When a colleague recently asked me to write the inaugural Valentine’s Day post I admittedly filled with a sense of dread. Valentine’s Day has always been a bit of contentious holiday in my life. On the one hand it’s an easy event to make fun of, admonish, or loathe—especially if you’re single. My first inclination was to put together a cynic’s guide for survival full of tales of heartbreak, unrequited love, and self-help literature devoted to independent living and the joys of detachment (still tempting!).
But is that too easy? Is Valentine’s Day really just another “Hallmark-holiday” or is there something to be said for an occasion which, as Francine Prose recently stated, “encourage[s] us not only to acknowledge but also to embrace the broadest, the least judgmental and the most generous definition of love”?
In reality I am a closet-romantic with a soft spot for a good love story. One of the primary reasons that I enjoy literature is because it offers an opportunity to explore the endless complexities of love, intimacy and relationships. And so, in honour of the bitter romantic in us all, I present a short-list of some of my favourite and unflinching love stories—where no happy endings are guaranteed.
Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler
In this atypical love story, Barney Panofsky—the ultimate sympathetic anti-hero and unreliable narrator—recounts his life, friendships, three marriages and trouble with the law, with varying levels of detail and accuracy as his mind and memory disintegrates. I’ve always adored this novel for Barney’s undying, hopeless and misguided devotion to his third wife Miriam Greenberg as he continually battles against his own worst enemy—himself.
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
Cue the orchestral ballads, this is the most epic romance you’ll find on my list. Birdsong has it all; dramatic historical wartime setting? Check. War hero and sumptuous local French woman? Check. Gratuitous sex scenes? Double check. Yet through it all, this novel somehow manages to avoid cliché and pulp, and instead remain rooted in reality with detailed historical accuracy and complex, rich characters.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill:
This is one of those books you can read in one sitting and are left clutching its pages and staring at the ceiling for hours afterwards. This gorgeous novel offers a concise and devastating portrait of a marriage which makes you empathize so deeply for the protagonist that you may want to reach in and give her a hug.
Other title’s worth perusing:
- Just Kids by Patti Smith
- Play it As it Lays by Joan Didion
- Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
- This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
- Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay
- Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
How about you? What are you reading this Valentines Day?