As a books editor, I read any and every genre but it takes a lot for a love story to linger and have a real impact. I think I’m too fond of them on film so they really have to move me on the page. With Valentine’s Day being this week, here are six stories that I tend to go back to for all their different takes on love. Some are about a love that was never meant to flourish, another on self-love that needed to be found before life could truly start. For the week that’s in it – and whether you are coupled up, single or have a hot date planned – these are worth reading.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Henry DeTamble is a time traveller, although not by choice. A genetic mutation causes him to spontaneously travel through time, disappearing from view, leaving behind his clothes and possessions, and arriving naked in another time and another place. This is the basis of Niffenegger’s remarkable debut novel. Don’t be fooled: It’s a love story as opposed to science fiction and beautifully written; the time travel is seamless and believable throughout, so much so that it never once seems far-fetched. The love and connection between Clare and Henry truly transcends time and they always find a way to reach each other.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go is set in a dystopian world in which human clones are created so that they can donate their organs as young adults. The novel follows the loves and life story of Kathy, a clone who is raised at a boarding school for future ‘donors’ and her relationship with her two best friends Ruth and Tommy. To say much more would give away the narrative of this extraordinary novel but it very much echoes Ishiguro’s famous The Remains of the Day. It’s a beautiful read.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
This is one of those instances where the book and the movie probably deserve equal credit; one is not necessarily better than the other but I read the book before I watched its film adaptation and I’ve never forgotten it. When young Brionny Talis discovers a letter not meant for her eyes, it sets in motion a tragic chain of events. Her sister Cecilia falls in love with Robbie, who has lived on the grounds of the house for years. And he has always yearned for her. But he somehow ends up embroiled in the events and the two are separated; their lives revolving around when they shall meet and be together again. I cry every single time this is finished and I guarantee, you will too.
Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
I’ve always loved and known of the story, despite only reading it in full very recently. I loved its structure; how it’s told over decades. It depicts the complexities of love very well; how nothing is as simple as meeting and falling in love because life and its complications and choices made will always have a knock-on effect. This is a classic heart-wrencher and written so beautifully, you can’t help but be swept away in the love story.
My Coney Island Baby by Billy O’Callaghan
This offers a melancholy yet beautiful take on an illicit affair. Michael and Caitlin met by chance. Both married to other people, both unhappy. Their love affair has gone on for 25 years; once a month, Coney Island is their haven. Michael is married to Barbara, though the devastating loss of their young son drives a wedge between them that neither recovers from. Caitlin loves her husband Thomas, but has never felt that she was truly loved by him or needed by anyone until she met Michael. They are at a crossroads now, with news of a serious illness on one side and a move on the other. After half a lifetime spent in secret, they must make a choice. A tender, slow-burning depiction of love that gets better with every read.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
This is a strange one to add I know, but it offers a look at love in a different guise. Over fifty-three years after its publication (under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963), the semi-autobiographical story, that centres around protagonist Esther Greenwood, a college student who travels to New York to work on a renowned magazine, who slowly descends into mental illness has lost none of its potency. This isn’t an easy read; its subject matter is dark, but its message ultimately is one of hope; in the story, she has an enormous capacity for hope. It’s beautiful, it’s vivid and it reminds us of the power we have to bring about change within ourselves. She seeks love and acceptance of herself as she is: brilliant, frail and broken. It’s only when she finds this that she feels finally able to start to recover from the illness that has taken over her life.
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