They say every piece of art ever created is in some way about love. And that’s because love—romantic or otherwise is really at the centre of human preoccupation, permeating every facet of our conscious and subconscious minds as we grapple with the challenge of knowing exactly what love actually is. One of the best ways to explore love is through reading and so I’ve put together 7 of my favourite novels on love just in time for Valentine’s Day.
#1 Essays in Love by Alain de Botton
A mélange of novel and non fiction, Essays in Love is about two people who are swept up almost immediately in a romantic affair after meeting on an airplane travelling between London and Paris. The plot itself isn’t unusual but what lends the book it’s uniqueness is the way in which de Botton places love beneath a ‘philosophical microscope’, trying to make sense of what it is, where it comes from and more importantly what it means for the human condition.
‘Every fall into love involves [to adapt Oscar Wilde] the triumph of hope over self-knowledge. We fall in love hoping that we will not find in the other what we know is in ourselves – all the cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise and brute stupidity. We throw a cordon of love around the chosen one, and decide that everything that lies within it will somehow be free of our faults and hence lovable. We locate inside another a perfection that eludes us within ourselves, and through union with the beloved, hope somehow to maintain [against evidence of all self-knowledge] a precarious faith in the species.’
#2 Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
Something I really find interesting in this novel is the idea of lovesickness as an illness comparable to cholera. Cholera in Spanish ‘cólera’, can also denote passion or human rage and ire (similar to the English, choleric) and in this way ties in to one of the main questions of the novel—is love helped or is it somehow hindered by passion? In the novel Fermina’s two lovers are polar opposites in this sense—one with too much passion and the other without it. This is emphasised further by Urbino’s eradication of cholera (the disease) from the town which takes on a metaphorical meaning within their relationship. In essence the book is not only about an enduring love, but also examines romantic relationships at their most pure and their most depraved.
‘Think of love as a state of grace; not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself.’
#3 Persuasion by Jane Austen
Jane Austen’s novels are such iconic romances that of course one had to be added to the list. Persuasion is one of my favourite of her stories, it’s almost a love letter to the quietly strong women we know, the ones who are the backbones of our families, who always think of everyone else before themselves and who are not seen clearly by those around them—their wishes, hopes and dreams often falling to the wayside. Through Anne, Austen makes a powerful point about women being at the mercy of men when it comes to recounting their own stories and histories, bringing out what was commonly seen as ‘negative qualities of women’ including ‘fickleness’. Anne tells Captain Harville, ‘Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. . . the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.’
Of course at the centre of everything is the romance between Anne and Captain Wentworth and the growth of both characters—of Anne being able to stand up for herself and to finally have the strength of her own convictions, while Wentworth learns to let go of past grievances and let his love for Anne surface once again. Austen puts forth this equal partnership (of course set within the parameters of 18th century limits) as the ideal when it comes to romantic love.
‘I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you.’
#4 Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
Toru, the protagonist of the novel is at a crossroad—in one direction is the ”quiet and gentle and transparent love” he feels for Naoko, a love consumed by grief and guilt with an uncertain future. In the other is Midori, who inspires a love that ”stands and walks on its own, living and breathing and throbbing and shaking me to the roots of my being.” Underlying both loves is the memory of his best friend Kizuki—and it is this love that will determine which girl or rather ‘life path’ he ultimately chooses. One of the things explored in the novel is the notion of emotional dependence being separate to love and the ability to distinguish between each as well as being able to feel whole as an individual.
‘But who can say what’s best? That’s why you need to grab whatever chance you have of happiness where you find it, and not worry about other people too much. My experience tells me that we get no more than two or three such chances in a life time, and if we let them go, we regret it for the rest of our lives.’
One of the things I love about Murakami is that he doesn’t try and hide his characters’ weirdness—he embraces it and it makes them so much more real. Like this part:
‘“I really like you, Midori. A lot.”
“How much is a lot?”
“Like a spring bear,” I said.
“A spring bear?” Midori looked up again. “What’s that all about? A spring bear.”
“You’re walking through a field all by yourself one day in spring, and this sweet little bear cub with velvet fur and shiny little eyes comes walking along. And he says to you, “Hi, there, little lady. Want to tumble with me?’ So you and the bear cub spend the whole day in each other’s arms, tumbling down this clover-covered hill. Nice, huh?”
“Yeah. Really nice.”
“That’s how much I like you.”’
#5 The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
One thing about writing I truly love is the discovery of self. And by choosing these books on love, I look back on my last three suggestions and see (while often misplaced) there is a theme of loyalty in love running through them—something I obviously see as important or interesting—the idea of an enduring love. Indeed, I nearly made A Tale of Two Cities one of my choices—nothing is really more romantic that the loyalty of Carton and the sacrifice this loyalty allows him to make for his true love’s true love summed up in the quote, ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.’
But getting back to The Great Gatsby, I think this novel has to be one of the most famous stories of unrequited love—and Gatsby for all his flaws has a consistent while perhaps misplaced love for Daisy. The story is really about the desire of people to begin again as well as betrayal—of people and indeed more importantly one’s own ideals. It deals with all kinds of love and we see relationships at their most hopeful and their most selfish.
‘He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was.’
#6 Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
I think this is the perfect read if you hate Valentine’s Day. Because while the story is one about love—it is not a romance in the traditional sense. It is more about the consequences of love—or what we think of as love. I read a really interesting article about this in The New Yorker, that as a construct we see the idea of star crossed lovers, who generally meet with tragic consequences (think Romeo and Juliet) as the grand ideal of romantic partnership. But when looking at this book it is the sweet, yet more straight forward love of Kitty and Levin that is truly the ideal. There is no doubt that Anna would have been better off without falling for Vronsky—as would have her husband and son. Anna is the perfect example of a beautifully written flawed character. She doesn’t understand how severe the fallout will be from her relationship with Vronsky—and how many times do we as humans choose a love like that?
‘I think… if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.’
#7 The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
I’ve talked about my love for this book before and the fact it was, to quote myself ‘like a kind of Narnia, pulling me through the airing/Hons cupboard and into something more melancholy, more real than the seemingly effortless chatter of Fanny and the Radletts suggests.’
And while the novel is about romantic love and the pursuit of that perfect match, it is also a story about love for one’s family—whether that is through relation or choice. One of my favourite quotes about love comes from this novel, and while it is referring to things specific to the time period it’s written, things that are still relevant to many couples today like children and housekeeping, you could really replace any of these mundane, ‘wholemeal bread of life’ aspects of relationships (not just marriages) with modern concepts like work and colleagues.
‘Alfred and I are happy, as happy as married people can be. We are in love, we are intellectually and physically suited in every possible way, we rejoice in each other’s company, we have no money troubles and three delightful children. And yet, when I consider my life, day by day, hour by hour, it seems to be composed of a series of pinpricks. Nannies, cooks, the endless drudgery of housekeeping, the nerve-racking noise and boring repetitive conversation of small children (boring in the sense that it bores into one’s very brain), their absolute incapacity to amuse themselves, their sudden and terrifying illnesses, Alfred’s not infrequent bouts of moodiness, his invariable complaints at meals about the pudding, the way he will always use my toothpaste and will always squeeze the tube in the middle. These are the components of marriage, the wholemeal bread of life, rough, ordinary, but sustaining; Linda has been feeding upon honey-dew, and that is an incomparable diet.’
What are your favourite novels on love? Which books would you suggest reading on Valentine’s Day? Let us know in the comments.