Suffice it to say that what the world (and probably your TBR pile) needs now is a little bit of love. And at the moment, if you’re not ready to go outside and hug your neighbor or something, one of these beautifully written love stories might do just the trick. (But do me a solid and don’t forget to go hug your neighbor at some point either.)
When I was growing up my mother’s bookshelves were filled with love stories and G-rated romance novels (if she read anything much more controversial than that, I never found it — and not for lack of looking.) While I was busy reading Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson, I was equally busy judging her indulgences in writers like Nora Roberts and Nicholas Sparks — never imagining there could be such things as well-written, beautiful books about love. But as I’ve expanded my own reading lists over the years, I’ve realized that love stories can sometimes get a little too much of a bad rap. Often hidden behind way-too-cheesy cover art, and relegated to insubstantial sounding categories like the totally derogatory “chick lit” (I mean, boys like love too, right?) it seems like love stories are always taken so much less seriously than other stories. Like war stories, for example — everybody takes a war story seriously. And that’s fine, because war is a serious undertaking. But love is a serious undertaking, too. And right now, in this crazy, beautiful, messed-up world of ours, if anything should be regarded with a little more significance, it’s our capacity to love.
Here are 11 unforgettable love stories, composed of prose just as beautiful as the story itself. (Now go out and hug your neighbor! Or at least offer to walk their dog for free or roll their trash out to the curb or something. It all counts.)
1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
In addition to being entirely tragic, Anna Karenina is also a beautifully written — once you get used to all those identically-spelled Russian surnames. Married to a man who is unable (and unwilling) to fulfill Anna’s passions, she begins an affair with army officer Count Vronsky, leaving her husband and son in her wake. But the pressures of pursuing her personal dreams outside the rules of traditional society prove to be too much for Anna, and as I’m sure you’ve heard by now, this novel ends tragically.
2. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
I love books about books. And books about love. The History of Love is about both. Desperate to assuage her mother’s loneliness, 14-year-old Alma Singer sets out to find the author of an obscure book her mother is translating — perhaps hoping her mother’s passion project will lead to more than just a love affair with literature. The book’s author, an aging man named Leo Gursky, is overcome by a loneliness of his own — that of a love he lost sixty years earlier. When all three of these characters’ stories become woven together, the result is gorgeous
3. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Now that this beloved novel has been adapted for film, you might be tempted to just skip over actually reading the book itself — but don’t, because no matter how gorgeous actor Sam Claflin is, immersing yourself in Jojo Moyes writing is even better (I promise.) When the in-transition Lou Clark and the paralyzed Will Traynor first meet, neither immediately expects that fate has taken an active hand in their lives. But their romance — beautiful and tragic — is one for the ages.
4. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
Some of the most important love stories are also the saddest, and that is definitely the case with Giovanni's Room, a haunting and mesmerizing novel about an American expatriate in France who finds himself at the heart of Paris’s swirling 1950s LGBT culture. Desperate to fit in with conventional society, David is engaged to a woman, even though he is involved in a passionate affair with an Italian man named Giovanni. But while this relationship seems to be only a physical escape for David, for Giovanni it is a full-bodied love story, and David is ultimately forced to choose which world he wants to live in.
5. Still Alice by Lisa Genova
When Alice Howland is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, all she wants to do is ignore it for as long as possible. But eventually her forgetfulness and disorientation become so consuming that life as Alice and her husband know it is forced to change forever. At first it seems as though Alice’s husband is growing more distant as her disease advances — especially as their children gather together to express their frustrations, their denials, and their demands that Alice fight her condition. But I think a closer reader reveals that his love for his wife is such that he cares for her enough to let her succumb to her incurable disease in as much peace and comfort as possible. This is definitely another heartbreaker.
6. Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
Beautiful love stories don’t always have to be about romance (right?) and that’s why Truth and Beauty — a memoir about an unforgettable, life-altering friendship, makes this list. Writing about her relationship with the memoirist Lucy Grealy, who ultimately committed suicide, Ann Patchett has composed some gorgeous prose about what it’s like to be friends with someone who always seems just beyond your reach, and how it feels to love someone you cannot save.
7. The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks
Truth be told, romance novels get a bad rap. Too often they’re relegated to the “non-literary,” “women’s-fiction-y,” (whatever that means) section of the bookstore that no one takes seriously or imagines contains beautiful literature. WRONG. The Notebook — a novel you already know everything about thanks to Ryan Gosling — is definitely a beautifully written romance novel. So stop DVR-ing Ryan over and over again and actually pick up the real book for once.
8. Ahab's Wife, or The Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund
Ahab’s Wife is maybe one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read — and that’s saying something, because I read a whole lot. Retelling the story of Moby Dick from the perspective of Captain Ahab’s wife, Una, Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel dives deeply into the life of a woman who spent almost her entire marriage apart from her husband — though remaining completely devoted to him — and depicts a haunting story of what it’s like to love someone whose obsession has made them blind to everything else in their lives.
9. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
A memoir about an all-consuming romance with a city, A Moveable Feast will take you into 1920s Paris, where art and writing and wine-consuming and intellectual debating rule the day, and you could be in love 100 times every day before dinner (because it’s Paris, after all!) Any writer who has ever dreamed of the glamour and drama of being a young, struggling-but-surviving artist in France in the early twentieth century will devour every word. Even though Hemingway reminds readers that most loves so lavish cannot last forever.
10. Just Kids by Patti Smith
Another utterly beautiful love story about a friendship, Patti Smith’s Just Kids tells the story of Smith’s relationship with the wildly, creatively bizarre photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom Smith lived and loved and made art for years. Written in reflection of Mapplethorpe’s death, Just Kids takes you on Smith and Mapplethorpe’s journey from renting the smallest room in the Hotel Chelsea to associating with iconic figures like Andy Warhol, as the two supported each other through years spent finding themselves and discovering their artistic passions.
11. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
In love with a time-traveling librarian from the time she is just a little girl, Clare’s intense love story with Henry is infused with the knowledge that he — one of the first people diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder, which explains his time traveling — could disappear at any time. Beautiful and painful and urgent, The Time Traveler’s Wife perfectly articulates the kind of love for which no time is ever enough — even when one of you isn’t a generation hopping librarian.