This week, I am preparing to leave on a week-long beach trip with my family, which for me means one thing: I will have a full week dedicated to reading. (That is, aside from chasing my toddler around the sand.) As I eagerly scour my bookshelves for the perfect beach reads, I hear my husband’s joking snort behind me: “Let me guess, you are going to bring another horribly depressing romance.” I wrestle with the idea of getting defensive as I slip the copy of Gone with the Wind back on my shelf.
I’ll admit it: I enjoy a good (and that sometimes means depressing or imperfect) love story. After all, I have arguably learned more about the true nature of love from “fallen” literary characters and their messy relationships than from idealized, clean-cut happy endings.
Now don’t get me wrong: I love a sensible, lovely Jane Austen ending as much as anyone. However, I tend to intersperse traditional love stories with more unconventional ones. Some of my favorites in this informal genre, the following classic and contemporary romance novels help me see what genuine, sacrificial love looks like from another angle. They afford valuable lessons on what can be learned from the more “messy” moments in a relationship. (Warning: some mild spoilers ahead.)
1. Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Love is a choice, not a feeling.
It took F. Scott Fitzgerald almost a decade to write his fourth and final finished novel after the publication of The Great Gatsby, and what he came up with is a tragic love story loosely based on his own. On the surface, the main characters, Dick and Nicole Diver, appear to live blissfully idyllic lives. They have beauty, charm, wealth, and the time to enjoy it.
However, it soon grows clear that their luxurious lifestyle is not enough to keep them happy—or to keep their marriage thriving. When a lovely young movie star named Rosemary Hoyt meets the couple while on vacation on the French Riviera and falls in love with Dick, he has to make a choice.
Through Fitzgerald’s inimitable prose, the reader grows confident that Dick sincerely does love his wife. He has taken care of her and devoted his life to her. But now he has to choose to continue loving her or decide whether he will allow his new passionate feelings for the young actress to crumble his marriage. He has to choose to remain faithful to his wife. He has to choose to love: this story makes a powerful point about love as a choice, rather than a feeling.
If you know anything about Fitzgerald’s own marriage, then I’m not spoiling the whole story when I reveal that there is no happy ending for Dick Diver. Dick has to learn his lesson the hard way, as he succumbs to his selfish feelings and his personal demons of insecurity and alcoholism. Fitzgerald, too, had these demons, and I like to imagine that he wrote Tender is the Night as a way of revealing the hard-learned lesson that love is a daily choice—and an often extremely difficult one at that—and that not making that choice can have devastating consequences.
2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Desire is not the same thing as love.
Many people who have never even picked up a copy of Anna Karenina can tell you that it’s a story about an adulterous affair. And they aren’t wrong. It may be considered one of the greatest books ever written—but it is certainly not the greatest love story. If anything, Anna and her lover, Count Vronsky, are an example of how not to treat the people you love (even though the foil characters, Levin and Kitty, do a pretty nice job counteracting them with their own real love story).
As Anna and Vronsky find out the hard way, desire is not the same thing as love. Their perverted desire cannot lead to genuine and lasting love because it is just that—perverted, self-seeking, and fleeting. Their “love” for each other is tragically doomed to fail because they each neglect to put the other’s best interests first. And the unhappy couple quickly finds themselves asking whether their short-lived affair was worth all of the emotional and physical wreckage it caused.
Even with all the darkness, though, there are still countless moments of true beauty in this book—from tender moments between the selfless Levin and his new bride to the awakening of Anna’s conscience when she spends time with the one person in her life whom she truly does love: her son. All is not misery, and the misery is not for naught, as the famed novel serves as an important warning against blind desire—a lesson that is every bit as necessary today as it was when it was published in 1873.
3. Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers
Authentic love is unconditional.
I have a confession: I am definitely guilty of judging a book by its cover, and I judged this book hard. When my sister handed me her copy of Redeeming Love, I was certain that I was about to read a painfully cheesy, grocery-store romance novel. And while it did have its fair share of exaggerated, improbable moments, I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised by this beautiful romance novel. Set against the backdrop of the California Gold Rush in 1850, it tells the story of a woman named Angel who was sold into horrific prostitution as a child and now knows no other life than that of being used and abused by other people, especially men. She does not know what to think when she is suddenly treated with love and compassion by a truly good man named Michael, a man who wants to not only show her what genuine love looks like but to marry her.
Understandably, Angel is more than a little cautious and cold towards Michael, as she’s never been shown such love before. How could he possibly want a “fallen” woman like her, knowing what she is? But Michael knows who she is and how she really deserves to be treated, and he is fiercely determined to prove to her that real, authentic love is unconditional.
I may have cried an embarrassing number of times throughout the entirety of this book, but I’m convinced that it would be nearly impossible not to. Not only is Redeeming Love easy to read, ridiculously romantic, and a definite page-turner, but it’s an unbelievable story of true healing and overcoming one’s fears and feelings of unworthiness with nothing other than complete, boundless love. As a warning, it does contain some pretty graphic, violent scenes and some outdated views on a woman’s duties in marriage, and it will also probably tear your heart out—more than once. But I found that it ultimately carries a beautiful message of hope, redemption, and love without conditions.
4. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Genuine love cannot be governed by jealousy or hatred.
Like Anna Karenina, The End of the Affair is a story about an adulterous relationship and all of its disappointments, unhappiness, and disastrous effects. It differs, however, in having a slightly more hopeful ending. A married man named Maurice Bendrix is overcome with passion for a married woman named Sarah Miles, and his severe jealousy for her and her life with her husband leads to an affair. It is written from Maurice’s perspective after the affair and its aftermath have taken place, as he examines the whole ordeal with fresh eyes to determine how he moved from a blind obsession with Sarah, to paranoid jealousy, and finally to outright hatred.
He finally comes to a realization: he never truly loved Sarah, as genuine love cannot be dominated by jealousy or blind hatred. As he looks back over his life and tries to find where he went wrong, he realizes that he could not give himself to her completely when he had already given himself to another woman.
Greene lays his characters bare; the book evoked deep emotions for me that I had never felt before. If for no other reason, I recommend reading this book just to get a taste of his completely enchanting writing style.
There is always beauty to be discovered in flawed human relationships, and there is always hope for the discovery of truth and true joy when humans open themselves up to authentic love. I love how each of these books conveys this theme of hope in some unique way—classic or contemporary, long or short. As Greene puts it in one of my favorite quotes from The End of the Affair: “It’s a strange thing to discover and to believe that you are loved when you know that there is nothing in you for anybody but a parent or a God to love.”