Relationships are complicated. They’re messy and fun and trying and a little bit crazy and, well, just really hard. Of course, when you put to different humans together, each with his or her own issues and quirks and colorful past, you’re bound to get sometimes fireworks sometimes just fire (and not the “fiery passion” kind of fire). When it comes to these relationships, we need all the help we can get. Don’t worry, you’re not alone, we, humans, have been getting it wrong for centuries, and this techy century is no different.
Lucky for us there are professionals and artists who have some world-changing ideas about romance that can help. They might not have all (or any of) the answers, but they can at least lay it all out there for you to look at and help you see love and relationships in whole new ways.
These eye-opening takes on relationships might come in the form of a self-help book, one person’s take on it all through the lens of their own life and loves, or even in the form of a fictional romance. Sometimes it’s the romantic struggles of fictional heroes and heroines that offer up some of the most revelatory truths about people and the mistakes and messes they make together. Fiction or fact, these are some of the books that will change the way you look at relationships.
1. Middlemarch by George Eliot
George Eliot is a master of the mundane. That is, she tells it like it is — “it” being love, life, marriage, ambition… you know, the stuff of everyday life. She chronicles the lives of the unheroic, unromanticized, realistic humans who struggle through every day of life. So, when she shows such everyday people in love, she steers clear of all the grand romantic gestures we’ve come to expect from our fiction and delves into the daily disappointments, delusions, and small gestures of love that make up real relationships. In 800 pages, Middlemarch will cure you of your expectations for a Romeo and help you appreciate the beauty in the everyday kind of love.
2. The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano
Some of the best love stories are less subscribed to that whole manic-pixie-dream-girl-meets-square-guy standard that’s come to dominate fiction and film, and lean more toward a weirdo-meets-weirdo type of love story. The Solitude of Prime Numbers is such a story. Two young people marked by trauma come together and grow a beautiful relationship that’s unlike any typical relationship, blurring the line of romance and friendship and something else altogether. It’s the kind of story that will make you rethink the need to clearly define your relationships.
3. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
We too often imagine that love and romance and loss and complicated relationships are strictly the realm of adults. The Fault in Our Stars argues pretty strongly against such a silly notion. Through the relationship of two young people afflicted with cancer, Green dares to tread the scary terrain of love and death in youth. It’s more than a heartbreaking novel of love and tragedy (though it certainly has that feeling of the Shakespearean or even Greek epic); it’s about people coping with two of the scariest things life has in store for us — love and death.
4. Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women by Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu
The personal is never just personal. Relationships are rarely just between two people; they involve whole families, belief systems, cultural values and traditions, and politics. And there are a wide variety of issues within each of these as well. Love, InshAllah looks specifically at the love lives of Muslim women in the U.S. as they navigate all of these things and more. It will not only change the way you might have thought about love in Muslim communities, but also uproot any notion you’ve ever had that your own love life was purely a personal affair.
5. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Speaking of the ways that the world outside seeps into our personal relationships, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series is a beautiful depiction of the friendship between two women as it interweaves with and is shaped by the world around them. Ferrante’s exploration of friendship is deeply engrossing and will open your eyes to the truths in your own relationships, even the ones that aren’t exactly romantic.
6. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg
Sometimes it’s hardest to see things as they are when you’re right in the middle of them. Teaming up with a sociologist, Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance takes a look at things as they are right now in the modern world of dating and romance. You’ll not only laugh out loud at the romantic situations that are all too familiar, you’ll also be left with insights about today’s world of love that you can’t believe you never noticed.
7. Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton
Relationships are made up of humans — messy, broken, weird, complicated humans — and relationships are as diverse and weird as the people that make them up. Humans of New York: Stories captures the longer stories of the people profiled in the original Humans of New York online project. These profiles, often directly discussing relationships themselves, are eye-opening reminders of just how different every person and every relationship they create with another can be.
8. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Mitchell's characteristic multi-person perspective, time-jump style can overpower some of the subtler geniuses in his books. But, the complexities of love and the relationships between his characters are powerful. In The Bone Clocks in particular, the primary heroine has several different relationships throughout the novel, and they are all so particular to themselves. The unique ways of loving each other that each of these “couples” exhibit will make you rethink the different ways you have loved others in your life and how that love has conformed differently to the standards of what we think of as relationships.
9. Love Poems by Nikki Giovanni
Poetry has earned a reputation for ardent, often cheesy, mush in the realm of love poems. So, when you see a book called Love Poems, you might leave it to gather dust on the shelf. But Nikki Giovanni writes a different species of love poetry. Her poems are honest and raw but tender. They speak of the reality of love in all its ingloriousness and uncertainty and eroticism and embarrassing giddiness. If you’ve ever experienced love, you’ll recognize its truths here, truths you wouldn’t even have known that you knew until you read them in Giovanni’s bold poetry.
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