We grow up thinking “love” is effortless, or at least I did – that you find someone then you just “know,” and then you trail off into the sunset. We see it in movies, we see it in couples who no one understands “how they do it,” and we see it in perfectly arced stories with happy endings.
Out here, in the real world, love is rarely a straight shot to paradise, but often a bumpy, nauseating cycle of push and pull, with blurry vision and unsteady heartbeats. These novels challenge Hollywood ideals and make you feel seen by examining the imperfect, all-consuming relationships that don’t seem to make sense and leave us fractured and confused.
The End of the Story by Lydia Davis
Told through the past and present, painful memory and meditation on longing, Davis takes the reader along as she tries to understand a previous on-and-off again lover. She calls into question what happens when love goes beyond itself, when it becomes a cocktail of jealousy and obsession, making it difficult to see what ones true intentions are, and why we hold onto something when we know it’s not right. An honest novel about toxic romance and the weights that history with someone can add to a heart.
Memorable Quote: “I had to ruin it to get out of it, but once I was out of it I had to remain attached to it, as though what I needed was to be on the edge of it”
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Challenging various aspects of narrative and form, Offill writes on the tale of a fractured marriage, the opposing sides of a heart that wants to leave and also stay, how betrayal and pain cause a particular kind of internal anger, and what it means to forgive and hate all at once. A small novel that’s a delight to read over the course of a day, Offill demonstrates the cycle of infatuation, indifference, pain, and how sometimes, only time allows us to start again.
Memorable Quote: “The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind.”
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Using bullet points and a constant examination of the color blue, Nelson exercises extreme control and neatness over a love story that was anything but. Nelson explores a toxic, harmful romance as she goes inward and then outward to view the world around her and to understand what it means to let go of the person you never thought you would.
Memorable Quote: “For to wish to forget how much you loved someone – and then, to actually forget – can feel, at times, like the slaughter of a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart.”
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
A classic family drama that is anything but cliché. Howard, an English middle-aged professor at a prestigious university, and his African-American wife, Kiki, try to work through their marriage following Howard’s recent infidelity. The story follows Howard, Kiki, their three children, and a whole other cast of characters, as they each deal with the aftermath of Howard’s actions. This novel calls into question various aspects of cultural differences in the face of love as well as the capacity to actually “go back,” and how certain actions have both quiet and loud consequences.
Memorable Quote: “The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.”
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
A story about two people who love each other, but each have a different understanding of love. Following the lives of Tomas and Tereza during the invasion of Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s and its aftermath, Kundera writes a heartbreaking tale on the difficulty to love and sometimes one’s incapacity to do so. Kundera explores the philosophy on the relationship between commitment and morality, love and infidelity, the weight and lightness of love.
Memorable Quote: “But when the strong were too weak to hurt the weak, the weak had to be strong enough to leave.”
Women by Charles Bukowski
In this semi-autobiographical novel, Bukowski writes on a series of past relationships all leading to their inevitable demise. With dark humor and honesty, the narrator recounts the women he did or didn’t love, and often stepping back to examine the fundamental role relationships play in one’s life. In his crass yet simplistically beautiful way, Bukowski calls into question the old idea of what you learn about yourself through others, and how even the flawed relationships leave us with something.
Memorable Quote: “I never felt right being alone; sometimes it felt good but it never felt right.”
Essays in Love by Alain de Botton
In an interesting fiction-nonfiction marriage, Botton mainly writes about a man who falls quickly and deeply in love and then painfully and pitifully out of it. Through an engaging hybrid of traditional narrative and psychological exploration, Botton brings forth insight on how love shapes our minds, obstructs our view and sometimes eventually fades despite all resistance.
Memorable Quote: “We are all more intelligent than we are capable, and awareness of the insanity of love has never saved anyone from the disease.”
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee
A play in three acts, all taking place over the course of one, long, evening. This story captures the push and pull between a long-married couple that let resentment and spite manifest into something ugly. Albee demonstrates what happens when couples go to the places they promised they never would, and how knowing someone to the core can shift from a bond to a weapon, and how only a certain kind of malice stems out of a certain kind of love.
Memorable Quote: “A drowning man takes those nearest.”
Outline by Rachel Cusk
This novel, and also the first of a trilogy, is told mostly through the narrator’s interactions with others. In fact, the dialogue is predominantly told in the manner of people talking at the narrator as she internally reflects or summarizes their stories. As the narrator absorbs the words of others, her identity and life is drawn by contrast, often lending the reader her acute perceptiveness and understanding of human relationships. Cusk carefully builds a story through other people’s stories, demonstrating the contradiction between how people present themselves, and who they really are. Through the various encounters, each of the narrator’s speakers combat a particular internal struggle with their relationships and themselves, highlighting how heartbreak impacts our interactions as we move through the world.
Memorable Quote: “What she couldn’t stand was pretense of any kind, especially pretense of desire, wherein someone feigned the need to possess her wholly when in fact what he wanted was to use her temporarily.”