When we think of literary love stories there are the all-stars—the obvious ones like Romeo and Juliet or the favorites like Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Then there are the close-seconds like Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, Scarlett O’Hara and Brett Butler. Or, if you’re the more edgy-type, there’s always Catherine and Heathcliff, Beatrice and Benedick. Maybe even Gatsby and Daisy. But as any good fan of love and literature knows, sometimes you have to look past the obvious to find the really good stuff.
Some of the books that really get to you (and I mean, get to you in that deep-down soul-wrenching, gut-clenching type of way) aren’t found among the bestsellers or within the canon. And so it is, with literary love stories. Sometimes you have to look to the back and bottom shelves, the secondary characters and side-plots, or to authors and genres that aren’t always talked about as much as they should be to find the real romance.
This National Book Lovers Day, I took a deeper dive into a few of the couples that don’t get the attention they deserve to shed a little light on a few of the best literary loves stories you’ve probably never heard of.
Brian and Gretchen
From Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno
If you’re a fan of High Fidelity or The Perks of Being a Wallflower (or punk music or mixed-tapes or maybe just angsty teen coming-of-age stories) then this book and this couple could be the perfect match for you. Brian Oswald is a high-school outcast (and who doesn’t love them?) who has great fellow high-school outcast friends. One of them is Gretchen, who is his best friend and who is totally punk rock and bad ass and (get this) fat. Or, as the book puts it, she was the girl who “the rest of the world considered fat.” She also, “wasn’t the most feminine girl in the world.” Though it’s easy to get distracted by the music references, fight scenes, first-person teenaged narrator, and general 90s awesomeness that permeates this story, what makes Brian and Gretchen compelling characters is that they’re dealing with real things. They challenge each other on music and race and dating and what to eat and wear and say and do in the way only high-schoolers with something to prove really can. They’re a great example of that age. Of how, when you’re young, you sometimes grow together and apart from the people you love while you’re busy trying to figure the rest of your life out.
Gretchen’s mix-tapes, her music choices, were like these songs that seemed to be all about our lives, but in small random ways that made sense on almost any occasion. Like “Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?” Maybe it meant I should tell Gretchen how I was feeling. Or maybe it meant I should just go home. To me, the tapes were what made me like her, then love her so much: the fact that in between the Misfits and the Specials, she would have a song from the Mamas and the Papas, “Dream a Little Dream of Me” or something like that. Those mix-tapes were the secret soundtrack to how I was feeling or what I thought about almost everything.
Fenno and Mal
From Three Junes by Julia Glass
Three Junes by Julia Glass is a (cool word alert) triptytch of a novel, with three somewhat-intertwining stories and one of the most compelling is about Fenno and Mal. Fenno is a young bookstore owner in New York City. Mal is a bit older and a music critic for the New York Times. What brings them together? Books, a parrot name Felicity, and (we’re about to get heavy) AIDS. An old professor of mine once said, “What makes a really good love story, isn’t what brings two people together. It’s what keeps them apart.” If you like your love stories with a little tragedy, Fenno and Mal have plenty keeping them apart. To the reader it seems so obvious that they share a bond, a connection, and are meant for each other but Mal is focused on his battle with death and Fenno is too scared to see that his soulmate is right in front of him. Perhaps what’s so heartbreaking is that what keeps them apart isn’t the obvious distraction of death and illness but Fenno’s fear of what could be. It’s the saddest of missed opportunities.
Never talk yourself out of knowing you’re in love or into thinking that you are.
Katharine Hilbery and Ralph Denham
From Night and Day by Virginia Woolf
Now, I know Virginia Woolf is well-known but Night and Day isn’t as popular as some of her other novels and it’s an amazing story. In it, Katharine is high-born, privileged, and though she’s born into a literary family she prefers mathematics. (Oh look at that, another romantic heroine who doesn’t quite fit the mold.) When she first meets Ralph, an idealistic, somewhat romantic lawyer who writes articles for Katherine’s father, she’s not all that impressed. Actually, he’s not all that impressed either but he still leaves tea thinking, “She’ll do…Yes, Katharine Hilbery’ll do…I’ll take Katharine Hilbery.” It doesn’t seem like the most romantic beginning, but what I enjoy about Katherine and Ralph is that when they meet each other they’re still growing themselves. Katharine doubts that love and marriage is for her and wants something more. Ralph is bored by his work and wants his own kind of something more. Throughout the novel you see that, despite their differences, they’re actually quite alike, and that they think and see the world in the same way. So much so that at one point Ralph draws a scribbly circle on a piece of paper and, in typical Woolf fashion, assigns all kinds of deep meanings to it that Katherine immediately understands as well. “Yes, the world looks something like that to me too,” she says. It’s an unusual but lovely declaration of love.
He received her assurance with profound joy. Quietly and steadily there rose up behind the whole aspect of life that soft edge of fire which gave its red tint to the atmosphere and crowded the scene with shadows so deep and dark that one could fancy pushing farther into their density and still farther, exploring indefinitely.
Jon and Carolyn
From Jon by George Saunders
Jon and Carolyn meet inside a futuristic facility controlled by a firm that tests the marketability of different products on good-looking young people. (Phew!) If it sounds a bit crazy, it is. Jon and Carolyn are the good-looking young people—they are the TrendSetters and TasteMakers—but because of their upbringing they’re also incredibly stunted. Having grown up inside a facility all they’ve known is commercials and marketing and so throughout the story Jon is constantly struggling to find a way to articulate his feelings for Carolyn. What’s great about this story is that despite the fact that their lives are controlled by a corporation, their emotions have been repressed by drugs, and their life is robotic and seemingly empty they’re still able to discover something real with each other. (Hmm, maybe those of us not living in a futuristic facility can take some comfort in this as well.)
And though I had many times seen LI 34321 for Honey Grahams, where the stream of milk and the stream of honey enjoin to make that river of sweet-tasting goodness, I did not know that, upon making love, one person may become like the milk and the other like the honey, and soon they cannot even remember who started out the milk and who the honey, they just become one fluid, like this honey/milk combo.
Mary Garth and Fred Vincy
From Middlemarch by George Eliot
When most people think of Middlemarch Dorothea is the character that comes to mind. (She is, after all, the main one.) But the side plot of Mary Garth and Fred Vincy shouldn’t be overlooked. Fred is one of those characters who isn’t such a great person but you somehow find yourself rooting for him anyways. Despite the fact that he gambles his family’s money away and seems to waste his time on a lavish lifestyle, he is completely devoted to Mary, his childhood sweetheart. (Which is perhaps his saving grace.) Mary, meanwhile, is smart and pragmatic, and is probably one of the wittiest characters in the novel. Despite her fondness for Fred she refuses to be with him until he does something with his life. Perhaps Fred and Mary’s love story is a simple one but it’s also very sweet. Mary won’t let him take any job, she wants him to find a job that suites him. She pushes him to be better. And, despite his failings, Fred rises to the occasion.
And, of course men know best about everything, except what women know better.
Renée Michel and Kakuro Ozu
From The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Renée is an amazing character—a dumpy 54-year-old concierge in a fancy Parisian apartment building who’s incredibly intelligent but hides the fact from the members of the upper-class who surround her. She loves literature, philosophy, her cat Leo, and the simple ritual of having tea. Most people in her building barely even notice her but Kakuro Ozu, a Japanese businessman who moves into her building sees past her act. (And who doesn’t love the idea of a guy who sees all your deep dark secrets and actually loves them?) After noticing that her cat is named Leo after Leo Tolstoy he starts to come up with other small tests and ways to get Renée to reveal who she really is. Eventually, the careful and pessimistic Renée is convinced to take a risk, a leap if you will (warning, there are existentialist undertones afoot) in order to interact with life and love in a way she’d given up on long ago.
“They didn’t recognize me,” I repeat.
He stops in turn, my hand still on his arm.
“It is because they have never seen you,” he says. “I would recognize you anywhere.”
Perhaps what makes a great love story isn’t what keeps people apart as my lovely professor said but rather, what they discover as they come together. Renée and Fenno realized that a part of living life was taking risks, Fred Vincy learned how to hold down a job, Katharine and Ralph found a way to look at the world, while Jon and Carolyn discovered a way out of theirs. James Baldwin once said, “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.” As you enjoy this National Book Lovers Day, think about the not-so-famous literary couples who grew up together, and enjoy the common book-lovers treat of debating a question that may not have an answer—What really makes a love story great?