Last week, I sat down to write an article about love stories—ideally including a majority of happy endings. It was going to be simple: so many of our most beloved stories have love at their core. I was excited! I’d even weeded out most of my bittersweet favorites to keep it upbeat, and I was still spoiled for choice! Except I got it all wrong. I’d thought about love as an overall theme, rather than selecting French-themed romances. It was an honest mistake, resulting in extra work I felt I couldn’t honestly bill in my invoice. Still, it got me thinking about a variety of love stories—the classics, tales of 1950’s repression, the stylistically complex—some of which I’d love to share with you here!
Persuasion by Jane Austen
Jane Austen gifted us with some of the most popular love stories, immortalized in film, spin-offs, and endless cultural references. Persuasion, Austen’s final completed novel, is arguably her most sophisticated. Here, we meet Anne Elliot, who suffers from lingering regret after following the advice to turn down Frederick Wentworth’s marriage proposal at 19. Eight years down the line, Wentworth returns and makes it known he seeks to marry. Still painfully and hopelessly in love, the 27-year old Anne mourns her folly, feeling she’s missed her chance. As they’re thrown together in society, both unattached, we begin to wonder whether he could possibly feel the same.
Carol by Patricia Highsmith
When Therese—department store drudge by day and set designer by night—meets suburbanite Carol during the Christmas rush, she finds herself drawn to her glamorous customer. Propelled by attraction, their lives are transformed by the epiphany of their mutual affection. Initially published under a pseudonym, the novel was re-published under Highsmith’s name and adapted for film and radio as Carol. Spoiler alert: Highsmith’s 1952 novel offers a rare happy ending for a lesbian love affair. Could there be a better reason to read?!
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
Set in 1990s Camden, The Lesser Bohemians introduces us to Eilis, an Irish drama student, who falls hard for an attractive older man she meets in a dark bar. Troubled and twice her age, the seasoned actor seems a poor choice for our ingénue. As her feelings intensify from lust to love, Eilis’s attention is captured in full by the off-stage drama of their undefined relationship. While McBride’s experimental style requires initial patience, it artfully mimics the desperate current of exhilaration, doubt, and ferocious, erotic intensity of first love.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
A serendipitous meeting in New York City brings the young Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe together at the debut of their artistic journeys. Honest, lyrical, and unconventional, the memoir introduces us to Smith and Mapplethorpe before fame launched their work into the wider cultural landscape. Tracing their intimate connection from relationship to friendship, Smith gives us a glimpse into two artists finding their footing on their quest to create. Just Kids won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2010, but that’s not why you should snag a copy.
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart
“There is no reality but love,” the narrator passionately asserts in Elizabeth Smart’s cult novel. Browsing a Charing Cross bookshop, Smart chanced upon George Barker’s poetry, and promptly fell in love with him. Her 1945 poetic prose novel fictionalizes their long-term affair, shifting from California to New York, and Arizona to Ottawa. We follow the narrator’s passionate relationship with a married poet despite his ongoing marriage, experiencing the depth of her euphoria and despair. Rich, impassioned, and moving, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a portrait of an all-consuming love.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Frances and Bobbi, ex-girlfriends and best friends, headline spoken word poetry nights near their Dublin university. Though Bobbi excels onstage during their performances, it’s Frances who writes the poetry. When Melissa, a talented photographer, decides to profile them, Frances and Bobbi are quickly drawn into the inner workings of Melissa’s life and marriage to a moody actor. Conversations with Friends thoughtfully explores messy emotions, the intricacies of both romantic and platonic relationships, and modern communication (or lack thereof). Rooney wrote Conversations with Friends over the course of three months, and the novel’s immediacy matches its timeline: it was devoured whole within a week.
What are you reading this February? Do you have any favorite love stories that keep you on the hook? Update your reading lists with some of my favorite love stories set in France for Je T’Aime Me Neither here!