Love

As we all know, 14 February is named after St Valentine, the patron saint of greetings card companies, expensive set menus and stalkers. It’s at this time of year that we’re all supposed to abandon good taste, buy horrid shiny underwear and overpriced roses, and pay double the normal rate for a meal because it comes with a glass of Prosecco and a heart-shaped shortbread. Apparently, this has been deemed ‘romance’.

As you may have guessed from the tone of my intro, I’m not a big fan of romance, and I won’t be recommending Pride And Prejudice or even Bridget Jones’ Diary here. I do, however, have some suggestions for books on the universal theme of love which might offer an interesting Valentine’s Day alternative.

I Capture The Castle, written in the 1930s by Dodie Smith, has rightfully become a classic, and if I wanted to buy a book about love for a teenage girl, this would be my first choice. Narrated by Cassandra Mortmain, writing her diary as she sits in the kitchen sink, the book is peopled with bohemian eccentrics living in a crumbling castle and struggling to make ends meet. When the Mortmains’ new landlords arrive in the form of wealthy American brothers Simon and Neil, the family hatch a somewhat mercenary plan out of sheer impoverished desperation: Cassandra’s older, prettier sister Rose will attempt to win Simon’s hand in marriage.

Full of memorable characters and irrepressible humour, it is a bittersweet tale of first love, with all its awkwardness and disappointment as well as its joys and wonders. Each and every character is realistically flawed and yet still likeable, and there’s barely a romantic cliché to be seen – not even much of a happy-ever-after. This is a magical, wistful, hopeful book that every girl should read, full of warmth, wit, resilience and charm. I put down I Capture The Castle as a teenager feeling as if Cassandra – optimistic, well-meaning Cassandra, veering in that very teenage way between naivety and pragmatism – was my best friend. Please, parents: buy this one for your daughters instead of the ghastly Twilight.

There’s more awkwardness in Ian McEwan’s bleak, chilly On Chesil Beach, an antidote to the romance novel if I ever I saw one. This novella is the story of Edward and Florence, a young middle-class couple on their wedding night in 1962 – the year before, according to Larkin, ‘sexual intercourse began’. Confusion, ignorance and embarrassment make the event a disaster that will have long-term repercussions for them both. Like a lot of McEwan’s work, it’s sparse, dark and even horrific at times – he certainly manages to render Florence’s fear and clinical disgust remarkably effectively, not least because the only advice books available to her make sex sound like something dreamt up by David Cronenberg. Yet there’s still a harsh beauty in McEwan’s prose, rather like that of Chesil Beach itself, as the story gradually intensifies into almost painful, desperate sadness – all written with McEwan’s characteristic stark precision.

While we’re on the subject of emotional repression, there’s always The Remains Of The Day, in which Japanese-born Kazuo Ishiguro paints an exquisitely detailed portrait of the decline of the English aristocracy and the coinciding disappearance of the servant class. Narrated by Mr Stevens, an old-school butler, it’s a novel of misguided loyalties and frustratingly unrequited love. The long relationship between Stevens and his housekeeper colleague Miss Kenton barely even makes it as far as friendship, let alone romance, despite their feelings for one another. And in the meantime, there is another love affair in The Remains Of The Day: Stevens is so obsessed with his professional duty to his upper-class employer that he not only fails to express his feelings for Miss Kenton but also leaves his own father’s death-bed to attend to Lord Darlington’s needs. As Lord Darlington falls from grace over his Nazi sympathies, Stevens is abandoned by his master and left to work for a rich American, ageing, alone and so unable to form normal social relationships that he has to practise witty small-talk in the mirror.

Despite a complete lack of anything even close to consummation, or even plain admission, Stevens and Miss Kenton have possibly one of the most touching relationships in literature, even though the urge to sit them down together and just make them ‘sort it the hell out’ will make you want to throw the book across the room at times.

Prepubescent vampires are not, admittedly, an encouraging basis for a love story, but John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let The Right One In turns a horror story set in a rundown Swedish town into an oddly touching, if disturbing, exploration of love and loyalty between lonely Oskar and androgynous child vampire Eli. Let The Right One is a true horror novel, and not all the horrors come from the bloodletting and violence: the relentless bullying of Oskar by his classmates makes for painful reading at times, and I defy anyone’s skin not to crawl at the relationship between Eli and Hakan, a snivelling paedophile who dotes on Eli for sexual favours. Let The Right One is a haunting, uncomfortably ambiguous love story about two damaged children, and deserves to be ranked among the best horror novels of the last 100 years.

Apparently, Wuthering Heights is named in the aforementioned abomination that is Twishite as Edward and Bella’s favourite book, but don’t hold that against it. Wuthering Heights, although often re-marketed as such, doesn’t really even qualify as a romance: it’s a strange, dark, angry novel full of cruelty and violence. The love affair between impulsive, spiteful Cathy and abused, borderline feral Heathcliff is so horribly dysfunctional, selfish and claustrophobically intense that it rips apart two families, endures beyond death, and seems to permeate the very landscape of its rugged Yorkshire moorland setting. Wives are beaten. Graves are desecrated. Ghosts scratch at windowpanes, presumably in the hope of being immortalised in Kate Bush songs. If you thought Wuthering Heights was like Jane Austen – or even Jane Eyre – you are sorely mistaken. Destroyed by many a film-maker intent on making it into a smouldering period romance, Wuthering Heights is an astonishing Gothic novel, huge in scope and at times startling – even exhausting – in its bitterness, and is about as a far from being a romantic love story as it gets, despite its surprisingly satisfying resolution.

More love stories:

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier : Complete with a huge country mansion, a whirlwind romance and a creepy housekeeper, Rebecca has one of the best psychological-thriller-slash-Gothic-romance plots ever contrived, in which a second wife, desperately in love with her husband, is tortured by the metaphorical spectre of her predecessor.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres – While the enduring love affair between eccentric Italian soldier Captain Corelli and Greek islander Pelagia is the glue that binds the story together, the numerous, often harrowing subplots are really what make this novel a gripping read.

A Dog So Small by Philippa Pearce – Well, yes, all right, this one is rather stretching the variation on a theme, as it’s actually children’s book about a boy and a dog. But it’s beautifully written, sensitive, introspective and fascinating, and the moment where Ben finally comes to learn that true love is rooted in reality rather than idealism is frankly a lesson to us all.

Joanne Sheppard

The Illustration at the top of this piece is by Lilly Allen

The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to download from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.