What writers read when love is in the air
In honor of Valentine's Day, we asked a bouquet of novelists to tell us about the book they consider most romantic.
Robert Olen Butler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain" and the recently released "Fair Warning."
The book I recommend is "Many Things Have Happened Since He Died," by Elizabeth Dewberry, though it decidedly cuts against the grain for Valentine's Day. The marriage in it is dreadful and things end badly, but I fell in love with the author reading this book (while, unbeknownst to me, she was falling in love with me reading my novel "They Whisper"). When we met for the first time six months later, I asked her to marry me within 24 hours. She accepted.
Elinor Lipman is the author of many comic novels, most recently, "The Dearly Departed."
Without a moment's hesitation I say, "The Republic of Love" by Carol Shields, the novel she wrote before her Pulitzer Prize-winning "Stone Diaries." I reviewed it for the New York Times, had never heard of this Canadian author, and loved it so much that I called the editor and asked for more space so I could rave unconstrained. It's unlikely love at first sight with a high IQ - delicious, keenly intelligent, satisfying, and profoundly funny.
Carrie Brown is the author of the extremely romantic (and funny) "Lamb in Love" and most recently, "The Hatbox Baby."
William Trevor's novella "Reading Turgenev" isn't what you'd call happy, I suppose. It ends with a funeral. Still, it's the most romantic love story I've ever read. Mary Louise Dallon is in love with someone, but it isn't her husband. Meanwhile there's Turgenev to comfort her, and if love is all in the head anyway, then Mary Louise has plenty to think about. I've given copies of this book to dozens of people since it was first given to me. They've all been enormously grateful.
Lief Enger's most recent novel is "Peace Like a River."
My favorite right now is "Winston and Clementine," the collected letters of the Churchills. Here's jowlless Winston at 23, worried that his letter is too late to go by that day's post: "However I am just in time to catch it and to tell you that I love you, but how much I shan't tell you - you must guess." As the letters encompass small moments and world events, this is a fascinating peek at history as well as a long glimpse at a working marriage.
Ethan Canin is the author of "For Kings and Planets" and most recently, "Carry Me Across the Water."
This makes me realize how difficult it must be to write romantic books that are still literary, since almost none come to mind. What does come to mind, somehow, is Tillie Olsen's "Tell Me a Riddle." Many readers might find it an indictment of marriage and a parody of love, filled as it is with bitterness and tragedy; but it's romantic, to me, because in the end it is a triumph of the caring that still overshadows acrimony after a lifetime together. And it makes me weep every time I read it. I recently gave an old hardback copy to my wife - because sharing deep feeling, even if it's sorrow, is very romantic.
Tracy Chevalier is author of "Girl With a Pearl Earring" and the recently released "Falling Angels."
I'm not really much of a romantic, so my most romantic book is a kind of antiromance: "Le Divorce," by Diane Johnson. It is a very witty, sparkling novel about a young American woman who goes to Paris and ends up having an affair with a much older Frenchman. It is very funny and accurate about the differences between Americans and the French, and the family politics of having an affair in France.
Allegra Goodman's most recent novel is "Paradise Park."
I would pick Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" as perfect Valentine's Day reading. The novel is a romantic tour de force: satire and fairy tale at the same time. It should be read in bed with the rain drumming on the roof.
Tony Earley is the author of several shortstory and essay collections and the novel "Jim the Boy."
I've always been fond of "A Farewell to Arms," but, from what I understand, many contemporary critics view it evidence of Hemingway's misogyny and feelings of sexual ambiguity, and the girl dies in the end. I'm also a big fan of "The English Patient," although, again, the girl dies in the end. I suppose I'm not the best person to ask.
Jane Hamilton is the author of "A Map of the World" and most recently "Disobedience."
Ann Patchett's "Bel Canto" is about love in many of its guises: romantic love, married love, and the deep and nourishing love of beauty. Patchett writes with wisdom, humor, and such generosity. The novel has just the right amount of sadness, too, a necessary antidote to the sugar of Valentine's Day.
Sena Jeter Naslund's most recent novel is "Ahab's Wife."
Because I finished the first draft on Valentine's Day, I have to nominate my own novel "Sherlock in Love" as the most romantic book I know. Nothing is more stirring than the story of a man who never expects to feel tender emotion falling in love with someone of extraordinary grace. We all know Sherlock Holmes never married, but the depth of his passion and the response to it by his beloved surely combine as the essence of romance.
Joanne Harris's first novel, "Chocolat," was recently made into a movie. Her latest novel, "Five Quarters of the Orange," has been shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year award, which, she says, "is quite strange, because as far as I know it isn't actually a romance at all."
The most romantic novel which has come my way in some time is Philip Pullman's "The Amber Spyglass," the third novel in his "Dark Materials" trilogy. Don't be put off by the genre; adventure, loss, temptation, self-discovery, and the most classic love story since Adam and Eve make this far more than a children's book. It's beautifully written and audaciously plotted. I read it once to my eight-year-old daughter and once for myself, and we were in complete agreement. It's terrific.
Gail Godwin's most recent novel was "Evensong," and last year she published a nonfiction study about concepts of the heart called "Heart."
I paced up and down in front of my bookshelves, waiting for a "romantic book" to leap out at me, and it did: Saul Bellow's novella, "The Actual." It's a love story for adults, and especially for adults who are people-observers. Plus, it has one of the most provocative opening sentences I know of: "It's easy enough to see what people think they're doing."
Susan Vreeland is the author of "Girl in Hyacinth Blue" and most recently "The Passion of Artemisia."
When I want the reminder that love can come in a small, quiet way or a torrential one, I turn to the poetry of Stephen Dunn. His "New and Selected Poems 1974-1994" is full of the surprise of love, even love for strangers, stealing into one's thought at truck stops, or while walking the streets of Manhattan, love expressed in "the comfortable orthodoxies of home," in days "full of small affections." His poem "Romance" records the parallel but counterpoint worlds of "he" and "she," ending with "she" writing in her notebook "the ordinary loveliness of this world" while "he" builds a bookcase for her books. Enough to tip the heart toward fullness.
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