The House of Mirth
Poor, beautiful Lily Bart: the striving and naïve social climber of Manhattan’s Gilded Age who is perpetually unlucky in love as she moves from sprawling country estates to Fifth Avenue mansions to glittering Mediterranean resorts. Of course, a lot of this bad luck comes from her own foolishness. You root for her to make the right decision, to see what she has with Lawrence Selden, to understand that true love might be right in front of her. This novel is a masterful depiction of how pride, vanity, and stubbornness can derail a person’s chance at happiness.
The Night Watch
This novel has a bold and unusual structure: we begin at the ending and then move backwards in time. Among the tendrils in this story is the beautifully rendered relationship between two women, Helen and Kay, who fall in love in wartime London, in the midst of bombs and rubble and terror. The backwards-in-time approach makes their love story incredibly poignant. When a relationship ends, one can’t help but think about the beginning, the early and rosy infatuation. With a gentle and sure hand, Waters gradually brings us back to that beginning, like an emotional version of time travel.
The Paris Wife
Paris, Hemingway, love—who can resist? I was completely swept up in McLain’s novel about Hadley and Ernest Hemingway’s marriage and their journey from poor anonymity in Chicago to literary fame in Paris. It’s fascinating to peer behind-the-scenes of this relationship and witness a young Hemingway realizing his ambition. But it’s equally fascinating to watch their marriage evolve over the years, to realize that fame and ambition come with a cost, and that love can’t always adapt to the circumstances of a changed life.
Daphne du Maurier
At the beginning of this book, you might think the central love story will be between our narrator and her new husband, Maxim de Winter. But the story takes a creepy and delicious turn. The version of love that courses through this gothic novel is more like dark obsession: the husband and his servant Mrs. Danvers cannot let go of Rebecca, the first wife who preceded the narrator, and whose death is fogged in mystery. There’s such a sinister, spooky atmosphere to this novel—a reminder that love can easily be warped into something jealous and dangerous.
The Portrait of a Lady
Oh, Isabel Archer. It breaks my heart to even think about her. Isabel is a heroine who tries so hard, who means so well, but who discards her chances at genuine happiness and winds up trapped. There’s a danger in being too heedless about love, of throwing caution to the wind and falling too quickly. But there’s equal danger in too much self-consciousness, in choosing whom to love based on some strident calculation. If you haven’t read this book, you must. The Portrait of a Lady is a masterpiece: a sprawling, intricate, psychologically astute novel that’s both a time capsule of an era and absolutely modern.
When I set out to write my debut novel, The Futures, I knew it would be a love story—but in reverse. It’s the story of a young couple, college sweethearts, whose love is tested when they move to New York City. Love can be love even when it’s imperfect and flawed, even when there’s no happy ending. In fact, sometimes that makes it all the more interesting. In honor of Valentine’s Day, these seven novels are some of my favorite portraits of the infinitely complicated—and sometimes heartbreaking—paths that love can take.
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