Our Favorite Writers Recount the Most Romantic Things They’ve Ever Read

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Illustration by Sarah Lutkenhaus

Writing about romance is not always easy; far too often a writer drifts into cliché, or is overly cautious of cliché and misses the mark altogether, leaving the reader cold. And yet the best writing that revolves around the concept of love frequently counts as some of the best writing that we’ve ever read. This is probably because the experience of love and romance is one that we’re inclined to want to share with someone else, and so when we recognize our own feelings reflected on the page and feel for a moment the universality of human experience, we…get excited.

So in the spirit of love and romance, we asked some of our favorite writers about some of the most romantic things they’ve ever read, the kind of things that when you read you can’t help but think, or even say out loud, “yes yes yes!”

Helen Phillips, author of And Yet They Were Happy
If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler Italo Calvino
Romance is so subjective; I know plenty of people who find this book emotionally frigid. True, the characters are more likely to read than to engage in intimacy; true, a bunch of labyrinthine narratives increasingly interrupt and devour the original storyline. But I think part of the reason I find it so romantic is because the romance sneaks up on you. It’s only on the last page of the book that it really claims itself as a story about love—and we get, rare postmodern treasure, a happily ever after ending for our bookish protagonists: “Now you are man and wife, Reader and Reader. A great double bed receives your parallel readings.” I gave this book to my boyfriend-now-husband nine years ago.

Sari Botton, editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York
Endless Love Scott Spencer
Recently, Scott Spencer wrote on the Paris Review site about the pitfalls of having your book made into a bad movie – not once, but twice. He was referring to Endless Love, his 1979 novel of teenage love and obsession, told from the perspective of the now adult David, reflecting on the crime of passion committed two decades before that still defines his life. First, in 1981, Franco Zeffirelli adapted if for the screen, with Brooke Shields, Martin Hewitt and Tom Cruise; and now, in 2014, Shana Feste’s version appears in time for Valentine’s Day. Reading Spencer’s piece reminded me of how much of an effect the novel had on me as a teen. David and his girlfriend Rachel have the kind of naive, tortured love and passion I longed for at fifteen, but that’s not all that affected me. Spencer’s writing is so beautiful and evocative, his storytelling so compelling, that when I picked the book up again a couple of years ago to see if it still held up for me, I found that it did. It didn’t matter that I knew what happened. I was hooked at every turn. Skip the awful movies and pick up the book. It’s a classic by a great writer.

Ruth Curry, co-proprietor of Emily Books
“Giovanni’s Apartment,” from The Wild Creatures Sam D’Allesandro
No small part of the attraction of secret affairs and one-time hookups is the opportunity to shed your identity for a few hours and become someone completely different. “Giovanni’s Apartment” is about what happens when those few hours stretch into weeks and months. A man becomes aware someone is following him down the street; the two exchange a few charged words and go home together, and then the man – the narrator – doesn’t leave Giovanni’s room for the next 32 days. This story nails the feeling of being in so deep you no longer particularly care who you are or what you’ve gotten yourself into, and hints at what might be lurking in the periphery (it is set in San Francisco in the 80s) to make such complete abnegation attractive: “Together we formed one large womb providing a safety neither of us possessed on our own. . . I was shocked to think he needed me. I was willing to let him have whatever I had that he might want, but I wasn’t sure what that might be. My attributes are invisible to me. The beauty he sees in me is different from that which I think of owning. He was falling in love with a person I didn’t know and I was that person.”

BKM_Romantic_Novels_5 Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
It’s Not You Sara Eckel
On Valentine’s Day, I think everybody—single or coupled—ought to read Sara Eckel’s wonderful and deceptively light new book, It’s Not You, based on her Modern Love column [in the New York Times] about being single for most of her twenties and thirties. Thin and fun-to-read, the book is also wise and soul-enhancing as Eckel makes a welcome case for commonsense, kindness and empathy in an area of life in which women are too often blamed, by themselves and others. What better time for an argument against single-shaming than on this most obnoxious of holidays?

Darin Strauss, author of Half a Life
Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
When I first read Anna Karenina I thought the doomed, soap-opera passion between Anna and her lover, Vronksky, was the most romantic thing I’d read. Dumb college-kid. Because its’ the book’s other love that is remarkable, the slow-burn love, the eat-your-vegetables love between Levin and Kitty. It’s not as sexy to find someone who can live with forever, as a partner. But that’s what Tolstoy shows there, and it’s the best — most realistically enviable — marriage I’ve ever come across, in real-life or fiction.

Maris Kreizman, author of Slaughterhouse 90210 (forthcoming)
Mating Norman Rush
“Causing active ongoing pleasure in your mate is something people tend to restrict to the sexual realm or getting attractive food on the table on time, but keeping permanent intimate comedy going is more important than any other one thing.”
The narrator of Norman Rush’s novel, Mating, is a wayward postgrad student who is both tremendously intelligent and I-wanna-grab-her-by-the-shoulders-and-shake-her foolish. Her intensive research into her own relationship with a charismatic anthropologist is often misguided, but that one particular observation really stuck with me. “Permanent intimate comedy” sounds like the romantic ideal, equal parts snug and sexy.

Emily Gould, author of Friendship (forthcoming)
Mating Norman Rush
I’m sure a lot of people will say this [Ed. Note: They did!] but the description of infatuation that turns into a kind of intense but not quite reciprocal romance in Mating by Norman Rush had a profound affect on me. Mostly that it was fun and wrenching to experience it vicariously, and be caught up in the drama of it, but also that I made a note to myself to stop being that person if at all possible. It’s fun to be the one who loves more until it isn’t.

Benjamin Samuel, co-editor of Electric Literature
“Advice to Lovers” by Robert Graves
There’s this Robert Graves poem called “Advice to Lovers.” I don’t care much for the poem, which makes Love feel too simple and quaint. But there’s a line that’s stuck with me: “Whistle, and Love will come to you”.

Like a lot of poetry, that line is a little vague and could use some clarification. Should we whistle come-hither, or catcall, or should we hang around with our lips pursed and expect Love to eventually stumble into us? (That was my kissing strategy in middle school, by the way). Really what I think Graves is getting at is that if you’re ready for Love, willing to nurture and care for it, it’ll pay off.

The thing is, though, Love itself has become vague. We use one word for this ideal, for what is often an emotional El Dorado, but in reality Love is different for each of us. It can be easy or elusive; sometimes it’s a process or a battle or something we regret. The trouble comes when we confuse love with passion. In a particularly brilliant Daily Rumpus, Stephen Elliot eloquently made the distinction. Passion is just what gets a relationship started, the “booster rocket that gets the ship into orbit until there’s no gravity and it can float.” Love, then, is something else, something dynamic and adaptive. Love isn’t magic, it isn’t a fairy tale, it’s a relationship. And relationships, as Graves suggests, need attention and commitment and work—just floating, as Stephen later suggests, won’t do either. If Love were a simple, singular state experienced the same way for each of us, then we’d fall in love once and stay together forever. But penguins we are not.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen


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