Typically in this column, the BookPage editors try to pick a topic that is an unexpected challenge—like books to read in public or our preferred characters to partner with for a zombie apocalypse. This month’s theme is perhaps the broadest it’s ever been, as these five books are all love stories, though not necessarily in ways you’d expect.
In my opinion, Jazz is the most underrated of Toni Morrison’s books. As expansive and bold as Song of Solomon, as ardent and poetic as Tar Baby and almost (almost!) as tragic as Beloved, Jazz is a story of overwhelming, destructive passion. It was published just a year before Morrison won the Nobel Prize, and she was clearly at the height of her powers, with all her skills on glorious display in every passage. Take the descriptions of Joe Trace’s affair-addled conscience, or the tense yet loving exchanges between Alice and Violet, or Golden Gray’s surreal backstory. Each of these storylines shows the disastrous effects of love gone awry. Jazz is not a sweet love story, but that doesn’t diminish its beauty. The humanity, the depravity and the tragedy all elevate the story, and the characters are treated with the utmost sympathy. As with the finest of novels, the real love story isn’t on the page; it happens between the reader and Morrison herself.
—Eric, Editorial Intern
Is there another book more overflowing with love stories than My Life in France? Julia Child’s memoir about her years in Paris, Marseilles and Provence is a three-pronged romance about her love for France, her love for cooking and her love for her husband, Paul. (In the film Julie and Julia, Paul is played by Stanley Tucci, which makes him even more lovable.) From the moment Child sits down for her first meal in France—marveling at wine being served with lunch and wondering aloud what a shallot is—until, having established a French home-cooking empire, she lounges with James Beard at her summer home in Provence, she is a marvel of wit, candor and unpretentious enthusiasm for the pleasures of food. In an age when you might feel compelled to drape your excitement with a layer of irony, so as not to seem uncool, it’s cheering to read the story of one woman whose small dreams blossomed as she watered them with sincere love.
—Christy, Associate Editor
Wives and Daughters
The sheltered daughter of a country doctor, Molly Gibson finds her perfectly happy life upended when her father marries the snobbish, shortsighted and dictatorial Hyacinth Kirkpatrick. But there is a silver lining: her utterly fabulous, breezily charming new stepsister, Cynthia. In a lesser book, Cynthia would be an 1830s version of a Jane Austen mean girl, like Caroline Bingley or Mary Crawford. But due to author Elizabeth Gaskell’s ceaseless, penetrating empathy, Molly and the reader come to understand how Cynthia’s wit and flightiness serve as defense mechanisms, and how under all her glamour and coquetry, she is still just a teenage girl doing her best. Molly and Cynthia fall in and out of love with various gentlemen, but the most tender relationship in the novel is between the two of them—two girls who have found the sister they always wanted and who see the best in each other even when no one else will.
—Savanna, Associate Editor
We all love a love story, but let’s be real: Damage can be done when we take too many cues from fictional narratives. Caridad, the fabulously complicated Latina scholar at the heart of Lorraine M. López’s novel, is particularly caught up in the messaging of classic love stories, and she spends this dramatic, often funny tale sorting through serial relationships and beloved books by white men. As she seeks answers to who she is, she calls upon works by Henry Miller, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy and other notable dead white guys who wrote about women but danced around topics like female sexuality and motherhood. Classic literature lovers may recognize The Darling as an homage to Chekhov’s 1899 short story “The Darling,” but Caridad stands on her own in this tale of self-discovery, ambition and desire. As she tests the limits of her romantic relationships, it becomes clear that the most complicated entanglement is when you love a book but cannot agree with the vision of its creator.
—Cat, Deputy Editor
Near the end of the criminally underrated film That Thing You Do!, Guy Patterson (played by Tom Everett Scott) asks Faye Dolan (played by Liv Tyler), “When was the last time you were decently kissed? I mean, truly, truly, good and kissed?” There are so many reasons to love Julie Berry’s historical fiction masterpiece Lovely War, not least of which is its delicious narration by Aphrodite, the goddess of love, but at the top of my list is this: It features the best kiss I’ve ever read. After being separated by the horrors of a world war, YMCA volunteer Hazel and British sharpshooter James reunite in Paris for one magical evening of dinner in a cozy cafe, dancing alone in a park with no music and then finally—well, I won’t spoil it. “There’s nothing like the rightness of it,” says Aphrodite. “Nothing like its wonder. If I see it a trillion more times before this world spirals into the sun, I’ll still be an awed spectator.” You will, too.
—Stephanie, Associate Editor