A book for every stage of love

Image: Rob Dobi

On average a song lasts 3 minutes 30 seconds. Paintings can only capture a moment in time. And Hollywood rom-coms usually roll the credits once the couple have said 'I do'. And yet, from teenage lust to adult companionship, we spend decades falling in and out of love.

When it comes to reflecting those long – sometimes complicated, sometimes blissful – romantic journeys, nothing does it better than a book. Here we present a capsule of reading that will last you a lifetime. And if you want more love stories, read our list of the best romance books.

First dates

The Fault in our Stars by John Green (2013)

We start our literary journey with the equally exciting and dreadful rite of passage: the first date. As if love as a teenager isn’t awkward enough, for Gus and Hazel the logistics are even trickier because Hazel is suffering from terminal cancer.

Determined not to let the c-word limit their lives, the duo travel to Amsterdam. Shortly after take-off, Gus confesses his love and takes Hazel for a romantic meal during which they have their first sip of champagne  - a drink, they are told, inventor Dom Perignon described as 'tasting the stars'... 

There is a lot to take away from this heart-wrenching story but when it comes to distilling your dating nerves - remember to live in the moment. And always order champagne. 

Unrequited love

Emma by Jane Austen (1815)

Emma may have taken the title of Jane Austen’s novel but it is the young and naive Harriet Smith who captures our hearts. Persuaded by Emma to decline a proposal of marriage from the admirable Mr Martin, Harriet is encouraged to set her sights on Mr Elton and dutifully falls head-over-heels.

When it dawns on her that Mr Elton’s attentions are focused elsewhere, Harriet is heartbroken and takes a good part of the novel recovering before ceremonially burning a small pencil she stole from him. Unperturbed, Emma attempts another disastrous match for her friend before hanging up her cupid’s bow for good. Harriet – we feel your pain.

First love

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (1594)

No one has captured the intense, burning, all consuming passion of first love quite like Shakespeare when he allowed Romeo to gatecrash Juliet's family party.

Although the star-crossed lovers have been inspiring fictional couples ever since - from a movie about two garden gnomes aptly named Gnomeo & Juliet (2011) to Malorie Blackman’s fantasy series, Noughts and Crosses - it is arguably only the Bard's exquisite prose that can really do justice to those first pangs of passion. 'Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs', indeed.


The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (1933)

So you’ve found the one, made your vows and cut the cake. The big day might be over but if you are unsure what comes next, then literature holds no shortage of insights into marriage.

For some inspiring nuptial goals, Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas were utterly intertwined yet completely independent spirits and were the very definition of a power couple. Their salon on a Saturday night was the place to be seen for any artist or writer in 1930s Paris - just ask Picasso or Hemingway. This account of their relationship, living through a fascinating period of history, will certainly make you and your spouse up your date night game.

Surviving (or not surviving) a long term relationship

Ordinary People by Diana Evans (2019)

Not all of us are as fortunate as Gertrude and Alice when it comes to wedded bliss. In Diane Evans’ bitter-sweet story, two 30-something couples navigate their moment of reckoning, when youthful dreams are shelved for the demands of a young family and boozy nights out in central London are swapped for frantic commutes home to the suburbs. 

Each character in this celebrated novel battles their own demons as they attempt to find a happier way forward. All in all it's a poignant reminder about how we can be careless with the ones we love most. 

Second chances

The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal (2018)

As a young girl Mona’s father taught her the trick to time: ‘You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer.’ It's an idea that she carries through her life as she experiences moments of true happiness and devastating tragedies, until we find our heroine estranged from her husband, living in solitude and approaching her sixtieth birthday. Determined to make the most of the time she has left - and remembering her father’s words - she begins to pursue a new, more happier life. An emotional but uplifting read. 

A happy ever after

Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs (1998) 

An elderly couple sit beside the fire. The husband is reading the paper, the wife is finishing her knitting. Both in their comfy slippers - a picture of contentment. This is one scene amongst many that Raymond Briggs drew to chronicle the lives of his parents, Ethel and Ernest, from their first meeting in 1928 to their deaths, only months apart, in 1971. Perhaps most famous for his story about a snowman, Briggs created an equally moving account of family life and the cost of losing the one you love. It's a portrait of an elderly couple we can all hope to be like one day. 

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