Even the most hardened cynic will occasionally shed a tear when confronted with a sweeping romantic book, in which characters just can’t get enough of each other or they’re torn apart by fate or time or a sinking ship called the Titanic. Maybe they shed that tear alone, so no one can see. But still, everyone, deep in their hearts, loves a good romance.
Or maybe not. Maybe you truly are so hard-hearted that star-crossed lovers and passionate reunions bore you to tears. But have you read Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park? Or how about Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander? These are not bodice ripping, cheesy romances full of fainting damsels and roided-out dudes with names like Pirate Captain Gideon Thrust. These are romances that hit you in the gut and make you feel all the feelings: Love, longing, desire, melancholy, and—yep—maybe a little lust.
So whether you’re ensconced in a loving relationship or happily single and looking for a little amorous distraction, check out these 12 books and see what sets your heart aflutter. You’ve got modern teenage love, a haunting Japanese story of loss and longing, and a scandalous celebrity tryst to choose from. So have fun and vive l’amour.
1. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
This is, hands down, one of the most perfect depictions of teenage love ever written. Two high school misfits fall (shyly) in love on the school bus, and the emotions and fears that Eleanor and Park experience along the way will make you feel that first-love feeling all over again. There’s nothing sappy about it though. It just feels true.
2. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Heathcliff and Catherine! The English moors! The agony and the ecstasy! Talk about star-crossed lovers. It’s haunting, poetic, and oh so romantic.
3. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Love during the Russian Revolution. Dr. Yuri Zhivago (young, soulful, and — oops — married) falls in love with the beautiful, soulful Lara. This one will sweep you off your feet, especially if you love history and drama. So much drama. Check out the epic film version with Julie Christie when you finish the book.
4. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Tragedy is the name of the game here, so get ready for some ugly crying. It’s about gorgeous, married Anna and her tumultuous affair with the wealthy, handsome Count Vronsky. If you want depth instead of fluff, this one’s for you.
5. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
So say Russian tragedy isn’t your thing. You want sun, beaches, and maybe a little humor. Beautiful Ruins is about a love affair that starts in an Italian seaside town in the early 1960s and picks up again in Hollywood five decades later. The late, great actor Richard Burton even makes a cameo. It’s a breezy read that’ll make your heart burst into a million pieces (in a good way).
6. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
This one is about Toru, who looks back on his life as a Tokyo college student in the 1960s struggling with the death of a friend. He’s drawn to two women, Naoko, who is mysterious and withdrawn, and the wild, outgoing Midori. It’s a nostalgic, romantic coming-of-age story by one of Japan’s greatest writers.
7. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
There’s a reason Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy have inspired so many modern romances (like Bridget Jones’s Diary, for one). She’s feisty; he’s reserved. Despite their differences there’s a whole lot of wooing going on. As Austen wrote, “A girl likes to be crossed a little in love now and then.”
8. Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Everybody knows food can be sexy as hell, and that’s what Like Water For Chocolate is all about. It’s a fairy tale love story set in turn of the century Mexico that’ll make you weak in the knees and starving for tamales.
9. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway may have come across as a hard-drinking, elephant-hunting hunk of testosterone, but he could write the hell out of a romance. It’s a classic about an American ambulance driver on the Italian front during World War I and his love for Catherine, a beautiful English nurse. It’s about love and sacrifice, and it might make you long to have a mad, passionate affair.
10. Somewhere in Time by Richard Matheson
Like The Time Traveler’s Wife, this one is about lovers who fall for each other despite the distance of time or space — literally. He’s a modern-day playwright (well, a 1970s playwright) and she was a famous, beautiful 19th century actress. He travels back in time to meet her, which is a lot more romantic that traveling in an Uber to grab a drink.
11. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Florentino and Fermina are in love. Problem is, Fermina goes and marries a rich doctor, and Florentino is heartbroken. But he’s a romantic, so he becomes a successful businessman and spends years having affairs, waiting for the day Fermina will come back to him. And, 50 years later, she does. Because true love never dies!
12. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
More time traveling! This time we have the time-traveling British Army nurse Claire, who loves a redheaded Scotsman named Jamie. It’s epic, sexy, and hard to put down. It’s also hard to push pause on the series based on the book, so watch that after you finish the novel.
13. Furious Love by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger
This one’s not a time traveling tale of star-crossed lovers, but it is about one of the most explosive love affairs of all time: The affair between Elizabeth Taylor and sexy Richard Burton. They married and divorced twice — twice! — and Furious Love is all about their scandalous, wildly romantic affair. Burton was one hell of a poet, too. There are excerpts in the book from the many letters and poems he wrote to Dame Taylor, like: “I am forever punished by the gods for being given the fire and trying to put it out. The fire, of course, is you.” I mean, come on!
So whether it’s the Taylor-Burton romance or Anna Karenina, these books should satisfy your thirst for romance… and then some.