Good love stories are irresistible: they appear in almost every genre and culture and are the subject of centuries of history. Love in colors, the collection of British Nigerian author Bolu Babalola retelling myths from around the world, demonstrated just this past year. These stories exist because they carry healing and hope. Everyone can use the vicarious drama and the violent emotions that a really great romance brings, especially in these dark days.
Yet as much as I love and respect the genre, not all readers go to romance novels where these stories are easiest to find. Fortunately, there are plenty of other options – some obvious, some more unexpected. All kinds of stories can follow characters who fall for each other or build lives together. In fact, sometimes the biggest companions show up at the end of a plot’s long and winding road; sometimes a fight is made and then lost, and fiction shows how to cope with that eventuality.
With this diversity in mind, here is a list of five surprising literary love stories. These books explore the consequences of war, the psychological number of genocides and legacies between the generations, but loving relationships give their heart. While none of them are romance in the standard sense, the treatments are original, the writing is amazing, and they all share a belief in the truth and power of love.
How to lose the time war, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
In this abstract, experimental, and deeply romantic science fiction novel, enemy combatants commit the ultimate sin: They fall for each other. As spies who travel through time and multiple realities on behalf of two radically different warring factions, Red and Blue communicate through secret messages. Gradually, these messages evolve from hostile mockery to flirtation, and they then join passionate, exuberant, improbable love that is at odds with their missions. From there, the goal will not be to win the war, but to defy indomitable forces to be together. Yet neither Red nor Blue are quite sure they can trust the other. Their relationship could be a complicated honey trap, an option expressed in the most striking prose. As Blue writes to Red in a bulletin: “You have always been hungry in my heart, Red – my teeth, my claws, my poisoned apple. Under the broad chestnut tree I created you and you created me.” Ironically, there is something very old-fashioned about the central conceit, which is basically a letter romance – but one whose letters hover over space and time.
Less, by Andrew Sean Greer
Greer’s Pulitzer-winning cartoon combines a romantic setback with a milestone birthday. When his casual but long-time lover, Freddy, breaks things off and announces his engagement to someone else, middle-aged and barely middle-class writer Arthur Less is on the verge of turning 50. He would do anything to avoid the wedding. so he gathers a trip around the world out of a series of literary engagements. Arthur absolutely runs away, but in a colorful and creative way, and the journey becomes something of an adventure. What Greer pulls out in Less, with knowledgeable social observations and subtly funny sentences, is nothing short of a miracle: His hero is a self-pitying and privileged man who is disappointed with life, himself and his expectations for the future. A story with that character at the center should not be a barrel of laughter, but it is, and it is also more romantic than one would think a plot driven by heartache could be. Love is the reason for Arthur’s stay, and ultimately his beloved destination.
A play to the end of the world, by Jai Chakrabarti
Few happy endings are harder earned than the one in A play to the end of the world. This heartbreaking but hopeful debut, included on the list of the PEN / Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2022, uses the play from 1912 The Post Office, by the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, as a malleable symbol and a tool of political resistance. Janusz Korczak, the doctor and educator who runs the orphanage where 9-year-old Jaryk lives in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, hopes that the children he cares about can experience some form of liberation through the imagination by staging the play during the Nazi occupation. It works, at least temporarily, until they are sent to a death camp. On the way to the terrible place, Jaryk has the life-changing fortune to escape from a train carriage and become the group’s lone survivor. A play to the end of the world focuses primarily on what happens to Jaryk after and how a new life can take root after ruin. An important part of the fragile new life involves Lucy, the woman he falls in love with in New York. With a complex narrative that includes several leaps back and forth in time, Chakrabarti sets his protagonist on a recovery journey that interrupts and replaces the trajectory of the love story. But back and forth in the relationship and the ending are both worth enjoying, and so is the reflection on the role of art and love in survival.
Monster in the middle, by Tiphanie Yanique
In this unique novel, which mixes recent history with a touch of magical realism, love is a multigenerational phenomenon. Yanique moves from California to the Virgin Islands to Ghana and back again to the United States, mapping how a couple’s connection is affected by the family history and legacy that precedes them. The book opens with a letter from parents to their children before later introducing the reader to Fly, then Stela. The basic organizing principle of the story is that understanding who they are requires understanding the people who raised them, so in the first section of the novel we learn about how their respective parents grew up, met and fell in love before we get to see how Fly and Stela first discovered romance and sex as individuals. Yanique talks about decades of meaningful relationships and formative experiences that made them the slightly battered and struggling adults they are when they finally find each other. The third and final section, “Stela and Fly,” brings the couple together and highlights the challenges they face when choosing each other. While some readers will find the happy ending a bit shaky as recent world events intrude, the journey is worth taking.
Lessons in chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus
With a strikingly relevant topic and an adaptation of the Apple TV + series starring Brie Larson, this dark funny and gripping novel coming out in April is likely to become a blockbuster. After Elizabeth Zott, a researcher in conservative California from the 1960s, Garmus paints an intolerable portrait of what her awkward and ingenious protagonist has to do on a daily basis both in academia and in business. Elizabeth recognizes the hangers she has to jump through and is fiercely focused on her career. And yet true love is hard to ignore. The novel’s original center is the beautiful, nerdy mating of Elizabeth and a scientist, Calvin. Their relationship provides a beautiful anchor until their life takes a tragic turn. From there, the book develops into a story about other important loves: the one about a woman to her daughter, Madeline, and the ingenious dog she rescues from the street, and the one about the makeshift family formed around Elizabeth and Madeline in the wake of their terrible loss. These threads are beautifully connected, which makes Lessons in chemistry‘s excellent experiment more whimsical and heartwarming than shocking.
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