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The best love triangles in literature

Two's company, three's a crowd - and between the pages of a book, that makes for some excellent stories.

Kat Brown
Illustration: Flynn Shore / Penguin

Romantic intrigue can offer some of the fiction's gentlest thrills – Flattery! The delight of living vicariously through someone’s prospects! – but when the triangle becomes more complex, it can lead to some of the most electrifying plot lines in literature.

Whether you’re looking for something relatively straightforward, with a happy ending to look forward to, or a story where the triangle becomes a distinctly more unwieldy shape with significant impact on its characters, we’ve rounded up some of our favourites, old and new, to remind you that in the hands of a great writer, romance can be truly political.

Florentino Ariza has been in love with Fermina Daza since they were secretly engaged as teenagers. When their relationship was discovered, Fermina’s father moved the family to another city, and when Fermina returns after years of exchanging love letters with Florentino, she breaks off the relationship, needing more substance, and marries Dr Juvenal Urbino, an accomplished man who meets with her father’s approval. While Florentino doesn’t exactly remain faithful to Fermina, to put it mildly, nobody else takes his heart, and when Dr Urbino dies years later, he makes a renewed effort to woo Fermina.

Inspired by Han’s own teenage fondness for writing love letters to every boy she had crushes on, this hit YA novel sees inspiration take a frankly horrendous turn when 16-year-old Lara Jean’s hat box of love letters goes missing, with each mailed to their unintended recipient. Given that one boy is her sister Margot’s recently ex-boyfriend, Josh, who she still really likes, Lara Jean hastily pretends to be dating one of the other recipients, Peter, who has also recently had a break-up and doesn’t mind getting involved. But when their fake affair begins to have consequences, Lara Jean finds herself in the midst of her own love triangle.

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas (2015)

Maas’s high fantasy series got a new generation of readers saying “I believe in fairies,” but her creation – faeries – are of a significantly more grown-up version than Tinker Bell, with political rivalries to boot. After human Feyre inadvertently kills a faerie, she is taken prisoner by Tamlin, High Lord of the Spring Court, and made to leave her family behind and join the faerie realm. Romance eventually develops between the pair, but there’s challenging chemistry from Rhysand, rival High Lord of the Court of Nightmares, and Tamlin’s longtime rival. Maas spreads this feud out over the first two books in her series, but what’s refreshing is that, for once, the woman holds all the cards rather than simperingly quietly in the background.

While the chemistry between the genteel but skint Elizabeth Bennet and proud but minted Fitzwilliam Darcy arguably dominates, Lizzie’s early interest in the charismatic George Wickham lends some tension – not least in Darcy having to deal with some uncomfortable matters he’d thought long left in the past. Wickham ultimately gets his comeuppance by having his elopement with Lydia, Lizzie’s youngest and most thoughtless sister, made respectable – he has essentially just become the younger generation’s new Mr Bennet.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018)

To call this a love triangle is an over-simplification – rather, in her fourth novel, Jones asks what anyone would do in an impossible situation. A year into his marriage to Celestial, Roy is mistakenly convicted of rape and jailed for 11 years. When his conviction is overturned, five years into his sentence, he comes out of jail to find his wife and best man, Andre – also Celestial’s childhood friend – in a relationship and engaged. Nothing is cut and dried, and each character’s story shows the intersection between race, class, and personal beliefs that makes marriage a challenge.

The premise of what it takes to root a marriage provides fertile soil for Jenkins Reid. High school sweethearts Emma and Jesse marry in their twenties, and their first year of marriage is a thrilling rush of independence and travel – until Jesse goes missing on their first anniversary while in a helicopter over the Pacific. Years later, having attempted to rebuild her life quietly, Emma falls in love with an old friend, and their engagement hints at a second chance at happiness – until Jesse is found alive, and she has to interrogate what love means.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

The relationships in Fitzgerald’s most famous (and semi-autobiographical) novel are so knotted as to be more of a rat king than a triangle. While famed for the depiction of the Jazz Age and the extravagant parties thrown by the reclusive Jay Gatsby at his smart Long Island estate, the heart of the story is people desperately seeking to escape from their lives by shackling themselves to another: romantically, sexually, or financially. That Fitzgerald died before he saw the success of this book, believing himself to have been a failure, runs as a sad parallel with the bleakness that cuts through the non-stop gaiety.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (2013)

Teenage sweethearts Ifemelu and Obinze leave Nigeria to separately pursue their dreams. Ifemelu moves to Philadelphia for her postgrad, while Obinze follows his love of Western literature to Britain. When they reunite in Lagos, years later, Obinze has married someone else – but the spark that drew them together all that time ago hasn’t gone out.

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018)

Not all love triangles are purely romantic, and ones involving a sibling can be especially painful. To stab your boyfriend to death once might count as misfortune; three times is surely careless – or serial killer territory. The latter is something Korede, a nurse in Lagos, doesn’t want to consider as she helps her younger sister Ayoola dispose of yet another body. But when the charismatic and beautiful Ayoola sets her sights on Tade, Korede’s colleague and the subject of her unrequited affection, Korede worries that she will have to choose between her sister and the man she loves from afar. 

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