What authors read on Valentine's Day
We asked a bouquet of writers to tell us about the book they consider most romantic.
Garrison Keillor is the host of "A Prairie Home Companion" and the author, most recently, of "Homegrown Democrat."
The Sonnets of William Shakespeare. Not buried in an anthology, as you found them back in ninth grade, but in a handsome, slim hardbound edition. Love can seem so elusive and evanescent that one doubts its reality; then it's good to encounter the poet who intended his to endure, 14 lines at a time, and not change but be a star to every wand'ring bark.
Anita Shreve is the author of many romantic novels, most recently, "Light on Snow."
I like my romances rigorous, with literary muscle. For that reason, I would choose "The Transit of Venus," by Shirley Hazzard. It is an exquisite tale of doomed love set within an absolutely ingenious plot. Written in heartbreakingly beautiful prose - each paragraph containing an entire universe - "Transit" is my favorite novel of all time.
Wally Lamb is the author of "I Know This Much Is True" and "She's Come Undone."
I've always been partial to Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca": the unlikely pairing of dashing deWinter and his insecure second wife, the mansion torched as an act of love and exorcism. More recently, I've been moved by Ron McLarty's "The Memory of Running." The narrative follows a fat guy on a bicycle, but at the heart of this novel is a poignant love story, eccentric and sweet.
H.W. Brands 's most recent work of history is "Lone Star Nation."
My favorite is Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera." Love is a state of altered consciousness, and no one writes better about altered states. The dreamy, the pedestrian, the bizarre mingle here in intimate confusion. And those almonds....
Kevin Boyle won a National Book Award in 2004 for "Arc of Justice."
A.S. Byatt's "Possession" is not one but two love stories, intertwined with literature, poetry, and research amid musty stacks of 19th-century documents. What more could a professor of history ask for in a novel? My wife and I read it to each other, luxuriating in Byatt's beautiful prose and brilliant play of ideas. Now that's romantic.
Kent Meyers 's most recent novel is "The Work of Wolves."
If "A Midsummer Night's Dream" doesn't count as a book, I'll nominate David James Duncan's "The River Why." It will make you fall in love, either again or for the first time. It's about a river, romantic in itself, and a fisherman who falls in love with a fisherwoman, and they both get to keep fishing even after they fall in love. The woman's name is Eddy, like the motion of a stream around a rock, and the book contains this unforgettable line, when the narrator comes back to his cabin and discovers the girl of his dreams there: "It was Eddy, it was Eddy, it was Eddy, alone in my house, waiting for me."
Steve Almond celebrated the world of sweets in "Candyfreak," published last year.
"Stoner," by John Williams, contains what is no doubt my favorite literary romance of all time. William Stoner is well into his 40s, and mired in an unhappy marriage, when he meets Katherine, another shy professor of literature. The affair that ensues is described with a beauty so fierce that it takes my breath away each time I read it. The chapters devoted to this romance are both terribly sexy and profoundly wise.
John Griesemer 's debut novel, "Signal & Noise" was among the Monitor's top five recommendations for 2003.
No, I didn't just Google the word "romance" to come up with this. I actually remember the book fondly: John Casey's "An American Romance." It's a beautifully written story (something typical for Casey) of a love affair in the theater. It mixes art and passion and heartbreak. It's a great romantic read, and it's a portrayal that doesn't make all theater people look like antic little egomaniacs.
Rachel Basch 's "The Passion of Reverend Nash" was a Monitor top five pick in 2003.
"Bel Canto," by Ann Patchett, is an evocative illustration not only of romantic love, but of the passion for art, in this case music. The form and tone of the novel conspire to offer readers the experience of falling in love. Patchett's sensory descriptions reshape our own imaginations. To read this book is to come under a spell, to continually deny the reality of the tragic ending foretold right at the start. Well into the novel, Patchett writes of one of her many heroes that his "understanding that he would eventually lose every sweetness that had come to him only made him hold those very things closer to his chest."
Beth Lordan published "But Come Ye Back" last year.
I love Edith Wharton's "Age of Innocence." The story of Newland Archer and May, his appropriate bride, brought to the edge of disaster by his love affair with Ellen, May's inappropriate cousin, honors the reality and rarity of passionate romantic love while, to my eye, honoring as well the reality and importance of duty and responsibility that make marriages (and societies, and therefore families) possible. Still, every time I read the book, I wish they could be free to run away together and find out what that kind of love could grow into.
Dave King 's debut novel, "The Ha-Ha," was published in December.
At the outset of Henry James's "The American," Christopher Newman impulsively steps away from his fabulous business empire and sets off for Paris in search of a wife. A flirtation with a young painter is followed by Newman's star-crossed pursuit of Claire de Cintré, daughter of a corrupt aristocrat. "The American" is particular in that the lovers are actually heartbreakingly in love. Here's the rare James novel where neither one shams love for financial or social gain. The two lovers' lack of cynicism is also the reason this is the master's most romantic work.
Dan Chaon published his debut novel, "You Remind Me of Me," last year.
Matt Ruff's novel "Set This House in Order" is about a man and woman who both have multiple personality disorders. This is, of course, a situation we frequently encounter in real life. It's a sweet and funny book about the tribulations of self-knowledge and communication, and if nothing else, it will make readers' own romantic entanglements seem much more manageable.
Arthur Phillips 's debut novel, "Prague," was a Monitor top five pick in 2002. He published "The Egyptologist" last fall.
I retreat from prose to poetry. Romance seems more promising over a short span, where no ending is required. A novel either ends with a wedding or heartbreak, but a poem is full of renewable potential, constantly at the beginning. Try Oxford's "A Book of Love Poetry." It's hard not to hit the right note. For me, Byron's "She Walks in Beauty," John Betjeman's "Subaltern's Love Song," and John Ransom Crowe's "Piazza Piece" among many others, never seem to get too stale to murmur into the appropriate ear.
Masha Hamilton is a foreign correspondent who published a novel called "The Distance Between Us" last year.
I carry a Pablo Neruda poem in my wallet, so of course I'm a fan, but who is better for Valentine's Day than him? Wherever your heart dwells, Neruda writes for you in "Twenty Love Poems And A Song Of Despair." He expresses both the driving passions of lust and love, and the black hole of heartbreak in this thin volume, complete with romantic Picasso illustrations: "My words rained over you, stroking you./ A long time I have loved the sunned mother-of-pearl of your body./ I go so far as to think you own the universe."
Stephen Amidon 's most recent novel, "Human Capital," was published in the fall.
"The Sun Also Rises," Hemingway's first novel, remains one of the best ever written by an American; it is also one of the most romantic. Paris and Spain in the 1920s make the perfect backdrop for this story of impossible love between the physically wounded war veteran Jake Barnes and the emotionally scarred Brett Ashley, two unforgettable members of a lost generation. His final words to her - "Isn't it pretty to think so?" - remain among the most heartbreaking ever put to page.
Kate Grenville published a funny romantic novel called "The Idea of Perfection" in 2002.
My all-time favorite romantic book is that classic, "Pride and Prejudice," by Jane Austen. Austen is so elegant in her placing of the forces in the novel - she makes sure that what attracts the lovers to each other are the very qualities that also drive them apart. For the reader, that sets up a rich and satisfying suspense. Austen's tone - wry, ironic, laughing at her lovers while having deep affection for them - makes this a book I read and re-read and feel the same relief every time when everything turns out okay.
Marc Estrin is the author of "Insect Dreams." His new novel, "The Education of Arnold Hitler," will be published in the spring.
Surely, the most charming scene of romance is Levin and Kitty's spelling courtship in "Anna Karenina," Book IV, Chapter 13. But don't try this at home: You won't be understood, and you'd probably be nailed for robbing, or being robbed from, the cradle. The book as a whole is the richest study of male-female love I know - love as longing, love cursed, love misprized, and of course, the love of Kitty and Levin.
Katherine Govier 's most recent novel, "Creation," was published last year.
First published in the 1940s, "By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept," by Elizabeth Smart, is a short, lyrical novel about the young heroine's love affair with a married man and their flight from the law. It has been a cult favorite for decades. The prose is heart-stopping; love spills over the whole world, turning an autumn view out a train window into "a plenitude not to be borne." People keep trying to film the novel - and by extension Smart's own life story - but no one has been able to equal the book's sheer bravado.
Brad Leithauser 's most recent novel, "Darlington's Fall," was written entirely in verse.
Can anything be more romantic than the story of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell so deeply in love with his work that she came alive? It's hard, anyway, to think of another story that has so variedly worked so magnificently: as a poem in Ovid's Metamorphosis some 2,000 years ago; as a play in one of the great modern comedies, Shaw's "Pygmalion"; as a musical in the ever-bright "My Fair Lady"; and as the root-tale of two of my favorite novels by living writers, Stanislaw Lem's science fiction masterpiece "Solaris" and Richard Powers' "Galatea 2.2." As Adam discovered, the love that derives from you may in the end turn out to be bigger than you are.