The possibility that something as beautiful as love might not be returned had always seemed unfair to me. I'm no stranger to the perils of unrequited love — and is there anything more devastating than not having one's affection returned?
If one positive thing can be said about not having your feelings answered, it's that it makes one heck of a compelling story, and it's not a new concept to literature. From Shakespeare to Victor Hugo, from J.K. Rowling to Louisa May Alcott, the mines of unrequited love seem exhaustible, and with good reason. In John Green and David Levithan’s young adult novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson, one of the titular characters comes to the conclusion that “You like someone who can't like you back because unrequited love can be survived in a way that once-requited love cannot.” Perhaps this is the case, because isn’t there something oddly comforting about nursing a love that can never be? We allow ourselves to dwell in the fantasy of the person without ever having to deal with the very worst of a reality with them. Either way, it’s still painful.
For those of us nursing the wounds that unrequited love can leave, I've compiled a list of 11 of the best books about the concept. Perhaps reading these will be a comfort, perhaps they'll be able to put your unrequited love in perspective, but either way they should make for a terrific read.
The Death of King Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, adapted by Peter Ackroyd
The tale of King Arthur is probably as legendary as it gets, with the first iteration of this compiled story written by Thomas Malory published back in 1485 under the name Le Morte d'Arthur. This epic tale tells the story of King Arthur, his quest for the Holy Grail, and ultimately his downfall. What destroyed the fabled mythical king? Love. His bride Guinevere tragically fated to love Arthur's right-hand man, the unbeatable Sir Lancelot, and their tragic love will eventually spell the downfall of Camelot. If the sad tale of Arthur loving Guinevere who truly loves Lancelot wasn't enough, poor Elaine of Astolat also pines away with love for Lancelot, a love that he does not return. Although written in an antiquated language, this classic tale from antiquity shows that unrequited love has been around since time immemorial.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
It's hard to find a Jane Austen book that doesn't have some measure of unrequited love in it, but Persuasion really takes the cake. 27-year-old Anne Elliot was once happily betrothed to a naval officer by the name of Frederick Wentworth, until one of her friends gave her some terrible advice, causing her to break the betrothal and live in heartbreak. Eight years later, Frederick returns to find the Elliot family in dire financial peril. Anne has never stopped loving Frederick, but can she persuade him to love her again?
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
In this epic Pulizer Prize-winning novel, it's incredibly hard to find one main character who isn't suffering from one form of unrequited love or another. Set from the very beginning of the Civil War to several years afterwards, the story centers on the selfish and stubborn heroine Scarlett O'Hara, who is in love with Ashley Wilkes. Ashley is in love with his cousin Melanie Hamilton (who loves him, too) but is also wishy-washy enough to not fully be able to reject Scarlett's love. Add in the dashing Rhett Butler who has loved Scarlett from the moment he saw her and a parade of husbands that Scarlett marries as she waits for Ashley to change his mind and you have to wonder which is more brutal: the war fought on the battlefield, or the one fought in the hearts of our main characters.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Centered around the original Millenials — the Lost Generation — Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises follows World War I veteran Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley, the woman he is hopelessly in love with as they make their way through 1920's Europe with a group of expatriots. Steeped in moral ambiguity, Spanish bullfighting, and more champagne than anyone can handle, Jake loves Brett, but knows he can never have her, and everything's made all the more devastating by the fact that Brett knows this too. Written in Hemingway's minimal but powerful style, the pain of unrequited love is rendered beautifully.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
What happens when you merely think that your love is unrequited? What happens when that's realized too late? The Remains of the Day follows the story of Stevens, a butler with a strong sense of duty. Beginning in 1956 as Stevens receives a latter from a former colleague named Miss Kenton, Stevens flashes back to a time when they worked together for their employer, Lord Darlington, at the beginning of the Second World War. Forced to admit that he was in love with Miss Kenton, and also aware that she too must have loved him, when the realization comes too late, it's devastating.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
When they were young, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fell deeply in love with each other, until Fermina decided to leave Florentino for a wealthy doctor. Devastated, Florentino decided not to give up on winning Fermina's heart again, but also decided that it did not necessarily call for fidelity on his part. After 622 affairs, Florentino learns that Fermina's husband has died, and so 50 years, 9 months, and four days after the first time he told her he loved her, he heads to her side to tell her once more. Written in Garcia's fabulous magical realism style, Love in the Time of Cholera might be a little too visceral for some, but it gets right into the dark heart of love, obsession, and everything in between. This is an ideal book for anyone who never got over her first love.
The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa
Ricardo Somocurcio has loved a "bad girl" for as long as he can remember. For one frantic teenage summer in 1950's Lima, he loved "Lily" when she walked into his life suddenly. He loved her even more 10 years later in Paris when she appeared again as a revolutionary, and also as the wife of a wealthy Englishman, the mistress of a Japanese businessman, over the course of years his obsession with her grows almost as quickly as her indifference towards him. Peruvian author Vargas Llosa writes the story of Ricardo's life through his many romances with this ever-changing woman.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
Set during Prague in 1968, The Unearable Lightness of Being centers on the love story of Tomas and Tereza. Tomas, a brain surgeon, has never had an aptitude for love, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have an appetite for women. With an endless stream of "erotic friendships" with women, he soon finds himself torn between his natural inclination and the possibility of finding love with Tereza. An interesting version of unrequited love where the object of affection is still available physically, this is an ideal book for anyone who is starting to tragically fall in love with her friend with benefits.
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
When a tragic balloon accident endangers the life of a child and kills a man, writer Joe Rose teams up with fellow bystander Jed Parry in order to bring the balloon and child to safety. Unbeknownst to Joe at the time, this act forges a strange bond between him and Jed that will threaten his relationship not only with his wife, but with his sanity. A fascinating look at unrequited love from the point of view of the one who is loved, Enduring Love is an ideal reality check for those who may think that they're in love, but may have that love fall apart under scrutiny.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
I Capture the Castle centers on the eccentric but exotic Mortmain family, who have taken up residence in an old castle in Suffolk. Set over the course of six months, we follow our narrator, 16-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, as she deals with the blush of first love, and devastation to find that it's not returned. As the story goes on, it's once again hard to find a single character who isn't suffering from unrequited love, but this charming coming of age story is one old school YA novel that perfectly captures the harsh realities of first love.
Secrets by Jude Deveraux
When Cassandra Madden was 12 years old, she fell in love with Jefferson Ames, a fellow child appearing at one of her mother's business conferences. Desperately in love with him, she held on throughout the years as a coping mechanism for her own mother's lack of maternal instinct, even retaining this love after getting engaged to a perfectly nice man. After breaking off her engagement and moving to Williamsburg, Virginia in order to be closer to a recently widowed Jeff, she takes a job as his nanny and swiftly uncovers a series of mysteries that she must solve before her and Jeff can ever be together... if they'll ever be together.