Novels to swoon, cry and sigh wistfully over this Valentine's Day, as chosen by Giovanna Fletcher, Caleb Femi, Andrew Hunter Murray and more.
Novels to swoon, cry and sigh wistfully over this Valentine's Day, as chosen by Giovanna Fletcher, Caleb Femi, Andrew Hunter Murray and more.
Whether they remind us of relationships gone by, dare us to hope for love to come or make us want to stay single forever, love stories are often among our most formative and memorable reads.
From devastating tragedy to swoon-inducing romance, here Caleb Femi, Giovanna Fletcher, Katie Fforde and nine other Penguin authors share their favourite books about love in time for Valentine's Day.
I was recommended Me Before You by Jojo Moyes so many times that when I finally sat down to read it I had incredibly high expectations for how much it would move me. It didn’t disappoint. I was so engrossed with the characters and their love story that I read it in two sittings and was left with a bloated, red and blotchy face from crying so much. In many stories we’re shown that love can pull a person through challenging times and obstacles to a happy ending.
Moyes plays around with that notion in this novel. Love is a powerful emotion. It is magical, pure, freeing and raw. But sometimes love has to help us through the pain of letting go, rather than stopping that heartache from occurring.
The narrative is highly thought-provoking, reminding the reader that life can change unexpectedly. Without warning, all of your hopes, dreams and desires can suddenly become unobtainable, leaving you feeling like you have nothing left to live for. This book picks you up and rams some sense into you as it shouts, 'Don’t live for tomorrow; live for today. Do the things you want to do NOW.’
I first read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy when I was in school. Even though I had yet to fall in love for the first time, the book opened my eyes to the highs and lows of love, which appealed to my teenage self. As magical as love can make us feel, Tolstoy taught me the tragedy inherent in the transaction as well. On my first reading, I fell in love with the Anna and Count Vronsky story. When Vronsky chases Anna as she’s trying to flee from her overwhelming emotions and tells her he has no choice but to be wherever she is, I practically swooned. It’s my number one romantic passage of all time. It impacted me as a teenager and during all of my subsequent readings.
Tolstoy shows us that the power of love is an unstoppable force (like a speeding train – hello metaphor!) and, not just through Anna and Vronsky’s story but all of the love relationships depicted in the book, that love is an incredibly complex emotion that can make us lose our minds, risk our souls or break our hearts. It’s this rollercoaster of passion and heartache that makes Anna Karenina such a thrill to read (and re-read).
When I was nine years old, my primary school class read C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe every afternoon during reading hour. I surrendered my full attention to the book when Edmund took his first bite of the Witch’s Turkish Delight: What was so special about Turkish Delight that would make a boy sell out his family, sell out Aslan? Naturally, as my father was a bishop, I was familiar with love that led to unimaginable sacrifice. But love that led to such intimate betrayal was unexpected and thought-provoking.
During this time, I sat on a table with Kemi, who had pink interarch rubber bands on her braces and totally pulled off the look. Each afternoon, we found ourselves in as deep a conversation as a pair of nine-year-olds could have about Edmund and Turkish Delight; it was electric, and we took it as the conception of a shared love between us. That is until one lunchtime, when we decided to taste Turkish Delight for the first time. Turkish Delight was just starch and sugar. Starch and sugar and disappointing. Fair to say it was certainly an antidote to whatever love we thought had seeped into our system.
Whenever I need reminding what authentic, giddy, pulse-quickening romance looks like, the novel I reach for is Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes. It’s not the only reason I turn to it – there are also the laughs, the brilliant supporting cast, and the sudden lumps in the throat. But the sheer honesty of Luke and Rachel’s slow-burn, then very fast-burn relationship still makes me ache for this perfectly mismatched couple to get it together many, many re-reads later. Luke is, as per Rachel’s typically glib initial assessment, a Real Man in his leather trousers, long hair and Led Zeppelin answering machine message, but his quiet determination to see the best in her, despite Rachel’s obvious-to-everyone-but-herself self-destruction, is sweetness itself.
It’s a heartbreaking ride (Ride! Ha!) – Rachel’s addiction tests Luke’s devotion and patience to its limits, and it’s only when he finally, reluctantly, gives up that she starts to realise how well he understands her; even the broken, shameful corners of her character she can barely acknowledge herself. And so, her road to recovery begins, and I still hold my breath, racing through the final pages, willing this gorgeous, life-changing love to get to its happy ever after.
Lucy Dillon is the author of Unexpected Lessons in Love.
I started reading Georgette Heyer novels when I was quite young – in fact, I couldn’t understand quite a few of the words so it must have been really young. What made a deep impression on me as a reader (I had no dreams of being a writer then) was that the men all fell in love with the women because they were kind and witty and bright, not because they were beautiful. This affected me as a pre-teen as it went against what the zeitgeist of the time seemed to say, which was that you had to be young, beautiful and compliant in order to ‘get a man’ – and more importantly, to keep one.
So maybe the first one I read, Friday’s Child, is the one that had most influence. In this book our hero is a bit young and impetuous. He marries his childhood friend on a whim and then doesn’t know what to do with her. Through the story he stops seeing her as a nuisance and realises his life is empty without her.
I won’t pretend. Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian is not an easy novel. A novelist friend once said she didn’t know whether to kiss or punch me for making her read it! But those who do read this strange masterpiece never quite forget it. I first read it 15 years ago and still at times, sitting on a bus, I find myself thinking about it. The book is a long letter from the dying Emperor Hadrian, ostensibly written in 138CE, to Marcus Aurelius on his thoughts about life, power, philosophy and art. But as the letter continues, in glowing, exquisite faux-classical prose, what emerges is instead Hadrian’s love for Antinous, a beautiful young man who appears in his emotionless life.
But what happens to Antinous, and Hadrian’s grief-stricken confusion about what his lover has done – and why – begs frightening questions: Do we harm ourselves for love, and what does that mean for those left behind? That Yourcenar, herself bisexual, created this strange and beautiful queer novel about love and its both wonderful and terrible powers to transform in the 1940s is even more extraordinary. Maybe you’ll want to punch me too when reading it – but one day, you will find yourself sitting on a bus somewhere, still thinking about it. It’s okay: I will be, too.
I rarely re-read novels, but one notable exception is Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. I love everything about this book: its quiet wisdom and beauty, the decades-long portrayal of a friendship between two couples, the clarity of the language (writing doesn’t get better than this, in my opinion). It is also my kind of love story; we explore the private interior of the marriage of Larry and Sally Morgan from their newlywed days into old age.
They love each other – deliberately and consciously – for their entire marriage. They hold their tongues when it’s smart to do so, leave the room when they don’t have something nice to say, and are each other’s helpmate, friend and confidant. Something terrible happens – I won’t spoil anything – and you feel the massive effort they each have to employ to continue to move forward together. There is grace in their steadfastness, and in their love. Larry and Sally keep their promises to each other, and to witness that, on the page or in real life, is beautiful.
I’m a recent convert to Edith Wharton and all of her works, and I’m kicking myself for not discovering her sooner. The Age of Innocence – Wharton’s 12th – tells the story of a young man, Newland Archer, who is about to marry a predictable, safe young woman when he suddenly meets Countess Ellen Olenska and falls unstoppably in love with her. And yet… the Countess is the already-married, scandal-prone cousin of his fiancée, and New York society is determined for his wedding to go ahead as planned. The romance is doomed. Archer remains in love with the Countess, unable and stubbornly unwilling to break off the relationship totally. Even after events conspire to drive them apart, his love for her survives at a deep, almost cellular level.
The story is so powerful because of that sense of yearning it reminds us of – the ache of realising we don’t want things to be like this – and because of its reminder that, just occasionally, love can survive the circumstances that conspire against it. "It’s a hundred years since we’ve met", Archer tells the Countess during one of their meetings. "It may be another hundred before we meet again." Their love survives regardless. It’s perfect.
My favourite love story? I could choose Antony and Cleopatra or Giovanni’s Room, but I’m going to strike out a little. I’m reading the 1960s children’s classic Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman to my three-year-old daughter at the moment. It has so much in it: love, peril, separation, luck, fate, survival.
It starts with a mother bird sitting on an egg in her nest. It starts to move and she realises she needs to go and get some food for it to eat. The bird hatches while she’s gone and he leaves the nest to find her. He has no idea what or who he is, so goes from hen to dog to cow to car to boat and so on asking, "Are you my mother?" It’s all getting very tragic and worrying when a crane appears. "Mother! Mother! Here I am, mother!" Before realising the crane is potentially dangerous, it carries the baby bird back to his nest where his mother is waiting with tender delight and a worm. "I know who you are," the hatchling says. "You are my mother."
Rarely has the love bond between a new mother and baby – the primal need, the intense connection, the undercurrent of fear and jeopardy – been described with such simple clarity in literature. With a young baby and little daughter at home, this resonates with me for obvious reasons.
I’d pick Fabrice and Gina from Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, set in the small city states in Italy at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s a crazy, meandering, plotty novel – including the marvellous chaos of Fabrice’s experiences at Waterloo – but every page is joyous, funny and real.
The love affair isn’t very satisfactory, or balanced, or fulfilled. Fabrice is so young and idealistic at first – and the beautiful worldly Gina, the Duchess Sanseverina, is his aunt, his father’s sister! She’s charming and clever and beginning to grow old – and she loves Fabrice desperately. He’s very fond of her. Gina’s lover and friend, Count Mosca, adores her and is her perfect match in intelligence and age and experience; she ought to be happy with Mosca, and yet, and yet…
I adore the muddle of life in this book. And the hopelessness of passionate love and the heartbreak and the sheer fun of it. And then when Fabrice is imprisoned, and Gina’s trying everything to get him free, he doesn’t want to leave because he’s fallen in love once and for all with the young daughter of his gaoler. Two great love stories for the price of one.
It is the last days of World War II. In a ruined villa in Italy, a nurse named Hana plays the piano in darkness as a lightning flash illuminates the figure of Kip, a Sikh soldier. The music hasn’t drawn him towards her. Instead, Kip, who disarms mines, fears that a pencil bomb might be ticking within the piano. Fortunately, there’s no bomb, but this moment in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, filled with equal parts beauty and peril, foreshadows the precarious nature of the relationship that will unfold between the Indian sapper and the Canadian woman.
Kip and Hana’s relationship has a quality of stillness rarely seen in the depiction of a passionate love story, particularly one surrounded by spies, explosions and burning planes. "How much she is in love with him or he with her we don’t know," Ondaatje writes. Perhaps this admission of unknowability between two people divided by race and culture, and the borders the world continues to draw around them, is what I admire most about their story. Perhaps it’s the novel’s perfect ending, where we see Hana and Kip separated by space. Then, Hana’s shoulder dislodges a glass, and Kip’s hand swoops down to catch a dropped fork. With this stunning final image, Ondaatje allows us to see them reflected in each other’s actions.
"I’m thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita."
I find the closing lines from Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece among the most moving in all literature, and the most exciting. Moving because Lolita is a beautiful and heartbreaking love story, exciting because here the novelist clearly marks the link between love and art and art and love – they are both versions of the same thing. Or perhaps it is better simply to say that there cannot be art without love, and love’s application. The artist is a lover at work, and his work is a partial illumination of this exquisite and terrible world into which we find ourselves thrown.
The story of Lolita may be squalid, but in the alembic of art it is transformed into captivating poetry. And here lies one of Nabokov’s subtlest and most disturbing coups littéraires. Humbert Humbert is a monster of selfish depravity, but the art he fashions out of his sins is of the highest purity. Can we legitimately condemn the sin and love the sinner’s masterpiece? The difficulty of answering this question is a mark of the novel’s greatness.
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Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin
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