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