Valentine's Day is almost upon us, and what better time for a good old fashioned love story. But what to recommend?
I posed the question to our Facebook followers, specifying that we weren't interested in books starring gushing regency heroines or bare chested cowboys but instead wished to seek out quieter stories that explore love and relationships. Within a couple of hours we had over 100 recommendations - far too many to include here, so we've chosen to focus just on some of the debuts, and will return to this topic again in the future:
Me Before You by JoJo Moyes received more recommendations than any other title. Published in December 2012 this three-hanky weepie is currently ranked in the high 20s in the New York Times fiction bestseller lists. To quote our reviewer, Norah Piehl, "simply reading the jacket copy of Moyes's second novel might give readers the impression that Me Before You is a traditional 'opposites attract'" kind of romance novel, the kind of story that proves that love conquers all, even in the most extreme circumstances. Although on one level that may be true, Me Before You is, in fact, so much more. It's a story about personal redemption and self-worth, about finding courage, about knowing what to hold onto and what to let go. It's also a meditation on one of the most controversial and divisive issues of our times. And, lest you think that the novel is merely an inspirational fable or a 'problem novel,' rest assured that it's also a beautifully and smartly written literary work, full of lovely phrases, complicated characters, and compelling situations."
The Promise of Stardust by debut author Prescille Sibley has only just published but is already getting attention for its literate take on a modern-day ethical dilemma wrapped around a 20-year love story. Like Me Before You, this book has book club discussion written all over it.
Debuts that Say You're Never Too Old For Love
I've loved these sorts of books since at least my 20s. Perhaps it's just me but it seems that love stories involving young protagonists have a nasty habit of segueing into tragedy; whereas, rather ironically, books with older leads do so less frequently. Here are three not to miss titles that will be familiar to many - so perhaps it's time for a reread!
Helen Simonson's 2010 debut, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, set in the idyllic English village of Edgecombe St. Mary is, to quote Elizabeth Strout, "a funny, comforting, and intelligent debut, a modern-day story of love that takes everyone - grown children, villagers, and the main participants - by surprise, as real love stories tend to do."
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) is another book worth seeking out for those who love the quiet reveal. Although a couple of reviewers felt the tale was a little manipulative, I'm totally in agreement with The Paris Wife author Paula McClain's assessment that "there's tremendous heart in this debut novel by Rachel Joyce, as she probes questions that are as simple as they are profound: Can we begin to live again, and live truly, as ourselves, even in middle age, when all seems ruined? Can we believe in hope when hope seems to have abandoned us? I found myself laughing through tears, rooting for Harold at every step of his journey. I'm still rooting for him."
To quote Frank McCourt, Rules for Old Men Waiting by Peter Pouncey (2005) is "a deeply sensual, moving, thrilling novel that calls for a second and third reading, it is that rich." If that's not enough to persuade you, long time BookBrowse member Anne Marsh, who recommended it on Facebook, describes it as "the best book I think I've ever read -- and I've read WAYYY too many for a normal person!"
Debut Love Stories With a Twist
For a change of pace, here are some love stories with a twist of magic, time travel or the supernatural:
It's more than 20 years since Diana Gabaldon published the first volume in her Outlander saga which must surely be in the running for the best loved time-travel-love-story of all time. As the San Francisco Chronicle puts it, Gabaldon paints on a large canvas "filled with strong passions and derring-do. Strong willed and sensual, Claire is an engaging modern heroine plopped down in a simpler, more primitive time...perfect escape reading!"
Another contender for winner of favorite time-travel-love-story must be The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffeneger's 2003 debut in which boy meets girl, then girl meets boy in a story that raises questions about life, love, and the effects of time on relationships.
Erin Morgenstern's debut The Night Circus (2011), in which two young magicians duel in a fantastical circus, could so easily have been a miss but BookBrowse members (who voted it favorite debut of 2011) agree it's most definitely a hit with its rich, seductive prose, offering a feast for the senses and the heart.
Last but not least, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (2011) offers an intelligent supernatural story in which Diana, descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, meets her equal in handsome vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont, and together they find themselves at the center of a supernatural battle over an enchanted manuscript.
Historicals & Contemporary Love Stories
A couple of great historicals:
The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (2009), Jamie Ford's first novel, explores the age-old conflicts between father and son, the beauty and sadness of what happened to Japanese Americans in the Seattle area during World War II, and the depths and longing of deep-heart love.
In Loving Frank (2007), Nancy Horan weaves little-known facts about the lives of Frank Lloyd Wright and his long-time lover Mamah Borthwick Cheney into a compelling narrative that vividly portrays the conflicts and struggles of a woman forced to choose between the roles of mother, wife, lover, and intellectual.
And a trio of contemporary (sort of) love stories:
Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer (2012): A shocking, searing, breathless love story, a gripping portrait of modern family, and a stunning exploration of love, death and what it means to be human."
This Is How It Ends by Kathleen McMahon (2012) : A beautifully written debut novel that's also a real romantic weepy.
Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler (2013): A soaring debut interweaving the story of a heartbreaking, forbidden love in 1930s Kentucky with an unlikely modern-day friendship.
What books have we missed? Please share your favorites by posting below!