I got engaged two years ago, and I am in no hurry to get hitched. While I’ve lazily put together a “wedding ideas” Pinterest board (we all have, it's cool), I’d rather spend more time with my S.O. not talking about a wedding budget, guests, color schemes, venues, or liquor licenses. This conversation (well, many of these conversations) will come eventually, but right now I’m taking full advantage of engagement bliss. You know, admiring my ring for the shiny thing it is and just enjoying the company of a guy whom I love and appreciate.
There's another thing to be gleaned in this engagement period, though, that doesn't come from a mother-in-law or a matron-of-honor or a wedding planner. And that's perspective. Marriage is a pretty big deal, and before you become a permanent part of someone's life, now is a good time to get a solid look at love and relationships from a 360-degree view. A good place to get that? Books.
Whether you’re engaged for three months or three years, give yourself some time to really read up on love. These fictional protagonists, who're all in complex relationships, will help you know yourself better before you take the official plunge into marriage-land. (Plus, these are some of the most entertaining books you may ever read, promise.) Here are 15 titles that wonderfully illustrate love and its roles in life:
1. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters
This story, narrated by several different characters, is about a young American actress who arrives to a desolate resort in Italy believing she is sick, only to discover her life is about to change in a huge, permanent way. Pasquale, the young hotel owner, falls in incomprehensible love with her — literally, since he hardly speaks any English. Beautiful Ruins teaches you about how quickly you can fall in love, and how to treat others when they're in love with you, even if you have your own demons to deal with.
2. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
This is a book you'll be sad you have to finish, but one that leaves your face glistening with happy tears. The History of Love follows Leopold Gursky, Alma Singer, her mom, and Zvi Litvinoff, whose lives slowly become interwoven. Ultimately, Krauss’s book is about loving and losing, struggling, failing, but surviving in the most grand way there is to survive. The History of Love shows you that you need to give love a chance, no matter what.
3. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Reading about painful relationships can be draining, but The Marriage Plot is a heartbreakingly awesome read that explores an unconventional relationship. Madeleine Hanna, a Classics major, pursues Leonard Bankhead (a character inspired by the late David Foster Wallace) even though she knows he’s bad for her. What happens? Not good things, let’s just say. Why read The Marriage Plot? Well, use it a cautionary tale, one that shows you can't change people, even if you love them and you show them this love every chance you get. (Bleak, okay, but necessary.)
4. Love is a Mix Tape by Rob Sheffield
I gave my now-fiancé my number on a Modest Mouse CD. It was a really terrible one, one of their new releases that was just a jumble of past album rejects, but I wanted to impress him, and so I made him a copy. I always thought music could be a way to your crush’s heart, and in this case I was totally right. Love is Mix Tape is about a relationship shaped by music, and how music had the ability to heal when that relationship tragically ended. You might cry, like a lot, but at least you’ll come away with a fuller heart and iTunes collection.
5. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
Lush, infused with poetry and magical realism, Márquez’s prose is enough to make you weep because there will never be anything else like it. A story about love, the notion of love, obsession, and separation (and so much more) Love in the Time of Cholera is a dense read, but a magnificent one. This book is for all the romantics who pined away at what they thought was truly love (is it, was it?). Sometimes time heals all, but sometimes it just makes a bond that much stronger.
6. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Freedom is about a wholesome marriage come unraveled, as marriages sometimes do. Patty and Walter Berglund are doing just fine… up until they aren’t and everyone is talking about it. There’s a guy from their former life who comes back, a troubled son, and more. Of course, Freedom is much more than a relationship story (we’re talking about Franzen here), but there is still loads that can be taken away from this book, such as how selfishness can destroy a relationship.
7. The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan
When you’re so sickly in love you just can’t take it, read this book. It’s lovely, relatable, and uplifting (as far as romances go). Written in the style of a dictionary (trust me, it’s NOT monotonous), Levithan alphabetically explores all the channels of emotions people go through while in a relationship.
8. Middlemarch by George Eliot
Yes this book is as thick as Red’s accent in OITNB, but it’s one of the most progressive novels of its time, and it’s filled with age old wisdom. For example, you probably shouldn’t marry someone out of practicality, especially if they’re dull. Also, marrying for looks is never a good idea. Although this book does more than provide commentary on marriage (Eliot does a great job really carving away at human nature, youth, and realism), it certainly touches upon some key components of love and desire.
9. Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close
Kind of like Sex and the City, Girls in White Dresses teaches you what kind of love doesn’t quite work (even though we really want it to). This book follows three women who are still stumbling and fumbling through their adulthood. They meet men who are too involved with their mothers, men who are their bosses, and men who are sleazy bartenders. Girls in White Dresses is an accurate reflection of what we go through before we meet the right person, and it's comforting to know that so many of us meet the wrong people before we come across the right ones.
10. Waltzing the Cat by Pam Houston
Before you settle down and get married, a part of you wants to be the kind of woman that Houston writes about in Waltzing the Cat (I know, great title), a book of short stories. These women are rough, wildly independent, and fearless. They’re compelled by wanderlust, yet aren’t shy about getting their heart trampled on. This book will compel you to take a road trip, or throw the wildest bachelorette party ever. It will, ultimately, convince you that you are a free, independent women, and that marriage will never break that.
11. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes
Unsure of how to define love? Need material for some future wedding vows? Well, A Lover’s Discourse is like the textbook of love. Barthes introduces his novel by stating, “Everything follows from this principle: that the lover is not to be reduced to a simple symptomal subject, but rather that we hear in his voice of a ‘dramatic’ method which renounces examples and rests on the single action of a primary language.” (Yeah, you may want to approach this one in small doses.) If you ever wanted to learn about love in the most philosophical, academic way possible, read this book. It has all the answers.
12. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
The most epic celebrity couple of all time (no, not Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) had to be F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Zelda was known for being the eccentric wife of The Great Gatsby’s alcoholic author, but who was she, exactly? And why does her story often get forgotten or left behind? The point of this novel is to unveil the mysterious Zelda and finally depict her as a muse. This real couple was absolutely crazy! But they were in love for a while, and although it was bombastic and incredibly alcoholic, it worked. I'm not advocating that you and your fiancé party it up more; rather, if you two enjoy the wilder things in life, like traveling to different countries or trying new, exotic food, don't let anything stop that spark.
13. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
It took me eight years to finally finish this book. I was in 6th grade when I started, and Jane Eyre just seemed so boring, so rigid, but by the time I was in college, I finally understood Jane and her predicament. She falls in love with a man who has a wife! Albeit, she’s crazy, but he’s STILL a married man. Yup, even old-timey proper governesses get caught up in drama. Love is timelessly complicated, and you'll learn that. His family issues become your family issues. When he's stressed at work, you'll want to help him out, and vice versa. Relationships do have weird twists and turns, and you learn how to deal with them as time goes on.
14. Jazz Age Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Let Jazz Age Stories inspire a magnificent wedding you will never forget. Fitzgerald's world is as fantastic as it is dramatic, and if you're looking to really put together a memorable wedding, read this novel and let it become your muse. Think flapper dresses, pearls, crystals, a '20s soundtrack, and let's not forget the mint juleps.
15. The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood
Although this doesn’t paint engagement (or men) in the best of ways, this book is still important to read. Essentially, it’s about feeling “consumed” and the value of independence. The gist: don’t a let a guy (or girl) take over your life. Own your life. Know that if your S.O. suddenly disappears from your world, you will be okay. Getting married (and the process itself) is a beautiful, wonderful thing, but don’t forget about yourself in the process.