Books have the ability to delve into the depths of the heart. Perhaps more than any other form of art, books are able to shine a mirror to life and love with nuance, colour, and depth.
Of course, love is a popular theme for writers — it’s universal, resonant, and can lift us to lofty heights or fell us to our knees. So naturally, there’s no shortage of books out there that explore love in all its forms.
Here, I’ve selected just four of these books — stories that will change the way you see and even experience love yourself. Enjoy.
Warning: spoilers lie ahead.
One to make you question conventional notions of love
A Little Life — Hanya Yanagihara
Published in 2015, A Little Life is, without doubt, one of the most excruciating, raw, and emotionally-draining books you will ever read, and I mean that in the best possible way.
A Little Life follows four friends — Willem, JB, Malcolm, and the enigmatic Jude — as they graduate college and enter the adult world. As their careers progress, the friends grow and develop, and Yanagihara reveals more and more about their pasts. But it is Jude’s history that takes center-stage in this tale, and it is not pretty.
In time, Willem and Jude form a relationship, of sorts. Their relationship is hardly conventional. With his partner’s approval, Willem gets his sexual gratification from other women, always returning home to a heartbreaking grateful Jude — a far cry from the nuclear family we’re used to.
But it works. They are both happy and at peace. Indeed, their partnership marks what Willem calls “the Happy Years” of Jude’s life — although this is not a book with a happy ending.
A Little Life It is a uniquely human tale, and Yanagihara has an uncanny ability to capture pain and suffering with vivid realism. But she is also able to capture the nuances of love too, and Willem and Jude’s relationship glitters with these details.
A Little Life is at once affirming and disturbing. It will dramatically alter the way you perceive love, life, and relationships in whatever form they may appear. But be warned: it will also leave you emotionally drained.
One to make you wonder about the one that got away
On Chesil Beach — Ian McEwan
McEwan’s ability to shine a spotlight into the heights and lows (largely the latter) of the human condition is inimitable — there’s a reason why the Times listed him as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.
McEwan’s 2007 novella, On Chesil Beach, follows the newly-married Edward and Florence over the course of a single evening, as they embark upon their honeymoon.
Throughout the evening, the couple contemplates their pasts, and the reader discovers how starkly different the two actually are: Edward, smart but emotionally impulsive, and Florence, sweet and talented but bound by dated social conventions and, as McEwan hints, scarred by sexual abuse.
What really makes On Chesil Beach so bittersweet is the final pages. The couple eventually parts, and Edward spends the end of the novella ruminating on his lost love.
In his sixties now, he reconsiders his relationship with Florence and concludes that, with patience and communication, they might have enjoyed a long and happy marriage together.
If you’ve ever had a relationship slip through your fingers, this one will hit you right in the feels. You’ll wonder what you did wrong, what you could have done right, and whether or not they’re better off without you.
One to reaffirm your faith in love
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin — Louis de Bernières
Reeling from a broken heart? Jaded by the tumultuous seas of love? Weary of the soaring peaks and bottomless troughs of romance? Then this is the book for you!
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is one for the cynics. Don’t let the watered-down silver screen version fool you — this is an epic tale of love, romance, and heartbreak, set against the looming, ever-present backdrop of World War II.
There is nothing quite as heartrending as watching the aging Corelli and Pelagia finally reunite, kept apart by misunderstanding and misplaced bitterness.
But I’d be remiss to talk about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and not mention one of its most heartbreaking love stories: that of Carlo Piero Guercio.
Guercio is a soldier under Corelli’s command, a giant of a man with a sweet and sensitive nature. On the surface, he is a typical Italian soldier, a lover of music, and fiercely loyal to his captain. But beneath this surface, he harbors a burning, forbidden love for Corelli — he is, as his chapter titles attest, l’omosessuale.
There is no greater testament to this love than when he throws himself in front of Corelli, seconds before a German firing squad pumps shell after shell into him and his fellow Italian soldiers.
Love will make you do foolish things, and it will make you do courageous things. Guercio’s sacrifice is many things. But above all, it affirms the innate strength and durability of love, even if unrequited.
One to make you yearn for your soulmate
Patience — Daniel Clowes
Time travel! Romance! Crime! Psychedelic hallucinations! This is truly a love story like no other.
Soulmates are a divisive thing. Some of us cling to the idea that there is one person out there who is perfect for us, while others eschew that idea in favour of a more fluid notion of attraction.
Patience brings both those ideas together. Written and illustrated by Daniel Clowes, the graphic novel follows our protagonist Jack as he reels from the discovery of his murdered pregnant wife, the eponymous Patience. Distraught with grief, years later he discovers a time travel machine, which he then employs to discover his wife’s murderer and save her from her own fate.
If you’re unsure what to expect, consider the novel’s slightly tongue-in-cheek tagline: ‘a cosmic timewarp deathtrip to the primordial infinite of everlasting love’. This trippy description accurately sums up the experience of reading Patience, with readers constantly feeling on the back foot as they try to comprehend Jack’s actions.
As the story progresses, Jack’s time-traveling exploits become entwined with Patience’s own history. His actions in the future become part of her past, and one begins to see the threads of these two soulmates weave together.
If you believe in soulmates, this visual feast of a novel will at once affirm your belief and make you look at it in a new light. The lengths that Jack goes to save Patience will lift your heart.
And if you don’t believe in soulmates? Patience will have you yearning for a love like that between Jack and his eponymous beau.
The books above are just the tip of the lovin’ iceberg. There are countless more stories that explore the complex waters of love. What books have made you change the way you perceive love? Let us know in the comments below.