It’s Spring, love is in the air and it’s wedding season, so now is the time to revisit some excellent romantic novels. There are more published romances than you can throw a bridal bouquet at, and many are the sort that you buy at the check-out counter, read in a day and throw away. But the novels listed here are so well written that decades, even a century, after they were published, they are still on must-read lists. They may be old, but they are still very good indeed.
I could have included the short story, Brokeback Mountain, by Annie Proulx, but it is so exceedingly sad that it is more about misery than about love. The same goes for Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), by Gabriel García Márquez, or Stephen Dobyns’s 1988 The Two Deaths of Signora Puccini. These authors depict love like it is a curse or a disease – invariably fatal. Lolita, that perverse tale by Vladimir Nabokov, is as disturbing now as it was when it was published in 1955, so that’s not on the list. Neither, on the same theme of very age-inappropriate affairs, are The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann, and Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan. They are about passionate love, but they leave a bitter after-taste.
1. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
In this novel about stinking rich Long Islanders and wanna-be stinking rich Long Islanders, set in the Roaring Twenties, the only likeable character is the secretive “Jay Gatsby”, who puts on the perfect show of wealth for the love of his youth, “Daisy Buchanan”. Daisy is a shallow person who isn’t worth all the pain the man puts himself through. The whole clique of wealthy people on Long Island are actually quite ghastly. What makes it worse is that the naive lodger, “Nick Carraway”, watches the tragedy play out and does nothing to stop it. Gatsby, who actually uses the phrase “old sport” when talking to perfect strangers, is the saddest figure – a man to be pitied. Right from the start you get the impression that this is not going to end well, and it doesn’t. But Gatsby and Daisy have their moment, and what lovely final lines Fitzgerald has left us with:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – The narrator, “Nick Carraway”, in The Great Gatsby
2. The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje (1992)
If ever you want to root for a guy and his girl, it is when you’re reading The English Patient. Will he make it out of the desert? Will he save his lover in time? Will he live? Will she live? Oh, the agony! This novel is set in North Africa during the Italian Campaigns of World War II. The severely burned “English” patient (who is in fact not English at all, but László de Almásy, who was a real Hungarian Count and desert explorer) is cared for by a young Canadian Army nurse, who reads to him. The story eventually comes out, amidst tangles of literature, politics, vengeance and personal injury, that Almásy had an affair with a married Englishwoman, “Katharine Clifton”. And then the entanglement begins that leads to him being in hospital and terribly injured. It is one of those “slow burn” (pardon the pun) love stories – and the whole thing seems as hot and barren as a desert.
“Betrayals during war are childlike compared with our betrayals during peace. New lovers are nervous and tender, but smash everything. For the heart is an organ of fire.”―“László Almásy” in The English Patient
3. Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden (1997)
Arthur Golden’s Westernized version of the world of the geisha in Japan was a great hit. And why not – it combined the exoticism of geishas with a long-drawn-out story of unrequited love and endless yearning. Everything imaginable obstacle comes between the geisha, “Sayori”, and the man who she loved since she was a child, called “the Chairman”. Even though they eventually get together, and she hero-worships him, he isn’t free to return her affections. And so it goes, one little drop of affection after another, just a little drop at a time. It is delayed gratification on a grand scale. What makes this novel particularly interesting is that Arthur Golden was sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha on whose life Golden based the story of Sayori. So there is some realism to it.
“Can’t you see? Every step I have taken, since I was that child on the bridge, has been to bring myself closer to you.” ― Sayori to the Chairman in
4. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë (1847)
“Wuthering” means like a wind, blowing strongly with a roaring sound. So “wuthering heights”, means a high, windy place – the moors. This love story is between a handsome, stubborn, vengeful man, “Heathcliff”, and a pretty but careless, cruel and infatuated girl, “Catherine”. The love that they have for each other from the first time that they meet as children, is as wild and strong as the wind wuthering over the remote moors of Yorkshire, where the novel is set. Considering that this was Emily Brontë’s one and only novel, and that she never married, it is surprisingly passionate. I wonder how she knew how to describe all that repressed lust? Emily Brontë died a year after the novel was published, aged only 30. But she left us this vision of mad, unstoppable passion and the most romantic ghosts:
“I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.” – The narrator, “Nelly Dean” in Wuthering Heights
(While you’re at it, you can have a go at Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë (1847). “Jane Eyre” spends so much time away from the man she is in love with, “Mr. Rochester”, and is so far into denial, that it’s more about misery and instanity, than love.)
5. Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami (1987)
If ever there was a weird love story, it is this one. It is told from the first-person perspective of “Toru Watanabe”, who looks back on his days as a college student living in Tokyo. Through Toru’s reminiscences, we see him develop relationships with two very different women—the beautiful yet emotionally troubled “Naoko”, and the outgoing, lively “Midori”. Toru has some kind of unfathomable allegiance to Naoko, who is seriously ill. He visits her in a strange, remote health resort, where she is under treatment for various psychological problems. Being with her is like trying to drink from a fragile, cracked glass of water – everything he does causes her to be more miserable and more insubstantial. He’s not happy – she’s not happy – and even “their song”, the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”, isn’t happy. The “other” girl, resilient, cheerful and sexy Midori, is ignored by Toru. Will he ever open his eyes and do the right thing?
“I once had a girl
Or should I say she once had me
She showed me her room
Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?
She asked me to stay
And she told me to sit anywhere
So I looked around
And I noticed there wasn’t a chair” (Lyrics of “Norwegian Wood”, by the Beatles)
6. The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015)
There’s young love, crazy love, hopeless love, and then there’s old love – love so old and habitual that it is impossible to live without it. The Buried Giant is a fairytale, but it is also a love story and an analysis of what remembering, forgetting and aging does to people. An old couple, “Axl” and “Beatrice”, live in a village where people have very short memories. Axl has a nagging memory that they have a son somewhere not too far away, and they decide to go to him. And as they move further away from the foggy, misty village, so their memories come back. Beatrice and Axl are devoted to each other. But their returning memories might bring them to a crisis which could mean their separation. When Axl realizes what they have to face (oh, it’s so sad!), he says:
“I was wondering, princess. Could it be our love would never have grown so strong down the years had the mist not robbed us the way it did? Perhaps it allowed old wounds to heal.” (p.344)
7. Victoria, by Knut Hamsun (1898)
This is a classic story of young, star-crossed, hopeless lovers, torn apart by their differences in class. “Johannes”, a miller’s son, is poor and far below the social level of “Victoria”, the daughter of the castle owner, with whom he is sadly in love. The blurb on the book says it is a “vision of love as ‘strewn with blossoms and blood, blood and blossoms’”. Yes, that’s about it. Victoria is courted by many “town gentlemen” who really don’t want Johannes around, and he misinterprets the kindness of “her ladyship” towards him as just that, kindness. But is it? We have here a ten-hankie-weepie of the Erich Segal Love Story-type. Or Cinderella in reverse. In it, there’s a fairy-tale of a wife who loves her husband so much she cuts off her hair to be as bald as he is, and he throws acid in his own face to be as wrinkled as she is. I’d call that stupidity, not love, but it demonstrates the deep sentimentality in the novel. It may be more than 100 years old, but it’s a keeper. I guarantee you will cry your eyes out at the end.
“‘…Johannes, you’re not to look at me like that.You were standing by the mill-pond looking at me. What do you want?’ He stammered: ‘What do I want? I don’t understand…’ ‘Why, how broad you are there,’ she said, suddenly placing her hand over his. ‘You’re so broad there, around the wrist. And you’re completely brown from the sun, brown as a berry…’” – “Victoria” to “Johannes” in Victoria
8. Angélique – Marquise of the Angels, by Sergeanne Golon (1957)
This is no work of art. It is pure pulp fiction, set mainly in mid-17th century France. But it was a fantastic success. It’s all heaving breasts and rippling muscles, with pirates, kings, sultans and noblemen – one in particular, “Count Joffrey de Peyrac” – lusting after the exquisite “Angélique Sancé de Monteloup”. If I had to choose a Mills & Boon/Harlequin type of novel, for sheer smoochy romance value, it would be this series. (I was seriously considering listing a Barbara Cartland novel, but they are so formulaic and skinny.)
I got even more fascinated by these romances when I saw the 1960s French TV versions of the books in which Michelle Mercier played the lead and Robert Hossein portrayed the role of the scarred nobleman, Peyrac. The novels were so successful that Serge and Anne Golon (writing under the pseudonym “Sergeanne Golon”), wrote thirteen of them, from 1957 to 1985. What I liked about the books was the historical events that kept getting in the way of Angélique and Joffrey de Peyrac settling down. So when they eventually do get together, despite the liberated Angélique having slept with lots of other men, you know, this is true passion.
“She could not longer resist the imperious commands of the mouth which was biting her pitilessly at every refusal. She yielded. She yielded so completely that, a few moments later, her desire flung her blindly against the body that has vanquished her. Desgrez’s gaiety in love was prodigious, inexhaustible. Angélique caught it like a fever.” – Angélique in The Road to Versailles
9. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
Of course this will be in the list! Thanks to the film of this very long novel (over 1000 pages!), Margaret Mitchell’s one and only work, her words have been carved into people’s brains like epitaphs on gravestones. The story is set in Georgia, during the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era. It depicts the struggles of young “Scarlett O’Hara”, the spoiled daughter of a well-to-do plantation owner, who claws, charms, schemes, sulks and seduces her way out of poverty during and after the Civil War. The character of Scarlett is so maddeningly “enchanting” that you want to strangle her, on the one hand, and on the other hand, that you hope that she finds happiness with wealthy, dashing “Rhett Butler”. Scarlett imagines she is in love with the wimpy “Ashley Wilkes”, the husband of her cousin, “Melanie Hamilton”. Ashley couldn’t charm his way out of a wet paper bag if he tried, but Rhett Butler – her other main option – is an ill-bred, irresistible seducer. If you want to understand Scarlett’s “Southern Charm” – which is apparently still a thing today – read Florence King’s Southern Ladies and Gentlemen, the definitive handbook on how to be a Southern Belle or Beau.
“No, my dear, I’m not in love with you, no more than you are with me, and if I were, you would be the last person I’d ever tell. God help the man who ever really loves you. You’d break his heart, my darling, cruel, destructive little cat who is so careless and confident she doesn’t even trouble to sheathe her claws.” -“Rhett Butler” to “Scarlett O’Hara” in Gone with the Wind.
10. The Josephine B. Trilogy, by Sandra Gulland
Fictional romances often depend on the couples they depict. Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, King Arthur and Guinevere, even Nicholas II of Russia, and his wife, Alexandra, are famous fictional and historical pairings that authors can use to write a great love story. My favourite historical couple is Napoleon Bonaparte and Joséphine de Beauharnais (full name: Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie). Sandra Gulland, in her historical romance trilogy, focuses on Joséphine and depicts her relationship with Napoleon quite beautifully. I have reread these books many times over the years, and I have to say, they are fascinating and quite charming. The novels are: The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. (1995); Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe (1998); and The Last Great Dance on Earth (2000).
“He calls me Josephine. He says I’m an angel, a saint, his good lucky star. I know I’m no angel, but in truth I have begun to like this Josephine he sees. She is intelligent; she amuses; she is pleasing. She is grace and charm and heart. Unlike Rose; scared, haunted and needy. Unlike Rose with her sad life.” – Joséphine de Beauharnais about Napoleon, in
(I have also read a much darker version of the Bonaparte-De Beauharnais relationship, in The Napoleon Quartet by Max Gallo (2004). In book one, Le Chant du depart (The Song of Departure) Napoleon’s first 30 years and his complete infatuation with Joséphine are depicted. Napoleon might have been a short, obsessive egomaniac, but she is made out to be a merciless flirt with loose morals and a cruel streak. There are more rows than romance.)