Before we begin it should be noted that this list does not contain a single mention of Romeo and Juliet — a self-described tragedy — or indeed 50 Shades of Grey — a different kind of tragedy altogether. The former is a terrible relationship model and the latter doesn’t even count as a model; it’s an abusive mess that you should most certainly be running from, preferably at high speeds. This list will contain books with a bit of oomph, and some will not be for the faint-hearted, but they do not idolise abuse or dubious consent. Because, and I’m letting you in on a well-kept secret here: that’s not love.
Set primarily in cyberspace, this is an interesting and though-provoking read. It follows the interactions between Ali–a computer whizz who can write you into any story you desire — and Tulip — whose name inspires the rather ingenious and notably odd sex scene in the first chapter. This book has sex, yes, but it also manages to make you feel that absolute yearning that one person can feel for a distant lover, and you become invested in the characters’ lives in a heartbeat. It’s also a lesbian love story, which can be hard to find without the author having taken a highly voyeuristic approach to the sex. The overall message isn’t ‘LOOK, LESBIANS’; it’s about passion and the intricacy of authorship, and identity in an age of technology. Certainly worth a read.
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
A classic, known for its biting social satire as well as its famous opening line.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Not the most original of choices, perhaps, but this story is full of the kind of twists and turns, misdirection and misery, delight and disasters which make up some of the best novels in the English-speaking world. It is a case of mistaken identity — or rather, of mistaken character — that points out the flaws in not simply one character, but both; they have misjudged one another and suffered for it. Elizabeth and Darcy are well-matched, not just in their love of reading and the outdoors, but in intelligence, wit, and humour. Three things that I would place rather a lot of importance on in a relationship. Plus there’s the novelty of the suitor actually relenting when the lady says no; something we could do with seeing a lot more of in modern, mainstream literature…
3. The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
If I tried for one hundred years I don’t imagine I could come up with the right words to describe this book. The closest I can get is that old recommendation: ‘You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, it’ll change your life.’ And that’s The Fault in Our Stars really; life-changing. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that nothing but the final Harry Potter book has made me weep quite this much. It follows the lives of teenage cancer sufferers Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters, as they become friends, fall in love, go to Amsterdam, and just generally break the reader’s heart with every move they make. All, in Hazel’s case, with an oxygen-tank in tow. It’s a Love Story and a love story, which showcases the importance of platonic and familial relationships, alongside a very real representation of young love. Gut-wrenchingly good. Read it, but be careful to have a nearby shoulder prepped for the inevitable cascade of tears.
4. North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell
This is Pride and Prejudice. But grittier. And Victorian. Honestly there’s not much more to say, except to note that the satire is less “nudge nudge, wink wink”; this is replaced by a rather glaring criticism of the conditions of the working class in industrial cities, so the book involves a lot less dancing and a lot more Cockneys. Set in an increasingly industrialised town called Milton, a fictional place based on Manchester, our young lovers don’t get off to the best start. However, the relationship that eventually blossoms between the idealistic Margaret Hale and the hard-working Mr. Thornton is subtle but ultimately realistic, and therein lies its appeal. Besides which, the BBC adaptation features the rather lovely Richard Armitage, which is as good a reason as any to settle down with a tub of ice cream and let the world melt away…
5. Cross Stitch, Diana Gabaldon (American title: Outlander)
This book is the first in an ongoing series and, like George R. R. Martin’s novels, not for the faint-hearted. Cross Stitch, weighing in at over 800 pages in most editions, has something for everyone. There are dangers, peril, battles a-plenty; romance, sex, heartbreak; murder, scandal, and a rather large helping of history. Our protagonist, a World War II nurse named Claire Randall, travels back in time quite by accident one day whilst on holiday with her husband in Scotland; stepping into the mystical stone circle at the hill of Craigh na Dun, she is transported to 1743, and soon finds herself in the middle of a battle. She falls in love with Jamie Fraser, though there are many twists and turns before the novel gets to that point, and the biggest obstacle is her own conflict in loving two men in different times. Their love is written with such passion, and the story is so ornate and intricately woven that it’s impossible not to be sucked in. You can lose hours of your life devoted to their story, and I would in fact recommend that you do.
In fact, you should also check out the TV series based on the novels. It brings the romance and Scottish countryside to life in breathtaking ways.
Of course, these recommendations are all for naught if you don’t like romance, but I can get around that with some ease:
Read the first for its innovation; the second for its satire; the third for its though-provoking nature; the fourth for Richard Armitage — if you watch the BBC adaptation first you can imagine him more easily when reading the novel, just a handy tip for you — and the final one should be read because…well, because there’s nothing like reading aloud in a broad Scottish accent.
Note: This article was originally published on the now-defunct Heart of Glass magazine.