Love stinks. Or at least it does in these tales of woe. Star-crossed lovers, destructive marriages, criminally brief affairs, even death—these are just a few of the themes that mark the biggest—and darkest—love stories in history. Buy yourself some flowers, pour yourself a drink, light a candle, and crack open one of these books. You’ll soon be thankful for the healthy relationships in your life. Being single ain’t so bad.
‘Romeo and Juliet’
By William Shakespeare
(Simon & Brown)
The granddaddy of all tragic love stories, there will be nary a dry eye to be seen when you revisit the story of these star-crossed lovers from Verona. Forsaking all others for as long as both shall live doesn’t prove to be long, as a longstanding feud sets in motion a series of tragic events and misunderstandings, dooming the young couple to the briefest moments of connubial bliss. “For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” Verily.
‘The English Patient’
By Michael Ondaatje
Ondaatje’s haunting novel starts out in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II, where a young nurse named Hana is tending to a burn victim dubbed “The English Patient.” Added to the mix are a Sikh sapper named Kip and a thumbless thief/spy named Caravaggio. As the English patient drifts in and out of his morphine-induced haze, he recounts the story of a Hungarian desert explorer who falls in love with Katherine, a married British woman. As evidenced by his wounds, this scorching affair ends badly, but this sweeping novel just might have you reading Herodotus as fiery foreplay.
‘The Bridges of Madison County’
By Robert James Waller
(Grand Central Publishing)
Say what you will about the, um, florid quality of Waller’s writing, but this 1992 bestseller jerked a lot of tears for a reason. When a National Geographic photographer ambles into Madison County, Iowa to snap all the local covered bridges, he focuses his really long lens on a lonely married woman. Their four-day affair is pretty much perfect…because it only lasts four days. Before she can get annoyed with his peripatetic lifestyle or he tires of her cooking, he’s off again, leaving in an ache in their—and readers’—hearts.
By Richard Yates
For a more abrasive take on the devastating effects of love, look no further than Yates’ novel of 1950s’ Connecticut couple Frank and April Wheeler. Married with children and living in a nice suburb, the Wheelers seem to be living the American dream. But they have bitter fights, both realizing that they want more out of life, even though they don’t know what that is. Disillusionment turns to anticipation when they hatch a plan to move to Paris. The plan falls apart, however, and with it goes the Wheelers’ brief hope of escape and reinvention.
‘Tender is the Night’
By F. Scott Fitzgerald
(Charles Scribner’s Sons)
Truly a case of a couple not bringing out the best in each other, Fitzgerald’s last novel centers on Nicole and Dick Diver, glamorous ex-pats living in the South of France. A psychiatrist, Dick met Nicole while treating her for a breakdown, perhaps caused by an incestuous relationship with her father. Dick marries the heiress and their heady lifestyle becomes marred by Dick’s drinking and run-ins with the police. As Nicole becomes stronger, Dick spirals downward. In Fitzgerald’s luxe world, money can’t buy you class…or a happy marriage.
By Emily Brönte
You’ll forget all about your own inappropriate dating choices as you’re swept away to the English moors and Wuthering Heights. The story unfolds and you soon learn about the doomed love between uncouth Heathcliff and impetuous Catherine. While they aren’t meant to be, at least not in this life, the tale continues as Heathcliff tries to strong-arm Cathy’s daughter into marrying his son. Yeah, that doesn’t go as planned, either. Brönte’s atmospheric novel takes the cake when it comes to unrequited, unfulfilled passion.
‘The Age of Innocence’
By Edith Wharton
The 1870s world that Wharton describes is lovely, certainly, but it’s also full of societal conventions and constraints. It’s here that we meet Newland Archer, soon to be wed to May Welland but who finds himself drawn instead to her cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. Estranged from her husband but unwilling to ruin May’s engagement, Ellen retreats and the not-so-happy couple marries. Social circles bring them back into each other’s orbit and their love continues to be thwarted by circumstance and obligation. A bittersweet take on love, "The Age of Innocence" will make your heart ache with longing.
‘A Single Man’
By Christopher Isherwood
(University of Minnesota Press)
Losing the love of your life is heartbreaking. Try enduring this as a gay man in the early `60s and you might find life almost unbearable. In Isherwood’s favorite novel, we accompany George, a British professor at an L.A. college, as he goes through the motions of living after the unexpected death of his partner. Taking place over 24 hours, each minute feels excruciatingly long and yet precious as George’s composure wars with his grief and loneliness, made more acute by the era’s repression. Isherwood’s work is a gentle reminder to savor every moment of life and love.
Jennifer Worick is a New York Times bestselling author of more than 25 books and a publishing consultant; she can be found at The Business of Books.
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