Suggestions for Non-Cheesy Valentine’s Day Reads

If you’re looking for an alternative to Nicholas Sparks this February, here are some novels and short story collections that recognize love as the strange and idiosyncratic thing it is.

Tolstoy wrote that “All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.” As Valentine’s Day approaches, many of us may find ourselves, happily or begrudgingly, with love on the brain. While I find the notion that every single person spends Valentine’s Day crying into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s rather tiresome, I’m also wary of the idea that we have to be cynical and dismissive of the holiday in order to be immune to the pain it might inflict.

Perhaps Valentine’s Day can be a celebration of love in which everyone can partake. With this in mind, I want to share a few of my favorite novels and short story collections which focus on love, and remind us of the multiplicity of its manifestations in our lives.

These are works which acknowledge the strangeness of love, the unlikeliness of love and the small, quiet graces which amount to love.

“An Experiment in Love” by Hilary Mantel

The novel is the story of a group of young women at the University of London in the 1970s. Despite their complicated and often volatile relationships with one another, the girls rely on each other as they navigate the changing landscape of the ’70s, straddling their past and present lives and different conceptions of what it means to be a woman. “The world moves on so fast,” Mantel writes, “and we lose all chance of being the women our mothers were; we lose all understanding of what shaped them.” It’s the kind of book that pulls you into its orbit and doesn’t let you go, wrapping you up in its world even as it asks more questions than it answers. It also happens to be laugh-out-loud (or at least smirk-in-public) funny.

“The First Bad Man” by Miranda July

A strange, wonderful, uniquely Miranda July novel, focused on the relationship between Cheryl Glickman, a neurotic woman in her early 40s, and 20-year-old Clee, the virile houseguest that has been thrust upon her. Cheryl describes Clee as “so much a woman that for a moment I wasn’t sure who I was.” Their relationship moves from hostile, to erotic to tender and loving. July takes the game of romance and makes it literal, as the physical battles between Cheryl and Clee manipulate the dynamics of dominance and submission, of restraint and vulnerability. While the novel kicks off with Cheryl’s schoolgirl-esque obsession with her male coworker, Phillip Bettelheim, it quickly pivots and takes us precisely where we least expect it to go. Just as love is tempestuous, unpredictable and giddy, so is July’s novel.

“Her Body and Other Parties” by Carmen Maria Machado

Machado is interested in how much we give of ourselves to the people we love, for better or for worse. This deeply imaginative debut work — a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award — is a genre-bending short story collection that deals with the struggle for human connection via fantastic circumstances and sci-fi tropes. The first story of the collection, “The Husband Stitch,” has garnered particular praise for its re-imagining of traditional folklore — remember the story of the girl with the red ribbon around her neck? — through a feminist lens. Despite the normative heterosexual love story that dominates this unforgettable opener, the remainder of the collection deals largely with lesbian relationships, with women who disappear into the seams of dresses, with inventories of sexual partners amidst a deadly nationwide epidemic. It’s a collection that is wild and erotic and all the while imbued with that cozy feeling of listening to a good story by a campfire.

“Men Without Women” by Haruki Murakami

Murakami’s collection of seven stories deals with men who are, for one reason or another, without women. A stand-out is “Samsa in Love,” which places us in the headspace of Gregor Samsa as he wakes, naked, in the bedroom of a home with which he is not familiar. A hunchbacked locksmith appears at his door, informing him that she is there to repair the upstairs lock; Samsa struggles to make sense of his disorientation whilst experiencing sexual attraction to the locksmith that both offends her for its fetishistic implications and mystifies Samsa himself. It’s precisely this kind of imaginative eccentricity, mixed with the startlingly familiar, that distinguishes Murakami’s work. This collection deals with sexuality, with the burden of loneliness and what loss can teach us about love.

Email Julie Goldberg at [email protected]

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