It is a truth not particularly universally acknowledged that simple, plain, uncomplicated and stress free love doesn’t really work in fiction. Almost all romantic fiction stops at the point when the amusing misunderstandings have been cleared up and the happy couple walk off into the distance together to enjoy three years tops of uncritical staring into each others’ eyes before they make compromises, have children or get divorced at which point they may (just) become fictionally interesting again. During the loved up phase they are of absolutely no interest to any reader of novels. So much is this the case that I offer you a challenge. I have a theory that if you meet a happily married couple at the beginning of a novel then one of them is about to get run over by a bus or will turn out to be perpetrating some terrible undercover activity, like being a Russian spy or a serial killer. Seriously, happy love has no fictional purpose other than to be destroyed.
What does work spectacularly well in fiction, however, is selfish, exploitative, heart-wrenchingly hideous love. Heart break, betrayal, duplicity and double crossing all work a treat.
What I am working up to is that if you are, this Valentine’s Day, planning to spend the evening with someone you love in a nice normal way then well done you and please do buy them a book, but just buy them something really good that they’ll like. Or poetry. If you want to buy a love-themed book then poetry works really well.
If, however, you are jaded and faded and fed-up with love, if love has put you through the wringer too many times and you will be spending tomorrow night alone with a book, then console yourself with the idea that the absolute best of literature is at your disposal and is ready to be your kindred spirit. Doesn’t matter what your romantic axe is, there is a book that wants to grind it for you.
A few suggestions of the best below. I’m sure I’ve left out lots of good (bad) ones. Please do tell me…
And I hope you have a wonderful day tomorrow, no matter what you choose to do, or with whom you choose to spend it.
1. I had an affair. I knew it was wrong. It all ended badly. (This seems to be true in literature and in life – beware):
Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
2. Obsessed, obsessed, I can’t stop being obsessed:
Damage – Josephine Hart
The End of the Affair – Graham Greene
3. She/he slept with my best friend (or I was so scared that she/he might that I screwed it all up anyway:
Talking It Over – Julian Barnes
Before She Met Me – Julian Barnes
4. I know she/he is a fairly sub-standard person but that doesn’t stop me aching to be with them:
Of Human Bondage – William Somerset Maugham