Paula McLain received an MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan and has been awarded fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is the author of two collections of poetry, a memoir, and two novels including the best-selling, The Paris Wife.
The first time a love story knocked me flat was when I read The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough. That was in high school, nearly thirty years ago, and it ruined me in the best sort of way. McCullough’s tale is set in the wilds of the Australian outback and chronicles, with epic anguish, the forbidden love between Meggie Cleary and Father Ralph. Although they can’t keep each other (hint: he’s a Catholic priest), their bond is undeniable—and good for several boxes of tissues. Don’t get me wrong. I like a happy ending as much as anyone, but when it comes to romance, I’m often more moved and more convinced by a healthy dose of heartbreak. When I was writing The Paris Wife, a big part of what drew me to Ernest and Hadley’s story was the way their connection is tested and challenged by sometimes overwhelming obstacles. I’m a card-carrying romantic, but in that box of valentines, I’ll always reach past the fluffy pink heart with scalloped lace edges for the one that’s pierced, broken. Real.
Here are my top ten favorite all-time literary love stories, some old, some new, some poignant, some absolutely jubilant—all guaranteed to pack a wallop on Valentine's Day. Happy reading!
Persuasion, by Jane Austen Quiet, unassuming Anne Elliot and the dashing Captain Fredrick Wentworth have both watched the love of their lives slip away. Here, we see if they’ll weather the considerable risks to grab happiness when it comes around again. Even more than Pride and Prejudice, or any other number of Austen masterpieces, this novel kills me every time for its depiction of a mature and constant love that stands the test of time.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë In setting the gold standard for Gothic Romance, Charlotte Brontë has also given us one of the most extraordinary heroines ever to grace the page. Jane is unearthly, intense, and painfully self-aware—she’s also a consummate survivor. As we follow her from her orphaned childhood through terrible obstacles and deprivations, she becomes utterly whole for us, a complicated thinking and feeling woman. Of course her love for the brooding, haunted Edward Rochester is complicated too—and entirely unforgettable.
The Time Traveler’s Wife (paperback only), by Audrey Niffenegger Like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, Henry De Tamble has come unstuck in time. Haphazardly swept through decades, and vulnerable in every way, Henry attaches himself to Clare and comes to chart his life through loving her. Forever left behind, Clare overrides the considerable challenges to link her life to Henry’s as well. The brilliant trick of this novel is that Niffenegger makes the high-concept and fantasy-based love story feel breathtakingly real, recognizable and even essential.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë The only novel published by the other Brontë sister, Wuthering Heights is a dark treatise on all-consuming life-altering passion. Heathcliff and Catherine are devastatingly locked together in life and death, and although they aren’t likeable characters, we’re swept up by their raw and harrowing human drama.
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson Essentially a current day comedy of manners, this utterly delightful novel follows the brusque and stodgy Major—such a fresh and unlikely troubadour!—in his complicated pursuit of love with Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper. Funny, wise and completely delicious!
Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier Set in the Smoky Mountains in the final throes of the Civil War, Inman is a wounded confederate soldier who deserts his post and embarks on a journey of heroic proportion to reunite with his scrappy beloved, Ada, who is also tested beyond measure.
Macbeth, by William Shakespeare While others may swoon for Romeo and Juliet, I’ll take these seasoned lovers, long married. Lady Macbeth knows her husband profoundly. His weakness is clear, and she exploits it; he complies because he wants her approval and her heart. Their love is extreme and disastrous—but there’s a shocking truth in the depth of their understanding of one another.
The History of Love, Nicole Kraus In this unbelievably beautiful novel, eighty-year-old Leo Gursky, a lonely eccentric, is fated to meet Alma Singer, a teenaged girl named for the love of Leo’s life. Full of wonderful plot turnings and synchronicities, Kraus’s story is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit, and the power of love unending.
On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan The brilliant McEwan has outdone himself in this tender and wrenching depiction of a young couple on their wedding night. Set on the Dorset Coast of England in 1963, the story is also completely timeless in its meditation on personal restraint, sexual ignorance and all the other small but enormous things that keep us from saying what needs to be said, and reaching out to another in the moments that can change our lives forever. You’ll want to gobble up this spare and perfect novel in a few hours—and I highly recommend reading it just that way.
Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx “I wish I knew how to quit you,” Ennis Del Mar tells Jack Twist in this powerful rendering of the impossible love between two men who meet as ranch hands in Wyoming’s stunning and unforgiving high country. Even if you’ve seen the gorgeous film adaptation by Ang Lee, you’ll want to read Proulx’s language first hand. The story is one of eight in her terrific collection, Close Range, and somehow manages to deliver, in just a handful of pages, one of the truest, wisest, most honest depictions of love I’ve ever encountered.