Romance novels get a bad rap, and it is entirely possible to find good, heart-warming stories that aren’t poorly written or saccharine sweet. However with Fifty Shades and its brethren being the most often donated texts to charity bookshops, you might assume that the reading public are looking for something with a bit more substance (and a bit less bite?).
Last year the QI Elves reported that one Oxfam shop had received so many copies of E. L. James’ work, that they had constructed a creepy book fort:
So here is a list of six much better books for you to check out on Valentine’s Day- and if you’ve got someone for whom you need to buy a last minute present, don’t say I haven’t given you plenty of great ideas.
ONE – Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt
This book is one that will have passed most people by, because not only is author Patricia Highsmith much more widely known as a writer of suspense/thriller novels, but also because this novel is a truly rare breed indeed. It’s American, mid-century and features a lesbian couple with a happy ending.
The Price of Salt tells the tale of Therese Belivet, a department store worker who dreams of being a stage designer, who finds salvation and a fulfilling relationship with a glowing woman in a fur coat who visits the store. This is Carol Aird, a suburban divorcee who travels across America with Therese, as they are pursued by a private detective with an unpleasant agenda. It is based on an encounter the author had when working in a similar store, when she sold a doll to a blonde woman in a mink fur coat. Highsmith describes:
“Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light. With the same thoughtful air, she purchased a doll, one of two or three I had shown her, and I wrote her name and address on the receipt, because the doll was to be delivered to an adjacent state. It was a routine transaction, the woman paid and departed. But I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.
As usual, I went home after work to my apartment, where I lived alone. That evening I wrote out an idea, a plot, a story about the blondish and elegant woman in the fur coat. I wrote some eight pages in longhand in my then-current notebook or cahier.”
This mid-century American culture of highball drinks, smooth music and unplanned road trips has become desperately popular recently, so this book really deserves a spotlight at the moment.
Additionally, this is a far more positive novel than modern audiences might be used to- LGBTQ media is often dejected and morbid in tone, with an over abundance of death and funerals, whereas The Price of Salt offers no judgements and no inexplicable bouts of depression. This book was republished in 1990 as Carol, in an edited form. This is when Highsmith attached her real name to the book, explaining in an afterword:
“The appeal of The Price of Salt was that it had a happy ending for its two main characters, or at least they were going to try to have a future together. Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated), or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.”
Definitely due for a revival.
TWO – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
Adichie’s 2013 work was hugely anticipated, after her success with Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus, but has received rave reviews and praise for its broad narratives and proliferation of insightful characters.
She tells a lifetime-long story of two people who grew up together in dictatorial Nigeria and, despite moving to different parts of the world and leading very different lives, reunite through a love for each other and for their homeland, which has never died.
It’s not the easiest book to read- you’ll have to keep track of a lot of different characters, which are sometimes quite obvious vessels for political messages, but the overall warm tone and dark humour of the book allows Adichie to weave a complex and satisfying love story.
Americanah is, of course, also a great read for its insightful and touching reflections on the lives, cultures and political struggles of people of colour living in Nigeria, America and the UK. It charts the difficulties of refugees and immigrants in a post-9/11 world in a way that I can’t really quantify here.
“What a beautiful name,” Kimberly said. “Does it mean anything? I love multicultural names because they have such wonderful meanings, from wonderful rich cultures.” Kimberly was smiling the kindly smile of people who thought “culture” the unfamiliar colourful reserve of colourful people, a word that always had to be qualified with “rich.” She would not think Norway had a “rich culture.””
It cant be boiled down to a simple political message, or a them, or a motif, because it’s the absolute backbone of the whole book and every sentence in the book. It’s at the heart of the author’s life and the characters’ lives, and as such it inhabits and influences everything. It’s eye opening, and every white person in America and in Europe should try to read this book, because we still won’t understand, but we might be able to fix liberal defensiveness around race and racism.
“You could have just said Ngozi is your tribal name and Ifemelu is your jungle name and throw in one more as your spiritual name. They’ll believe all kinds of shit about Africa.”
THREE – Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
Pulitzer prize winning, Gilded Age New York, romantic intrigue. It’s everything I need and more. Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence is a subtle, restrained little book that demands you think carefully and read between the lines. At first glance it seems a little dry and quaint to be read romantically, but if you put your rose-tinted glasses on there’s a lot of rich, Romantic historical details. And if you whip those glasses back off and stare it plain in the face, there’s a lot of unspoken tension and underlying aches for sexual freedom and innocent companionship.
“The longing was with him day and night, an incessant undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food or drink once tasted and long since forgotten. He could not see beyond the craving, or picture what it might lead to, for he was not conscious of any wish to speak to Madame Olenska or to hear her voice. He simply felt that if he could carry away the vision of the spot of earth she walked on, and the way the sky and sea enclosed it, the rest of the world might seem less empty.”
Wharton tells the story of Newland Archer, who is due to marry May Welland in a high-society match that pleases everyone, except the protagonist. The introduction of Countess Ellen Olenska, May’s thirty year old cousin form the European landed gentry, throws a spanner in the works and over the novel Newland is introduced to the joys of futile-if-sinister obsession, loveless middle class marriage, and unfulfilling endings. It’s definitely a story that leaves you wanting, but not necessarily in a bad way.
From a modern feminist perspective, it’s pretty questionable. There’s a bit too much weak-woman and possessive-man characterisation going on here, but it should be understood as a product of its time. Certainly the adventurous Countess flouts societal norms and provides a bit of excitement, but generally speaking it will feel a bit antiquated. In truth, though, that’s part of the appeal here- it’s a thoroughly historical novel, full of contemporary language, motifs, themes and wistful portrayals of the past.
Wharton’s own past as an interior designer comes in to play really strongly, and you do get some gorgeous descriptions of the Gilded Age settings. You also get a lot of sass, as Edith Wharton was a huge critic of contemporary American architecture and the political mood that dictated that she patriotically support brown-stone buildings and New York avenues, instead of the European architecture and décor styles that she intuitively preferred:
“The neighbourhood was thought remote, and the house was built in a ghastly greenish-yellow stone that the younger architects were beginning to employ as a protest against the brownstone of which the uniform hue coated New York like a cold chocolate sauce; but the plumbing was perfect … The young man felt that his fate was sealed: for the rest of his life he would go up every evening between the cast-iron railings of that greenish-yellow doorstep, and pass through a Pompeian vestibule into a hall with a wainscoting of varnished yellow wood. But beyond that his imagination could not travel. He knew the drawing-room above had a bay window, but he could not fancy how May would deal with it. She submitted cheerfully to the purple satin and yellow tuftings of the Welland drawing-room, to its sham buhl tables and gilt vitrines full of modern Saxe. He saw no reason to suppose that she would want anything different in her own house; and his only comfort was to reflect that she would probably let him arrange his library as he pleased—which would be, of course, with “sincere” Eastlake furniture, and the plain new bookcases without glass doors.”
FOUR – Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate
Esquivel’s book is magic. She uses words in such a way that you can smell and sense the story through the pages like nothing else. It’s rich and evocative and feels a bit dangerous, and keeps you on edge throughout because you can feel that this is a story destined not to end well.
“When you’re told there’s no way you can marry the woman you love and your only hope of being near her is to marry her sister, wouldn’t you do the same?”
As a piece of prose, it reads like a fairy-tale. It’s perfect Magical Realism- Tita’s relationship to food encapsulates her relationships with love, her family, her memories and her mother’s spirit. Food is her new freedom and her fulfillment. Food allows her mastery and knowledge and power in a world that would otherwise deny her so. The smells and textures of the food are used carefully by the author to weave complex metaphors and to hint towards the characters’ inner monologues without having to spell things out. It’s a clever, sensory book that challenges you to work things through in your own mind while you read.
“It was very pleasant to savour its aroma, for smells have the power to evoke the past, bringing back sounds and even other smells that have no match in the present.”
Because Tita cannot pursue a relationship with the man she loves, she puts that love and lust into her food, and every meal becomes a display and a sensory experience, with all who take part consuming the products of her love. Tita is at boiling point so often, particularly when casting herself as the rebel in the dictatorial relationship with her mother. The novel is actually set during the Mexican Revolution, in 1910, which puts the events in the middle of the Pancho Villa years of the revolution. The Mexican Revolution was a difficult struggle, and you do hear of the violence in this book. You also feel it in the decline of expensive food and other luxuries. It can be read, however, in Tita- the persistence of her feelings and her state of being is, in itself, a radical act.
“The trouble with crying over an onion is that once the chopping gets you started and the tears begin to well up, the next thing you know you just can’t stop.”
FIVE – E M Forster, Maurice
“Love had caught him out of triviality and Maurice out of bewilderment in order that two imperfect souls might touch perfection.”
This novel is romantic in every possible sense. It’s set largely in the sophisticated Edwardian world of the University of Cambridge, following the young Maurice Hall. He is conventional and proceeds through his undergraduate years with an eye on entering his society and his future life with a minimum of fuss. The only thing that Maurice has to worry about is being gay. The novel charts Maurice’s secretive relationships and the difficult emotional trappings that inevitably follow. The drive towards conformity and the isolation that it can bring are constantly referenced throughout, with the appropriately smart quips you would expect from Forster. Most wonderfully, however, there is also a series of clever and beautiful descriptions of a very particular state of existence you enter into when deprived of a romantic or sexual identity. Forster carefully describes the self-doubt, loneliness and listlessness that one often inhabits when longing for a relationship or for companionship, without being able to have anyone specific in mind.
“Yet he was doing a fine thing – proving on how little the soul can exist. Fed neither by Heaven nor by Earth he was going forward, a lamp that would have blown out, were materialism true. He hadn’t a God, he hadn’t a lover – the two usual incentives to virtue.”
Forster’s cutting analysis of the rigidness of societal structure and the narrow niches men were able to occupy is unparalleled. This book was written in around 1913-14, but only published in 1971, after the author’s death. It is the perfect work with which to understand the rest of Forster’s career, in which he is known for uncovering the hypocrisy and coldness of the twentieth-century, class-driven British society he belonged to, and also for his explicit and consistent urges towards sympathy and understanding between people.
Something which is striking is the utter banality of Maurice’s character at the beginning of the novel Forster explained that: “In Maurice I tried to create a character who was completely unlike myself or what I supposed myself to be: someone handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid, not a bad businessman and rather a snob. Into this mixture I dropped an ingredient that puzzles him, wakes him up, torments him and finally saves him.” Maurice is bland and conventional, with no interest in the world around him. His sexuality doesn’t make him interesting, but it does make him interested and engaged in ways that he hadn’t been previously. Over the course of the novel he is introspective and develops the abiding self-awareness of anyone who has occupied the position of ‘outsider.’ Forster never coddles his characters, and portrays every ugly emotion and bad side with clarity. That said, he did still have warm feelings towards them, commenting, “A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise.”
Oh, and for your reference, it’s pronounced like ‘Morris.’
SIX – Neil Gaiman, Stardust
Okay- you saw the film, it was fun, but it’s been on TV a hundred times since and you don’t think you need to read this book. You’re wrong. Everyone should read at least one Neil Gaiman novel in their lifetime (and he’s prolific enough that you’ve got a grand section to choose from) and I might suggest this for Valentine’s Day.
It’s one of those soaring love stories that takes in all kinds of fairy-tale motifs and mythological themes and spits it all out in a tale that still seems new and intriguing. Tristran Thorn wants to win the affection of cold-hearted Victoria, and crosses the ancient, magical wall that defines his village, in search of a fallen star. Instead, he discovers that crossing the wall is like crossing into another world, where the stars are people, pirates catch lightning and witches stalk live prey to regain their youth.
“Mr. Bromios had sent up a wine-tent and was selling wines and pasties to the village folk, who were often tempted by the foods being sold by the folk from Beyond the Wall but had been told by their grandparents, who had got it from their grandparents, that it was deeply, utterly wrong to eat fairy food, to eat fairy fruit, to drink fairy water and sip fairy wine.”
Gaiman’s prose is thoroughly modern, with whimsical run-on sentences and extended, unusual metaphors, which add levity and lighter moments to what can be quite a dark tale.
“He entertained these thoughts awkwardly, as a man entertains unexpected guests. Then, as he reached his objective, he pushed these thoughts away, as a man apologizes to his guests, and leaves them, muttering something about a prior engagement.”
His characters are often pretty bleak, with enough bite to make them very human and very relatable, despite the fantastical elements of the story. It’s a very human story, of unrequited love and following one’s passions, dressed up in the language and the trappings of a much older world. His words are absolutely the focus, pulling the story out slowly and teasingly. It’s a book to be savoured and enjoyed- a gentle reminder of how pleasant reading can be. As the author himself explained, when talking about an interview he had given to a journalist once:
“What’s it for?” he had asked, which is not a question you expect to be asked when you write fiction for a living.
“It’s a fairytale,” I told him. “It’s like an ice cream. It’s to make you feel happy when you finish it.”
Do you think you’ll pick any of these books up for Valentine’s Day? Or is there a particular title that you can’t believe I missed off this list? Leave a comment or a recommendation below, or find The Slow Pulse on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.