for so many reasons. And it always leaves me bawling! (In a good way, usually!)

    I hope you and Sir Reg are well and managing all this crazy cold and snow–remind me: Does Reggie like the snow?

    Hugs!

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    1. I’ve never watched an episode of All Creatures, but I have noticed that it airs on PBS occasionally. I’ll make a point to watch next time it’s on. I love the books. They’re so charming and they take me right out of the city into beautiful rural landscapes filled with animals.

      Reggie is a big fan of snow! The best scene is when it snows overnight and we wake up to a winter wonderland. Since he doesn’t check the weather reports, he has no idea it snowed. He gets so excited and leaps around in the snow piles like a deer!

      How is little Dolphie doing?

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      1. Dolphie is doing really well, my dear!–ESPECIALLY since we have had unseasonable snow here in NC–and three days of no school so Dolphie is officially spoiled by a full house;) but best of all, my husband brought home one of the class hamsters (he was afraid he would go hungry if we were out of school!) so Dolphie has been very intrigued by the sound of the wheel all day–that little guy sure can run, wow!

        I love to imagine Reggie galloping through the snow–Olive loved it too. Jackie, you must watch the PBS series for All Creatures–it always makes me smile, for the same reasons the books did.

        Miss checking in with you, friend–hugs to you, and big pats to Sir Reg:)

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      2. Too bad the little hamster can’t generate power by running on that wheel. You could probably go off the grid in a matter of days! 🙂

        Reggie sure does love the snow — and he loves all the “treasure” he finds buried under the snow. Napkins. Pizza. Chicken bones. Sigh…

        Glad you are well and I can’t wait to read your next adventure!

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  6. So many good mentions here, Jackie, some I’ve read, some I haven’t. Jojo Moyes is wonderful. I’ve had Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand on my shelf since winning it. Now you’ve made me want to pull it down and read it. I want to read Never Let Me Go, but I’m afraid, having seen the movie – I suspect I will result in a middle of the night finish and cry, but I’ve heard his writing is worth the pain.

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