On Valentine’s Day, let’s take a look at some great love stories from the world of fiction.
A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster
I’ve talked extensively about Forster’s gay romance novel, Maurice elsewhere, so I’m going to focus on A Room with a View today instead. The premise is familiar these days: Lucy Honeychurch lives an orderly, rigid, and proper life in Edwardian England. Her world begins to upend when she visits Florence and discovers a world of passion and adventure that calls to her. From there, Lucy is torn between the two ways of life, each personified by a romantic interest. There’s George Emerson, an unconventional man who lives by his passions whom Lucy meets while traveling in Italy. And then there’s Cecil Vyse (that last name is not a mistake), a proper–and dull–Englishman who becomes Lucy’s fiance.
The question of who Lucy will ultimately choose is especially resonant because Forster imbues this novel with a shimmering passion and urgency. In his hands, this isn’t a mere love triangle–it’s a battle for Lucy’s very soul. It’s not a mere love story, it’s a question of how to live and how society should be. And it’s purely brilliant.
The film adaptation is wonderful as well.
Waiting, by Ha Jin
This National Book Award-winning novel is an unconventional love story, for sure, but it is a deeply moving one. Set in contemporary China, it follows the story of Lin Kong, who is in love with a modern woman named Manna Wu. But his traditional family back in his home village has already chosen a wife for him. As the years go by, Lin repeatedly asks his traditional wife for a divorce, and she repeatedly refuses him.
This is a fascinating story because it goes far beyond the central love triangle. It’s the story of a country caught between tradition and the modern world. It also asks some very profound questions about the nature of love. Chief among those questions would be what are the costs of putting a passionate love on hold? What compromises do you have to make, and what happens when you finally get what you want?
The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith
This novel, adapted into the film Carol, applies Patricia Highsmith’s skills for writing psychological thrillers to a love story. The result is a unique and refreshingly honest takedown of conventional narratives–all the more so because its central figures are two women in a time when such a romance was forbidden.
Therese Belivet and Carol Aird meet in the department store where Therese works. Therese is a young woman who has been unable to find her place in the world, dissatisfied with the orderly life society seems to be placing in front of her. Carol is in the middle of a bitter divorce and her ruthless soon-to-be ex-husband is trying to deny her custody of their daughter. Therese and Carol may seem like bitter characters, but they earn their feelings because they live in a world where they have each found love and society would take it away from them if it could.
The Price of Salt is unique because it portrays romance as something that is both sublime and difficult. Therese and Carol are frequently bitter and reproachful, but you never doubt that they love each other. It’s a remarkable portrait of gay love in an era when it was forbidden and could ruin lives.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
In this YA novel, Aristotle and Dante don’t seem like they would have much in common. Aristotle is angry, Dante is an intellectual. But as they spend time together, they develop a profound friendship that changes their lives forever–a friendship that lets them both examine who they are and who they have potential to be. It’s a wonderful coming of age story and it’s a wonderful love story as well. I don’t know that any other novel has done such a good job capturing the difficulty of accepting one’s identity.
Less, by Andrew Sean Greer
This is a thoroughly charming modern love story about Arthur Less, a gay man and author who has achieved middling success as a writer and as a person. He’s basically coasted through life, but now that he finds himself middle-aged and alone he finds himself questioning how he has lived.
Or rather, he runs away from those questions as quickly as he can–prompted by a wedding invitation. You see, his longtime somewhat-lover (Less never committed to more, you might say) is marrying someone else. Desperate not to attend the wedding or think about how he feels about it or the way he’s lived his life, Arthur Less says yes to every invitation he’s received that will ensure he cannot attend the wedding.
Of course, he can’t keep away from a reckoning forever. It’s a short but engaging and heartfelt novel about modern gay life, modern gay love, and a much deeper and more profound story about how sometimes you think you want everything in life, but in the end less is everything you wanted and more.
And of course, you can’t go wrong with classics like Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, or Call Me By Your Name.