I hate romance novels.
Wait! Does that make me sound like a Valentine's Day grinch? Well...that's OK. Because I am.
I dislike them for the same reason, really, that I dislike Valentine's Day. It's manufactured reality. And while, yes, I get the escape value of reading, you know, escapey sort of books, to me it's not escaping. It's just frustrating to be led down a path of unrealistic people (men's chests just don't look like that! and they don't, usually, act like that either!) and experiences. Especially the I'm-a-virgin-except-I-didn't-know-I'm-really-a-ravishing-sex-kitten-until-your-hand-touched-me one.
That said, I do love a good love story. It doesn't even have to turn out happy. Just two people trying to figure stuff out. (Two people, generally. The love triangle is overdone and overwrought, in my opinion.) I like it when authors take you past that first-flush feeling (the one that lasts forever in Romance Novels) and show how to negotiate loving each other when that is gone, how it is hard and sometimes dreary but then the brilliant, rainbowish places are made even more luminous through the contrast. Or how some things change but other things don't. I like reading books where real stuff happens and people don't know what to do with what is happening, and it changes them and then they survive but they are someone different. Since that, in my experience, is how life goes.
So! For your Valentine's Day pleasure, although in light of my slightly grumpy-cat-esque take on live, the romance genre, and everything, I present my list (presented in no order except for how I thought of them) of
Books that are not Romances but Love Stories:
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger
Because seriously. If you haven't read this I can't be your friend anymore until you do. Just kidding. Sort of. Yes: there is swearing. and sex scenes. But they do the thing that any scene in a book should, which is further the story. The story of Clare and Henry, who travels in time without any control.
Love Walked In by Marisa de lost Santos
A love story about the difference between loving the Ideal and loving the Real, and how each one feels.
Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund
OK. This is only partly a love story. It's also historical. And a sort-of rewrite of Moby Dick, but in a structure you can actually manage to read. Not just manage. Fly through. Swooning.
Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen
Probably the closest to a Romance Novel on my list. Its inclusion speaks to my fondness for circus stories.
Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman
A retelling of Wuthering Heights, it has all the ickiness of the original but set in contemporary America. And by "icky" I mean...you know these characters are horrible, and they are making selfish choices that don't only influence their own lives, and how can they choose that? but you're still reading because it's so good it makes your teeth ache.
The Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian
A dystopian romance. I read a romance list yesterday that had Oryx and Crake as a dystopian romance. Hmmmmm. I never, ever, ever thought of it that way, but now I think about it...its, yeah, not really a romance. Or a love story, except for a teeny tiny part. Except for Jimmy's motivations, which doesn't say anything about this book except for: it's way more of a love story than Oryx and Crake. A dystopian love story, in fact!
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
True fact: Florence + The Machine's song "Never Let Me Go" just came up on my playlist while I was writing this. Seriously! Anyway. The book in question is about science in a way that's not immediately obvious. Science love story? Plus Ishiguro's flawless writing? OK!
Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt
Not everyone will love this. It's got Poetry, for one thing. And it's about literature professors who are in a race to figure out something about a long-dead poet that might not even be figure-out-able. But it does this thing that I love, wherein two stories (well, really four. Or five) are told that eventually connect in a way you didn't suspect. If you liked The Da Vinci Code except you wished it had far more substance, was more about literature and writing than the Holy Grail, and won the Booker, then this is the book for you.
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
One of my friends at work LOVES this book. Another one HATES it. Mostly the hate part comes from feeling like the author is showing off: look what I can do with words! and plot lines! I fall in the "LOVE IT" camp for this novel that is partly about WWII, and partly about New York and partly about South America, and the "love" isn't only of the romantic variety, and you have to follow different story lines. I love it because, holy cow! Look what she did with the plot! and with words!
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
The first time I read this I sort of stopped reading it after the first chapter or so, because Barbara Kingsolver writing sex scenes felt sort of weird to me. Then SDBBE made me read it and I fell in love. My favorite love story is the one between the old people.
The Kommandant’s Girl by Pam Jenoff
WWII love story that makes you think: what would you do to survive? And what does "survive" mean when the things you do to achieve survival change you utterly?
The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
Now, really. I am not one of those "Jane Austen is my hero" type of people. I mean...I love Jane Austen. (Except Emma. Oh. My. Gosh. I hate that book.) If I were a character in Regency England I would be Mr. Darcy—he is one of the world's literary creations I resonate most strongly with. I can discuss Mansfield Park if you like, and I've actually read Northanger Abbey. But I don't understand the fanatic attraction to Ms. Austen's works. (Like Shannon Hale's Austenland? Groan.) But this book isn't one of those I'm-addicted-to-Jane-Austen-in-a-creepy-way sort of things. I mean...it mentions Ursula K. Le Guin. How awful can it be? (Not awful at all.) (Really good, in fact.)
The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithian
A love story told through dictionary entries. I know! It sounds improbable at best. But it works. In fact, the structure forces the supplemental details to sort of be stripped away, so you piece the story together with your imagination and the things you know about love, and about love stories. Which aren't necessarily the things that I know about them, so in essence if you read it and I read it (I already did, why haven't you yet?) we would sort of not even read the same book.
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
I really didn't think I'd like this, because it felt like it would be too Romance Novel for me. And it was, a little bit. But not too much, despite the happy ending, because when Alice wakes up in the hospital after conking her head during spin class and realizes she's lost the last decade or so of her memories---including the fact that she's got some kids and is getting a divorce---there isn't a quick, easy, magical fix. I like hard work in my love stories. And, well, I ALMOST like spin class.
Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
I probably shouldn't have read this because whenever I'm writing anything I feel like someone is watching me write. So a story about a guy whose job is to read all of the email sent at his company, with the goal of making sure people aren't discussing private things in the company email system (and starts reading the private emails on the company email system two friends send each other, and then he accidentally falls in love with one of them, who doesn't even know that he exists because, you know, it's sort of a secret job), kind of freaked me out. Now when I'm writing something at work (and not even private stuff), I start feeling like my boss is reading it, and he's watching my writing process (which is a lot of furious fast typing, followed by backspacing all but seven words, and then nothing happening while I think, and then deleting six words and starting over) and thinking this girl is crazy, so before I can actually get down to writing I have to first write a note to him, something like "Dear Mike, please stop watching me write" or "Dear Mike, I know you are watching me write but I hope you know that despite all the backspacing I'll eventually get to the point."
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
I love this book so much. It is slender but sturdy. Strange and surreal but also full of things I can relate to. Especially the photography. And the image at the end, of the glass...well, I don't want to spoil it for you. Will everyone love it? Probably not. It's almost beyond strange and into the weird zone. Which is perfect for me at any rate.
More than You Know by Beth Gutcheon
A love story with a ghost. Perfect October reading! But you could read it now, too.
Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan
I was slightly obsessed with Helen Keller as a child. I still think about her at random times. Is it strange to say she is always with me? OK, yes. Probably. Anyway, this imagines out a relationship she might've actually had. What I love about it is how it makes her less St. Helen Keller of All That is Good, Lovely, and Virtuous. She's not exactly dirty. But more earthy than her biographies suggest. Of course, it's Made Up Helen, but still.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
More terrorists-have-a-entire-mansion-as-hostage. And there's music, which I sometimes don't relate to because of my musical illiteracy. But imbedded in that is a love story. "Imbedded" is a good thing for a love story to be. (No...not that kind of in bed. These are love stories, not romances!) Because that's how real love is, too. A part of all of your life. Entertwined. And sometimes surprising where it comes from.
So! Tell me! What love stories have you read recently?