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Rescuing romance from Valentine’s Day: The greatest love novels

February 12, 2010

Hemingway - the tough guys are always the biggest romantics.

True story: A woman once dumped me because I neglected to buy her something for Valentine’s Day. She doubtless thought I’d forgotten, when I had merely assumed someone so smart and sophisticated — a poet, no less — would share my disdain for a cynical “holiday” invented to sell empty tokens of romantic love.

Yeah, I know, what an idiot. While I’m no longer quite so stupid about human interaction, I still look on Valentine’s Day with contempt. The best antidote to cynicism, I’ve found, always lies in literature — so let’s compile a list of favorite love novels.

First, though, let’s take a moment to consider whether romantic love really exists. I’ve read that love as we think of it today is not actually a genuine human need, but something invented in the late Middle Ages by the Troubadours, itinerant poets and singers who extolled chivalry and courtly romance.

I’m not persuaded. Just look at the ancient world — replete with accounts of passionate love: Abraham and Sarah, Orpheus and Eurydice, Antony and Cleopatra, Paris and Helen, Odysseus and Penelope–even Jonathan and David, or Gilgamesh and Enkidu, if you look at the stories in a certain light.

What’s more, when God wants to say something really important in the Bible, the message is often cast in terms of romantic love: The Song of Solomon, for example, or the story of Hoseah and his faithless wife Gomer. And a central Christian metaphor for the church is “the bride of Christ.”

That’s just the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions (with a Sumerian shout-out for Gilgamesh). Egyptians, too, knew the power romantic love. Here, for example, is an excerpt from “The Flower Song,” transcribed in the New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.), but likely composed earlier:

To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me:
I draw life from hearing it.
Could I see you with every glance,
It would be better for me
Than to eat or to drink.

Now that we’ve established romantic love as more than a fiction cooked up by the Troubadours, or Tin Pan Alley, or Hollywood, or even florists and greeting-card companies, to the matter at hand: What are some of the best novels about love?

I’m thinking literary novels, for the most part, not generic romances. For a list of “the top 100 romance novels,” visit The Romance Reader, where you will find titles such as Dream Man, or Knight in Shining Honor, or Flowers From the Storm. If you have a taste for that kind of thing, then go with God. We will proceed without you.

Here’s my beginners’ list of Ten Great Novels of Love, just to get the conversation started. These are given in the order I thought of them, no qualitative ranking is implied.

1. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. Yes, this is a story about pedophilia, but Humbert Humbert, while a genuine comic villain, is a most romantic pedophile.

2. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Including this title is so obvious, it’s like saying the sky is blue. Still, its greatness transcends its popularity, and it may be the only novel on this list with a genuine happy ending.

3.  Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. Darden Pyron, author of Southern Daughter, a biography of Mitchell, convinced me that GWTW is that rare popular novel that also has literary merit. Interestingly, in his landmark book The Mask of Sanity, pioneering psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley analyzed Scarlett O’Hara as a prime example of a psychopathic personality.

4. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles. Despite some modernist literary trickery, this is one of my personal favorites.

5. Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin. Still a young black firebrand, Baldwin risked his career when he published this daring story of gay love in 1956.

6. Madame Bovary, by Gustav Flaubert. One of the greatest of all time, Flaubert’s novel of Emma’s doomed search for romantic love is, with its emphasis on personal identity and fulfillment, possibly the first 20th century novel. It was published in 1856.

7. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yes, I know this is really Nick Carraway’s story, but Gatsby’s pining for Daisy Buchanan is the engine that drives the plot.

8. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway. An axiom of literature is that the biggest romantics are always the tough guys. I could as easily have listed The Sun Also Rises or For Whom the Bell Tolls. The late dialogue between Henry and Catherine goes on and on and on, and gets pretty funny at times, surely not Hemingway’s intention, but it’s a great love story nonetheless.

9. Emma, Who Saved My Life, by Wilton Barnhardt. Another personal favorite, and another story of unrequited love. Published in 1989, it’s one of the best coming-of-age-in-NYC novels I’ve ever read. Hilarious, too. It never gets the attention it deserves.

10. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. The story of a philandering doctor during the blooming freedoms of the Prague Spring, it’s a novel unlike any other in my experience, with it’s digressive mixture of intellectual power, romance, sex, liberty.

11. Okay, I’m cheating, but I can’t end a list like this without mentioning Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartert, four novels that tell the same stories from different points of view. Set in Egypt during the ’30s and ’40s, it’s central love affair is that of an impoverished English writer and a rich and beautiful Jewish socialite. It’s possibly the most romantic thing I’ve ever read.

I’ve left out a world of great love novels. What are some of yours?

21 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy permalink
    February 12, 2010 3:15 pm

    Alongside Madame Bovary belongs Sentimental Education. I have complained this novel was a chore to read, yet the love (unrequited perhaps impossible and saccharin of course) is palatable.

    Does Irving Stone’s “Those Who Love” count as a literary novel, or is it considered generic? Either way I must add it. The story of John and Abigail Adams captured me and melted a corner of my heart. All of the correspondence between these two are heart-warming, if not surprising.

    Time to listen to “The Monotones” and “Elvis Costello and The Attractions”.

    • Tommy permalink
      February 12, 2010 3:43 pm

      I forgot Henry James’ “The American” which also becomes quite syrupy at times. Yet, what is love if it is not having to say I’m sorry” for having a sentimental seizure and spasmodically scribing to one’s sweetheart.
      I am unconvinced that those tokens are empty. They are probably quite necessary and appreciated by those who cannot express themselves otherwise. Romance does not belong only to the creative.
      True Story: opening made me chuckle. Thank you.
      Very interested in Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet” now. Thanks some more.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 12, 2010 4:13 pm

      If I can say Gone with the Wind, ou can say Those Who Love.

      You are almost right in saying love doesn’t not belong only to the creative, with this twist: Everyone is creative. Empty commodified gestures, like preprinted greeting cards, stifle creativity in the general run of people. It’s the emotional and aesthetic equivelent of empty calories. Makes your soul fat and flabby.

      But you can believe, if there’s a woman in my life come next Valentine’s Day, I will be buying a card, and possibly flowers.

      I guarantee satisfaction with The Alexandria Quartet.

  2. Connie permalink
    February 12, 2010 4:01 pm

    Love the list for the most part, though I must say I am no fan of A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway = yawn. But oh, Lawrence Durrell!!! I had to teach Justine as a senior in high school and swooned at every page.

    My additions, as posted on my blog

    Persuasion, Jane Austen: Less popular than P&P but probably even more romantic in its theme of lost love found anew. Hey, we all make mistakes; I’m happy Anne Eliot gets a chance to correct hers.

    The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje: The novel (which was made into the most romantic movie ever made, excluding maybe Casablanca) isn’t as much about the love affair between Almasy and Katherine as the movie is, but that romance still fuels the story.

    Possession, A.S. Byatt: Intrigue! Mystery! Two sets of star-crossed lovers! Lots of really long poetry! OK, I didn’t like that last part so much, but you can skip the poetry and still enjoy the story about two modern day scholars tracking the truth about their favorite poets.

    Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: And you thought you had a long attention span. Florentino Ariza, the hero of this dazzling, 50-year romance, knows precisely how long he’ll love Fermina Daza: “Forever.”

    BTW, you ALWAYS send flowers on Valentine’s Day. A Southern gentleman such as yourself should know that…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 12, 2010 4:26 pm


      I was counting on some smart bookworm to mention Love in the Time of Cholera, Possession, and The English Patient. And I completely agree that Persuasion is better than P&P, but felt I had to go with the brand name. Also, Hemingway is least interesting when he writes about love (for an antidote, read The Snows of Kilamanjaro, where he is most honest and perceptive about the war between men and women in his time period), but I never tire to pointing at the tough guys and laughing at what crying little girls they all are underneath the bluster.

      I hope someone more widely read in world literature will write in to tell us about Joachim Maria Machado de Assis, Brazil’s greatest novelist. The Guardian lists his novel Dom Casmurro as one of the greatest novels of love ever.

      I imagine I’d include Josephine Hart’s Damage, if I’d actually read the novel, but I’ve only seen the haunting movie version starring Jeremy Irons, directed by Louis Malle from a screenplay by David Hare. Good lord: How could it miss?

      I notice, too, that my list is light on women’s novlists. Someone please help us out here.

  3. February 12, 2010 4:42 pm

    ‘We are all in the gutter,’ Wilde says somewhere, ‘but some of us are gazing at the stars’. Justine is such a star-gazing book: gutter lyricism.

    As startling to encounter it here as running into a never-quite-forgotten great love, yet also fitting.

    Quartet deals with passion somehow grown sick: obsessive, wounded, wounding, ultimately tragic. Devastatingly beautiful.

    Kundera’s great, too…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 12, 2010 5:03 pm

      Yahia, I almost did not read the rest of the Quartet — Justine is so powerful and moving, I could not imagine Durrell could keep the magic going through three more iterations. Luckily, I did not let that thought stop me. For it turned out that the one I liked best was the one I was reading at the moment — Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea, each in their turn. Not only is the Quartet about love, it is also about romance, and romance seems to be in the very air of the city, which becomes a place of its own particular romantic fantasy, like some city out of Calvino or Dunsany.

      Does that make sense?

      I thought by now someone would have demanded a place for Dr. Zhivago…?

  4. Connie permalink
    February 12, 2010 5:21 pm

    You know, I never read Dr. Zhivago…only saw the movie. Like you and Damage! I did read Damage, and you could put it on this list easily.

    Here’s another one that I’m sure I will take a beating for, but I read it recently expecting to hate it and liked it alot: The Time Traveler’s Wife. So much better than you expect, and sexier, and harder-edged. And romantic! Deserves a mention.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 12, 2010 5:55 pm

      My ex-wife read Dr. Zhivago when I was a very young fellow. I picked it up once, and read a scene in which Zhivago has an existential break-down while standing over Laura’s coffin. A bit too rich for my blood. So I’ve never read it, either.

      I accept The Time Traveler’s Wife, no question. Don’t intend to read it, but I accept its nomination.

      There are scads of romantic books I’ve read that simply elude me at the moment…

  5. Connie permalink
    February 12, 2010 6:54 pm

    I’m sure I’ll come up with 10 more when I go home and start prowling the book shelves.

    What about WORST romantic novel ever written? I nominate “Bridges of Madison County” solely for the following line of dialogue: “I am the peregrine. I am the falcon. I am all the ships that ever set to sea.”

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 12, 2010 8:53 pm

      Wasn’t there something about how he was a jaguar, too? What a load of claptrap. And to think Clint Eastwood made a perfectly respectable movie out of the thing…

      Worst romantic book of all time…what a challenge! I’ll bet, if not Waller, it will be penned by some other sensitive boy. Nicholas Evans, Nicholas Sparks, the woods are full of ’em. Remember, the first romance ever was written by a man, Samuel Richardson, with the charming title Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded. What dreamers men be.

  6. Connie permalink
    February 13, 2010 8:46 am

    I don’t know how I left this one off my list: Jane Eyre. My God. It’s the very definition of romance.

    I’m not gonna go with Wuthering Heights though. Heathcliff is a sociopath. Worse than that creepy Edward from Twilight…(OK, not that I’ve actually read Twilight, but the whole thing seems kind of stalkery to me. I’m a fan of that Tshirt “And then Buffy staked Edward. The End.”

  7. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    February 13, 2010 12:33 pm

    Oh, I love that. Where can I get one???

    I’m surprised it took this long to get Jane on board. Are you a fan of Wide Sargasso Sea? I found it so powerful it kinda made it hard for me to have sympathy for Rochester or even Jane…

  8. Candice permalink
    February 15, 2010 2:09 pm

    I am happy you included “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” What about “Othellow”. Oh, never mind. That’s not a novel.

  9. Conie permalink
    February 15, 2010 3:50 pm

    A friend sent me a link to that Buffy/Edward shirt online…I think you can find it if you just Google that phrase.

    And…I read Jane Eyre when I was 12, so I had no trouble liking her, though even then I thought Mr. Rochester had issues. I have not read The Wide Sargasso Sea, isn’t that awful? Will set to work remedying that…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 15, 2010 4:43 pm

      I’ll get to Googlin’ right now. Thanks. If you don’t like Wide Sargasso Sea, I’ll…I’ll.. I’ll go to a football game next Fall. That’s how sure I am.

      Yes, by focusing on novels, we had to leave out all of poor Will, not only Othello, but Romeo and Juliet (who gets blown up by a hydrogen bomb on a mysterious island, don’t you know), Antony and Cleopatra, and many others.

  10. John Karwacki permalink
    February 15, 2010 7:44 pm

    I love “Tender Is the Night” as much as “Gatsby” but I’ve been married a long time and I know love isn’t always pretty.
    I also love “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

    • Tommy permalink
      February 17, 2010 12:30 am

      It really cool you are here. You surprise me more and more everyday. Thanks for everything.

      Is Moby Dick a love story? Moby was just a coquettish whale and Ahab was a seaman in love.

  11. February 19, 2010 12:08 am

    I’m a little late reading this but did no one mention “Lady Chatterly’s Love” and “Women in Love”? also Clint should have thought twice about that scene with him standing in the rain . .

  12. Eileen permalink
    February 19, 2010 2:43 pm

    I think Connie is just determined to get “The English Patient” in every post! I loved Wide Sargasso Sea, btw.

    Hey, how about Moby Dick? That whole thing between Ishmael and his cannibal friend Queequeg is really sweet, and if Ahab and the white whale aren’t the embodiment of savage love, I don’t know what is.

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