Five Best Books About Love

From a Wall Street Journal story by James Runcie headlined “Five Best: Love Stories”:

The Price of Salt
By Patricia Highsmith (1952)

1. In 1948, when she was 27 years old, Patricia Highsmith took a job as a salesgirl in the toy section of a Manhattan department store. One morning, “a blondish woman in a fur coat” came in to buy a doll for her daughter. After the transaction, Highsmith felt “odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, at the same time uplifted.” That night, she wrote an eight-page outline of her only love story, a novel that captures all the giddiness of that initial bouleversement.

Rejected by her original publisher and later issued under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, the book became a lesbian cult classic, sold a million copies in its first year in paperback and was turned into the entrancing 2015 film “Carol.” The book is written in a deceptively simple declarative style, where the complexity of falling in love, when one is both elated and afraid, appears both natural and inevitable. “Whatever happened, they would meet it without running.” Highsmith’s work often starts with a simple premise (think “Strangers on a Train” or “The Talented Mr. Ripley”) that develops into something seriously out of control. Here, there is all the balanced simplicity of unstoppable love.

Love in the Time of Cholera
By Gabriel García Márquez (1985)

2. Set in an unnamed Caribbean city in the late 19th century, this is a lyrical comedy of patience rewarded. Florentino Ariza, a young telegraph operator, is considered too lowly to marry the radiantly beautiful Fermina Daza. Forced apart by the girl’s father, the couple are separated for 51 years, nine months and four days. In that time, Fermina marries the well-respected Juvenal Urbino and Florentino contents himself with 622 affairs and one-night stands while dreaming of his beloved. He goes bald, loses his teeth and waits for his rival to die.

Gabriel García Márquez sets the ridiculous nature of his hero’s plight against the absurdities of church and state and suffuses the novel with wit, generosity and grace. To read it is to experience sensory overload; a heady infusion of orange blossom, camellia, bitter almonds and the asparagus-scented urine with which Dr. Urbino waters his garden. The couple do, of course, get there in the end. When they are finally reunited, “it was as if they had leapt over the arduous cavalry of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love . . . beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love.”

Erec et Enide
By Chrétien de Troyes (1170)

3. This 12th-century Arthurian romance is one of the earliest portraits of marriage. Erec, “the best knight, the most hardy, brave, fair and courteous that ever was a count or a King,” is so blissfully happy with his new wife, Enide, that he gives up on his knightly adventuring to devote “all his heart and mind to fondling and kissing her.” He doesn’t get up until midday and spends all his time “in cherishing his wife.”

This unmanly behavior is the subject of much ridicule from Erec’s fellow knights, and he only agrees to go back on the road on the condition that Enide comes with him. This is hardly standard practice. He warns his wife that she will have to behave and keep her mouth shut through all the tests and troubles that lie ahead. Unfortunately, Erec is so distracted by love, and proves so hapless a knight, that his wife cannot help but intervene simply to stop him from being killed. This is the perfect story of a knowing partnership and loving disobedience. It also contains one of my favorite lines in all literature: “Flee, flee, here comes the corpse!”

The Year of Magical Thinking
By Joan Didion (2005)

4. “Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be.” Joan Didion’s account of the loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the year of mourning that followed, is a revelatory account of being taken to a place that cannot be anticipated or imagined. In one moment, you sit down to dinner; in the next, your life is changed irrevocably: “John was talking, then he wasn’t.” The book has a specificity that is, itself, magical.

By concentrating on each detail, the story becomes transcendentally universal. If love can knock us sideways when it arrives, then its old enemy, death, can do something equally powerful when it doesn’t so much turn up on the doorstep but sits down opposite. “I realized for the time being,” Didion writes, that “I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world.” For anyone who wants to read or write about grief or needs to understand what it feels like to be bereaved, this is the gold standard. For those who are struggling to accept loss, and life after love, it provides the consolation that you are not alone.

The Bear Came Over the Mountain
By Alice Munro (1999)

5. Some people believe that falling in love is the easy bit. It’s staying in love that’s the challenge. “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is the final short story in Alice Munro’s collection “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.” Fiona and Grant were childhood sweethearts. One day they went for a walk on a blustery beach. “ ‘Do you think it would be fun—’ Fiona shouted. ‘Do you think it would be fun if we got married?’ He took her up on it, he shouted yes. He wanted never to be away from her. She had the spark of life.”

After years of a marriage they take for granted, Fiona develops Alzheimer’s and is sent to a care home. Grant worries that she will forget him and the story circles around the nature of time, memory and the endurance of love. Ms. Munro is a keen observer of the complexities of modern relationships, with all their expectations and disappointments, their misunderstandings and ambiguities, their quiet elations and lonely sorrows. She writes as if she is gently reminding you of things you already know, recognizing that time is fluid and that little in life is permanent. Love can be both intensely complex and refreshingly straightforward. When you know, you know. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, love is a fact.

James Runcie is the author of the memoir ‘Tell Me Good Things: On Love, Death, and Marriage.’

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