Here’s the thing: sometimes, you just want to read a good love story. Or at least, something with a little sex, a little passion, a few dramatic swoons. But a romance novel, per se? Nothing so gaudy or slapdash for you! You need real literature. Well, person who I’ve just made up (though I know you’re out there), here’s the answer: a selection of romantic books that will rev your motor (emotional or otherwise) but don’t fall into that taboo category of cheap paper and cheaper storylines.
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
This is the probably the romantic novel in which the least number of romantic things are ever said — or perhaps, “ever admitted to” would be more apt. Ishiguro does everything with suggestion, with light and dark, with a mind that pushes away happiness, and the result is beautiful and heartbreaking and completely the opposite of romance-novel-torrid.
The Passion, Jeanette Winterson
This book is part love story, part war novel, part fable, part ode to Venice. It’s smart and dangerous and lovely and will leave you checking to make sure your heart is — quite literally — where you left it.
The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch
In this weirdly addicting novel, an aging actor moves to a remote seaside town, only to find the one who got away. Think you know how it ends? Well, there are tons of laments and twists and deaths and revelations and incredibly good prose to get through before you get proved wrong.
The Princess Bride, William Goldman
The most actually romantic parody of traditional adventure-romance novels that you will ever read. And the funniest, too.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
So sure, lots of people who love romance novels also love Jane Eyre (and Wuthering Heights, and Pride and Prejudice, the list goes on, swoon!), but this novel is a bit different from the rest, mostly because of the supreme excellence of its title character, about whom China Miéville once wrote, “Charlotte Brontë’s heroine towers over those around her, morally, intellectually and aesthetically; she’s completely admirable and compelling. Never camp, despite her Gothic surrounds, she takes a scalpel to the skin of the every day.” No wilting flowers or damsels in distress or smoldering temptresses here.
Possession, A.S. Byatt
The romantic novel for scholars and poets of all kinds.
Citrus County, John Brandon
This is a love story in the sense that, when you’re in love with someone, you might kidnap their sister and hide her in a bunker in the forest, so as to have something to comfort your beloved about. Needless to say, it’s not a typical romance — but it is a terrific novel.
Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, Leanne Shapton
One of my favorites: a love story told through an auction catalog, wherein the detritus of a relationship is being sold off to the highest bidder. Unconventional to say the least, and often quite funny, but the feelings will creep up on you, and you’ll close the book changed.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Let’s not forget that Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel is, at least in large part, just a story of a man going to ridiculous lengths to get an old girlfriend back. Gatsby is, of course, vaguely insane, but he sure is a romantic.
Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson
Carson’s novel-in-verse explodes the myth of Geryon and Herakles (in which Herakles slays the beast), turning it into a tale of semi-unrequited teenage love. Every one of Carson’s words shines hot on the page, and her novel is sad and strange and hilarious by turns. I can’t recommend it enough.
Dune, Frank Herbert
Sci-fi is like the opposite of romance, right? Not with Paul and Chani balancing out the sand worms in Frank Herbert’s classic. Much like these novels, their love is epic.
The Virgins, Pamela Erens
This novel is romantic, sure, and pretty damn sexy, but also kind of creepy (it’s narrated by someone half-spying-on, half-imagining the love story of two of his classmates). It also happens to be gorgeously written, and its sentences would elevate it above the bodice-rippers even if it were literally full of ripped bodices.
The Lover, Marguerite Duras
Duras’ luminous patchwork love story glows with romance and art — it was originally commissioned as a book of photographs with annotations, but ended up an extravagant (if short) novel about a young girl’s affair with an older man. Delicious and smarter than you.
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
Wharton’s prose is elegant and incisive. Her story is poised and quiet. But her characters want, want, want — and can’t have. The result is devastating.
If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino
A classic of metafiction, yes, but also: a love story between book nerds! Book nerds who meet in a bookstore! I see you’re buying it immediately.
Eucalyptus, Murray Bail
This book is part fairy tale, part Scheherazade retelling, part dissertation on the trees of Australia. It’s totally weird, and romantic without being the least bit romance-y.
Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
Talk about un-romance-y. Dunn’s spectacular novel about a group of circus freaks involves more than one romance — each one more twisted (both physically and psychologically) than the next. This book will terrify you, and you will enjoy it.
The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides
There’s something deeply romantic about the idea of the other, and no one knows that better than Eugenides, who seems to delve into it in every book he writes. His first is narrated by teenage boys dreaming about the family of beautiful, damaged blondes who are at once objects of curiosity and desire and deep reverence. For a time, at least.
Swamplandia!, Karen Russell
There are two romances at the heart of this quirky novel — one with a ghost, and one with a Birdman. Neither end particularly well.
Mr. Fox, Helen Oyeyemi
What happens when a writer falls in love with his muse? Oyeyemi’s fairy tale-infused novel explores this and other impossible romances. People are written into being, heads are chopped off — and then things start to get serious.
High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
A love story made of music (and lists). Can’t go wrong.
We, Yevgeny Zamyatin
This classic dystopian novel also happens to boast a weird and affecting love story.
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
The romance in Brideshead Revisited is understated, alluded to, perhaps never fully expressed. But that only makes it all the more moving.
Griffin & Sabine, Nick Bantock
Griffin & Sabine is like a mix between a box full of ancient papers and a pop-up book for grownups — readers can touch the love notes from one artist to another, and somehow that physicality makes their feelings all the more real.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Pearl Poet
Features the best seduction scene/hunting scene combination in literature.
Schematics: a Love Story, Julian Hibbard
This book is about as far from a typical romance novel as you can get — it’s a small black brick, a novel-as-board-book, in which love is explored via mathematical schematics in crisp white designs. Breathtaking.
All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, Lan Samantha Chang
Chang is the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and her novel is like MFA porn. But it’s so smart and sexy that you’ll read it in a night — and wake up hangover and guilt-free.
The Lover’s Dictionary, David Levithan
Levithan’s romantic dictionary tells the story of a love affair from A to Z. The effect is sometimes cute but often cutting.
Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart
Quick: imagine Gary Shteyngart on the cover of your typical romance novel. This book is just as funny and just as terrifying and just as frankly lovable as that image.
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Macho men can be real romantics, too. Especially when, er, not everything is working quite right.
Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galchen
The protagonist of Galchen’s wonderful first novel comes home one day to discover (or, perhaps, decide) that his wife has been replaced by a near-perfect copy. Needless to say, he sets off on a quest to find the real thing. There’s a fine line between romantic and bonkers.
Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
A hilarious campus novel that also happens to be a kind of sweet love story. Amis, you rascal, you.
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
Flaubert’s classic is sort of a send-up of the romance novel genre as it existed in the mid-1800s. At the very least, Emma Bovary is much too romantic for her own good. Things end in tears — but not until a lot of great novel has gone by.
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
I’ll tell you: romance novels would be a lot better if they featured two magicians locked in a battle to the death who accidentally fall in love.
Nightwood, Djuna Barnes
This scalpel-like modernist masterpiece is about love, about lovers and what they can do to you, about passion and hate and gender and sex and obsession. It is also, as T.S. Eliot famously put it, “so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.” Much unlike most romance novels, one might point out here.
Lord of Misrule, Jaimy Gordon
Love and horses in a backwater racetrack — it actually sounds kind of like a romance novel. But Gordon’s gorgeous prose and pronouncements on the human experience make it about as far from one as you can get.
To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
You can’t help, when reading this glorious novel, feeling that Woolf is romancing you, somehow. It’s a romance of the mind, inhabited by more than a few characters who, yes, may or may not love each other, may or may not get together, may or may not live until the end of the book. But in Woolf’s hands, romance is transcendent. It is everywhere and nowhere and as far as the lighthouse in bad weather.
A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
There are plenty of love stories in Egan’s wonderfully playful novel, each one rubbing up against, sometime informing, the others. But you’ll never find a romance novel with a chapter in the form of a Power Point presentation.
Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters
An extraordinary historical coming-of-age story in which a young girl falls in love with a male impersonator and follows her to the big city (Victorian-era London) — and the stage. A romance-novel worthy plot, to be sure, but rendered in such vivid, deft prose that you won’t be fooled for a moment.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
Never has a pear tree been quite so romantic.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
If you haven’t read this one yet, what are you waiting for? The love between Ifemelu and Obinze spans years and continents and other barriers besides, and this gripping novel will leave you ready to vault over them all.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman
A contemporary comedy of manners set in young, bookish Brooklyn. More about romance — or the lack thereof — than actually romantic, but deeply consumed with the question of love nonetheless.
History of a Pleasure Seeker, Richard Mason
Likely to put you into a pleasure coma.
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
I’m sorry, but here I just have to quote Thomas Pynchon’s 1988 New York Times review:
In the postromantic ebb of the 70’s and 80’s, with everybody now so wised up and even growing paranoid about love, once the magical buzzword of a generation, it is a daring step for any writer to decide to work in love’s vernacular, to take it, with all its folly, imprecision and lapses in taste, at all seriously — that is, as well worth those higher forms of play that we value in fiction. For García Márquez the step may also be revolutionary. “I think that a novel about love is as valid as any other,” he once remarked in a conversation with his friend, the journalist Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza (published as “El Olor de la Guayaba,” 1982). “In reality the duty of a writer — the revolutionary duty, if you like — is that of writing well.”
And — oh boy — does he write well. He writes with impassioned control, out of a maniacal serenity: the Garcímárquesian voice we have come to recognize from the other fiction has matured, found and developed new resources, been brought to a level where it can at once be classical and familiar, opalescent and pure, able to praise and curse, laugh and cry, fabulate and sing and when called upon, take off and soar, as in this description of a turn-of-the-century balloon trip.
Ada, or Ardor, Vladimir Nabokov
An essential novel about a lifelong love affair. Only Nabokov could make incest this gorgeous and compelling.
Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
Every sentence in this glorious novel, about a young man’s Parisian affairs, is romantic at its core.
The Chrysalids, John Wyndham
Telepathic Romeo and Juliet in a post-apocalyptic world filled with religious fundamentalists. Yes.
Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak
Epic love during the Russian Revolution. Also, one of the greatest novels of all time.
The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
What is more romantic than zerrissenheit — “the state of being torn apart” over a lover? Just don’t make like the fashion when this book came out and follow the main character’s example. She’s not worth it, buddy.
Call Me By Your Name, André Aciman
A beautiful novel about the coming-of-age of a 17-year-old whose parents invite a handsome American man to their home on the Mediterranean. Sparks fly, things develop. One of the best and truest portrayals of first love in all of literature.