For those among us who groan every time a new saccharine sweet romantic comedy comes out, Valentine’s Day is sort of the worst. Suddenly every television channel is playing Bridget Jones’s Diary, and even worse, the people who love that garbage come crawling out of whatever heart-shaped rock they normally live under to sing the gospel of love. Ugh, yeah, we get it.
But the thing is even cynics need love — just not bullshit, set-to-a-montage, John-Cusack-holding-a-stereo “love.” The 50 books below are filled with love, but a kind far more legitimate than what’s in your typical rom-com. They might not always be fun, and they might not always be sweet — in fact, the realistic depictions of romantic relationships in these 50 books will probably break your icy heart. So happy Valentine’s Day, and happy reading.
Oh, and don’t forget to get your candy on sale on February 15.
1. Eros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson
Carson’s exploration of love starts with the sentence, “It was Sappho who first called eros ‘bittersweet.’ No one who has been in love disputes her. What does the word mean?” From there unfurls a book of lyric poetry so stunning that it will pry open the hearts of even the most ardent haters of Runaway Bride.
2. The End of the Story by Lydia Davis
What are you left with when a relationship ends? Well, ticket stubs and receipts, old T-shirts and photographs, but those aren’t the things that wake you up in the middle of the night. Those tangible items don’t haunt you post breakup — memories do. Davis’s The End of the Story is a metaphysical novel about an unnamed narrator’s attempt to organize her memories of a relationship into a book. It’s a nearly flawless account of our pathological inability to let go of the past, even when the story has so clearly ended.
3. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Smith’s third novel follows the story of the Belsey family: Howard, his wife Kikki and their children Jerome, Zora and Levi, all living in the fictional university town of Wellington, Massachusetts. Each of these characters have their own different, yet intertwined, storyline, but it’s the relationship of Howard and Kikki that anchors the book. An act of infidelity tests their love in ways it has never been tested before. Perhaps in a romantic comedy Howard and Kikki would be calmed by the idea that love conquers all, but Smith’s characters live outside the world of montages and all-resolving embraces.
4. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee
This play doesn’t merely illustrate the disintegration of Martha and George’s marriage; it holds up a magnifying glass to it, offering readers a penetrating gaze at each pore, every scar, all the flaws of the middle-age couple’s relationship. It’s a realistic portrayal of what it looks like when two people who once loved each other now share a deep and morbidly satisfying hatred for one another.
5. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm
On February 25, 1956, Sylvia Plath attended a literary party and was instantly taken by a “big, dark, hunky boy,” as she calls Ted Hughes in her diary. She introduced herself, and it wasn’t long before he kissed her with such force that he ripped off her red headband and bit off her silver earring; she responded by biting his cheek hard enough to draw blood. So begins their tumultuous love affair. It’s these kind of theatrical details that make it so easy, if not appealing, to create a myth out of Plath and Hughes’s relationship. Plath fans like to blame Hughes for her suicide, pointing to his adultery, and Hughes fans like to demonize Plath, citing her burning of his manuscripts.
The truth, which Malcolm brings attention to in her thorough and even-handed biography, is, yes, somewhat sensational, but far less of a folklore than sensationalists would like you to believe. Malcolm speaks to those closest to Plath and Hughes, including Hughes’s sister Olwyn, in an effort to get the complete story. What results is a heartbreaking and terrifically empathetic book about two people who struggled to find solace in their love and art.
6. Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine
Tomine’s graphic novel is the story of Ben Tanaka and his girlfriend Miko Hayashi. With it, he covers race and politics while revolving around Ben and Miko’s relationship, though without resorting to cliches. If you’re typically adverse to graphic novels, Shortcomings might just change your mind.
7. This is Between Us by Kevin Sampsell
Sampsell’s most recent novel dives into the first five years of a relationship. He provides a frontrow seat to the tender moments and frustrating fights that define a couple. The book acts as a letter of sorts, but it’s far from an oozing love note. Sampsell’s protagonist is candid about the struggles in the relationship and the problems he has with the person he loves. This is Between Us is a powerful reminder of the world you create with someone when the two of you fall in love.
8. Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence
Women in Love acts as a sequel to Lawrence’s The Rainbow, but it stand alone as a compelling story of powerful and destructive feelings. It follows the storm of sisters Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen, who each engage in their own intense relationships. It’s based in part on Lawrence’s own marriage to German aristocrat Frieda von Richthofen and provides plenty of steamy pre-World War I smut — which, come on, is sort of the best kind of smut.
9. Just Kids by Patti Smith
When it was first released, Smith’s first book of prose was on the “Must Read” table in every bookstore across the country, and for good reason: The artist provides an honest account of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe during the late ‘60s and ‘70s in New York. Smith’s writing manages to be poetic without being mawkish, imbuing her and Mapplethorpe’s story with heart and tenderness. If you can get to the end without crying, then congratulations, you’re a robot.
10. My Education by Susan Choi
When you first start Choi’s My Education, you might find yourself thinking, “Ugh, this story again?” And, yes, the first few chapters of it read like a tale as old as time: Girl goes to college; girl hears about hot professor at college; girl meets hot professor and finds herself super attracted to him; girl … becomes obsessed with hot professor’s wife? Choi takes a familiar story and turns it on its head in a way so delicious that you won’t be able to stop yourself from gobbling it right up.
11. The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner
If your problem with romantic comedies has to do with their depiction of women, then The Flame Throwers is for you. Reno comes to New York in 1975, a time when the art scene is booming, and she quickly begins a sordid affair with Sandro Valera, the scion of an Italian tire and motorcycle empire. When they go to Italy to visit his family, Reno marries him and gives up all her own personal aspirations in order to be his wife and the mother of his children. Just kidding; she actually falls in with members of a radical terrorist movement. Hilarious shenanigans don’t quite ensue.
12. Anagrams by Lorrie Moore
Lorrie Moore is known for her short stories, but she can carry a novel as well. In the hands of a less capable writer, the experimental form of the book might overshadow the love story of Gerard and Benna, but with Moore’s skill, the form only underscores the plot. You’ll want to buy a copy of Anagrams, rather than take it out from the library because with quotes like, “Love, I realized, was something your spine memorized,” you’re going to be highlighting this baby like there’s no tomorrow.
13. The Lover by Marguerite Duras
With a title like The Lover and a cover featuring a young, pretty girl, it’s easy for the cynics among us to write off Duras’s classic autobiographical novel — but oh, what a mistake that would be. Set against the backdrop of French colonial Vietnam, the book tells the story of a dalliance between a pubescent girl and an older, wealthy Chinese man. It’s more a bildungsroman than a love story because, yes, we learn about the relationship, but what we’re really looking at is the influence the relationship had on Duras.
14. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
It’s difficult to pick just one Carver book for romantic cynics (that’s a thing, right?), but What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a classic for a reason. The collection includes 17 stories, including the title story, which is arguably the best of the bunch. It’s about four friends – Mel, Terri, Laura and Nick — and the vile truths that unfurl one night over a bottle of gin. After you read it, take a look at Carver’s original version, written before Gordon Lish came in with a sledgehammer and smashed the happy ending.
15. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
First off, there has got to be a word — German, probably — for “the satisfaction you get upon reading Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick in public.” It’s just so damn gratifying, but not even half as fulfilling as the book itself. In 1994, Kraus was a married independent filmmaker who fell into limerence with art and culture theorist Dick Hebdige. The product of Kraus’s love is not a relationship; it’s this book. The forward reads, “[Kraus marching] boldly into self-abasement and self-advertisement, not being uncannily drawn there, sighing or kicking and screaming, but walking straight in, was exactly the ticket that solidified and dignified the pathos of her life's romantic voyage.”
16. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
Yunior, the protagonist in Diaz’s collection of stories, is cheating, chauvinistic and, frankly, sort of an asshole. Still, you can’t help but feel empathy for him, if only because you too have treated people you care about poorly. And that’s the thing about Yunior: He does care about these women whom he cheats on, lies to and fucks, both literally and metaphorically. He’s just … well, he’s the kind of person who doesn’t even know how to be good to the people he cares about. He is a child who leaves his favorite toy in the rain overnight and cries when he wakes up to find it ruined. Diaz covers over a decade of Yunior’s life with equal parts honestly and hopefulness.
17. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This is Fitzgerald’s fourth and final novel, and it’s the one that destroyed not only him, but his wife as well. It took Fitzgerald seven deleterious and drunk years to finish the novel, and when he finally did, Zelda experienced a breakdown, recognizing the events her husband wrote about as very, very real. The story is about the destruction of Dick and Nicole Diver, a glamorous American couple (not unlike Scott and Zelda) who visit the South of France. Without any historical context, it’s a heartbreaking book, but when you consider the lives of the Fitzgeralds and the influence their reality had on this fiction, it’s absolutely tragic.
18. White Girls by Hilton Als
By no stretch of the imagination is Als’s White Girls a traditional romance novel — in fact, it’s not a novel at all. It’s a bold piece of cultural criticism that provides brilliant insight into race, history and gender. The first essay, though, tells the story of Als and his longtime unnamed lover who was HIV-positive. It’s a beautiful story that never crosses over into sappy territory. It’s a side of love you never see in rom-coms.
19. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Why choose between dystopian fiction and a love story when you can have both? But Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story is actually none of the above; it’s a pithy and clever take on a near-future America where print books no longer exist (pretty believable, actually). Lenny Abramov collects “printed, bound media artifacts” and falls in love with Eunice Park, an adorable woman who is struggling with materialism. Their love acts as a glimmer of hope in an otherwise very, very bleak world.
20. Couples by John Updike
This was the novel that made Updike a literary star. It features an inside look into the collapse of the idyllic American ‘50s, focusing in on upper-middle class American couples in the late ‘60s. Good luck reading this clinically sexual book without getting red in the face.
21. Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
This collection is comprised of five short stories, as well as the title novella, and is Roth’s first book. It is quintessentially Roth, which means middle-class Jewish Americans, classism and sex. It’s a must-read for anyone who has woken up one day to realize that they’re in a relationship based on lust, not love.
22. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Alright, even if you’ve seen the Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio movie (no, not Titanic), you’ll still want to read Yates’s novel. Frank and April Wheeler are at a standstill in their marriage, both of them blaming their union for the reason they didn’t get further in life. With quotes like, “The hell with ‘love’ anyway, and with every other phony, time-wasting, half-assed emotion in the world,” this book was pretty much made for cynics who get off on the schadenfreude of reading about shitty relationships.
23. Clementine Classic’s Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
Alright, so, here’s the thing about Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie: It’s pretty boring. It’s basically an entire novel of a 20-something-year-old whining. However, Black Balloon Publishing’s very own Clementine the Hedgehog annotated it for the Clementine Classics series, and that is damn funny.
24. The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan
It would have been so easy for this novel by Levithan to be twee. It has adorable, trendy cover art featuring not one, not, two, but three hearts. It is formatted like a dictionary. It was sold in Anthropologie, the mecca of all things saccharine. But the plot of a scorned lover recounting his relationship after finding out he was cheated on anchors the book. You’ll read it in a single sitting, but lines like “Fuck you for reducing it to the word cheating. As if this were a card game, and you sneaked a look at my hand” will smack you in the face and stay with you for weeks after.
25. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
It’s difficult to discuss Never Let Me Go without spoiling it, so let’s just say this: Ishiguro has written a chilling tale about a love triangle like no other. When you learn the realities about the world Kathy, Ruth and Tommy inhabit, you will be shocked in the best possible way. Never Let Me Go transcends the genre of dystopian fiction and is a refreshing account of what it means to be human and the lengths we go through to stay with those we love.
26. The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway
This is Hemingway’s last novel, which he worked on from 1946 until his death in ‘61. It’s the story of young American writer, David Bourne, and his wife, Catherine. The two enter and a dangerous and manipulative game when they fall in love with the same women. It’s a fascinating character study and completely different than anything else Hemingway has written.
27. The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
“I want to know everything about you, so I tell you everything about myself.”
“I meet a person, and in my mind I’m saying three minutes; I give you three minutes to show me the spark.”
“I thought, my love is so good, why isn’t it calling the same thing back.”
There should be new words invented for how good Hempel is at condensing complex emotions into a single perfect nugget of a sentence. Just about all her short stories are worth reading and speak to the pains and perils of falling in love, so why not tackle them all with this complete collection?
28. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
Kundera’s postmodern novel takes place in Prague during the late ‘60s and ‘70s, and uses the lives of two men and two women to explore Czech society during the Communist period — so, you know, the typical fare of romantic comedies. Remember how great Katherine Heigl was in last year’s My Soviet Red Heart? Oh, you don’t? Because that didn’t happen? Because most romantic comedies are set against a backdrop of some nondescript American city rather than a pivotal point in history? Okay, cool. Good talk.
29. My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays by Davy Rothbart
Rothbart’s collection of essays actually sort of sounds like the plot of a bad romantic comedy: Guy looking for love in all the wrong places! Hilarity ensues, but it’s told with so much intelligence and with such a spirited voice that at no point can you imagine these scenes taking place in a montage to “Solsbury Hill.”
30. Instant Love by Jami Attenberg
This is a collection of linked short stories about women falling in and out of love, which, ugh, I know, lame, right? Wrong. Attenberg brings just the right amount of cynicism and humor to the table, creating deeply flawed characters who you’re not even sure you should be rooting for. These aren’t Manic Pixie Dream Girls; they’re you, they’re your best friend, they’re your roommate. They’re selfish and narcissistic and often times their own worst enemies.
31. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman
Waldman could have written a romantic comedy of a novel, and frankly, she almost did. The tone is light, the setting is trendy, the characters are all young and attractive. The one thing she didn’t do is make her protagonist, Nathaniel, likable. And that’s the thing about romantic comedies, isn’t it? Characters never have flaws; they have quirks. But Nathaniel doesn’t have quirks; he has big, huge relationship-ruining flaws, and it’s a treat to watch them manifest and destroy both his happiness and the happiness of the women he dates.
32. Learning to Love You More by Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July
This began in 2002 as a web-based project by Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher, and eventually culminated in a book. It’s comprised of the answers to simple assignments, such as “Draw a constellation from someone’s freckles” and “Write the phone conversation you wish you could have.” Yes, it’s borderline kitsch, but it’s so genuine, so engaging and so heartwarming that you’ll forgive it.
33. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
This epic love story will trick even the most love-adverse into rooting for romance if only because Marquez is such a beast of an author. Love in the Time of Cholera is the story of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, star-crossed lovers with a story way, way, way more captivating than Romeo and Juliet’s. (Sorry, Shakespeare.)
34. Alone with Other People by Gabby Bess
Bess’s first collection of poetry is such a raw and honest portrayal of how lonely love can be. Titles of the poems include “We Can Play That Game Where We Pretend That We Are in a Documentary About the Intricacies of Human Relationships,” “A Woman Wants What a Woman Wants” and “Steve Buscemi Eyes.” It’s funny without being painstakingly ironic and genuine without being cloying.
35. How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti
This “novel from life” tackles career, casual sex and creating art, but the main subject that it addresses is female friendship. If you think a novel about female friendship can’t be a novel about love, well, then that probably just means you have yet to read How Should a Person Be? Sheila and her best friend Margaux’s relationship is just as boundaryless, codependent and intense as any romantic relationship — in fact, Amazon originally labeled the novel as “Gay Fiction” until Heti Tweeted that, nope, it’s actually not.
36. All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks
Is there anything that hooks can’t write about? Trick question, because everyone knows there is not. Read this book and you will never treat relationships the same. hooks provides spot-on advice and insight into the complex and murky territory of love in a way that no one else could.
37. Selected Poems of Anne Sexton
Sexton’s collection of selected poems covers the gambit: sex, heartbreak, falling in love, falling out of love. It’s one of the books that you keep by your bedside and return to often, no matter the purpose. Lines like “I don’t want to be sexual with you, he said. Everything gets crazy/But now he was looking at me/Yes, I said as I began to remove my clothes/Everything gets crazy” will send shivers up your disillusioned little spine.
38. Love is a Dog From Hell by Charles Bukowski
With a title like this, it’s pretty easy to see that Bukowski’s collection of poems ain’t no sweet romance. The poems in it are dark and dismal, not unlike Bukowski himself.
39. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
If you align yourself with the cynics of the world, then Franzen is your king. Lines like, “Nice people don’t necessarily fall in love with nice people” ring true, even if you wish they didn’t.
40. Clumsy by Jeffrey Brown
A charming story of a first love with lots of drawings of sex that are somewhat more sweet than smutty. It’s a storm of a year-long, long-distance relationship that shines light on the best moments of relationships in a way so honest that you can’t help but be heart-warmed.
41. Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
There is so much rumor and speculation surrounding the relationship of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, even now. This is part of the reason that it’s such a bizarre process to read through their intimate love letters and witness their grand proclamations to one another. It’s difficult to say what really happened between the Fitzgeralds, and some of the rumors are absolutely heartbreaking. Still, the lines in here remain stunning and sensual. Zelda writes to Scott in 1939:
Dearest: I am always grateful for all the loyalties you gave me, and I am always loyal to the concepts that held us together so long: the belief that life is tragic, that a man’s spiritual reward is the keeping of his faith: that we shouldn’t hurt each other. And I love, always your fine writing talent, your tolerance and generosity; and all your happy endowments. Nothing could have survived our life.
Combine letters like this with what we know — or what we think we know — about the Fitzgerald’s marriage and try not to feel their pain.
42. What She Saw … by Lucinda Rosenfeld
Rosenfeld’s novel gives us the charmingly sarcastic protagonist of Phoebe Fine, who trudges through a myriad of different guys, remaining hopeful despite her somewhat icy heart. You’ll wish you had a friend like Phoebe — or that you were Phoebe — once you finish this book.
43. Blankets by Craig Thompson
Thompson’s illustrated novel takes place during the frigid Wisconsin winter, which, you know, isn’t exactly the choice location for bright, cheery romantic comedies. There are so many facets of life that Blankets explores, but it’s the story of first love that makes it the classic that it is.
44. One Love Affair by Jenny Boully
This extended prose poem blurs fiction, essay and memoir into one medium, creating a completely unique book. This is not so much a love story as it is a story about love. It proves that love is not always beautiful and that it’s certainly not always fun.
45. Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman
This is a truly unique book: Min Green and Ed Slaterton are breaking up, so Min has decided to write Ed a letter and give him a box filled with items explaining — you guessed it — why they broke up. Each item is illustrated by Maira Kalman and written about by Handler. The two together have created such an original book, breathing new air into an old breakup story.
46. Even Though I Don't Miss You by Chelsea Martin
Have you ever wanted to tell someone that you love them, only to find yourself incapable of that kind of raw display emotion, so instead you tell them that you like their hair? No? Well, then you are completely in touch with your emotions. Good for you. Congratulations. But if you answered yes, then you need to read Martin’s Even Though I Don’t Miss You. Her book is a funny and all-too-real take on our inability to be honest with our emotions, even and especially when it matters most.
47. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides’s novel got a lot of critical recognition when it first came out, and for good reason: It takes a skillful author to tackle a love triangle with such originality and medical illness with such poignancy. There are a lot of theories floating about that The Marriage Plot is actually based on the very real love triangle between Eugenides, Mary Karr and the late David Foster Wallace, but we’ll let you be the judge of that.
48. Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion
This is the novel that put Didion on the map, and it’s no wonder why. The once-journalist writes about the tragic love affairs of Maria Wyeth with an honesty that only Didion could bring to the table.
49. For Esme — With Love and Squalor by J. D. Salinger
This short story, originally published in The New Yorker in 1950, is now anthologized in Nine Stories. It is quintessential Salinger: You’ve got your war; you’ve got your sordid love affair; you’ve got your posttraumatic stress. There’s a reason this is a classic.
50. The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
This is Winterson’s most highly acclaimed work, set during the years of the Napoleonic Wars. It focuses in on Henri, a French soldier, and Villanelle, the daughter of a Venetian boatman. What unfolds is a unique and hypnotic love story with enough historical ballast to make you feel okay about reading a love story.
People who hate romantic comedies get a bad rep for being people who hate love, when, no, that’s not quite it. In reality, many of them — many of us — hold love in such high regard that what we hate is seeing it be reduced to a happy ending set to a Snow Patrol song.
The go-to argument against Valentine’s Day is that it’s lame that we have to have a commercialized day to celebrate love, and, yeah, it is. But in a time when we need Siri to remind us of just about everything, it’s nice to have a day worked into the calendar when we can pause and tell the people we love how much and why we love them.
These 50 books serve to remind us how powerful love of all kinds is better than any candy heart or Richard Curtis movie ever could. So, spend the 14th curled up with one of these, and give one to the object of your affection. It’s far more original than roses — plus, a book lasts longer than stupid flowers.