Whether you face Feb 14th with feelings of horror, boredom, or excitement, Valentine’s Day is one of those events that cannot be avoided. As soon as the Christmas lights are taken down, we’re confronted with visions of stocky cherubs and uncomfortably artificial advertisements at almost every turn of the head. Since meeting my husband, I’ve been surprised to find that Valentine’s Day has lost even more of its meaning. This is probably a result of the friction created between Valentine’s stereotypes and the reality of eating pizza whilst watching RuPaul’s Drag Race with our belts unfastened. That said, I’d always take the reality over cliched images of longing looks across sandy beaches.
It seems to me that Valentine’s Day also infects the way that many of us think about the books that we’re reading. Much as I love to pair my reads with appropriate seasons, it’s always fun to coincide new novels with holidays and events. But, as much as I adore Pride and Prejudice (and indulge in Colin Firth’s wet shirt roughly four times a year), there’s something a little trite about the typical recommendations for books to read at this time of year. Not only do they traditionally fail to capture much of the reality associated with romantic relationships, they also ignore the fact that not everyone’s experience of Valentine’s Day is of a day spent with an adoring lover. I’m a firm believer in the idea that Valentine’s Day is a moment in which to celebrate all of the best relationships in our lives – whatever they are – even if, as should be the case, the best relationship is the one that you have with yourself.
In this spirit, I’ve put together a list of 10 unconventional reads to enjoy this Valentine’s Day. Be sure to leave any of your own recommendations down in the comments and let me know how you’ll be spending the day!
1. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
The Enchanted April is one of my favourite classic novels and incredibly underrated. Written by Elizabeth von Arnim in 1922, it follows four women as they embark upon a trip to the Italian Rivera. The women are all strangers to one another and spend most of the month-long holiday attempting to navigate their differences. It is a truly lovely novel – a reminder of the importance of female friendships and an honest examination of the difficulties that can accompany romance and marriage.
2. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
I reviewed Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto last year and it remains one of my favourite reads of 2018. The book, which includes the short story Moonlight Shadow, is an incredibly raw study of love and loss. Both stories offer an honest and, at times, heart breaking picture of what it means to feel truly displaced and alone. Through this, Banana Yoshimoto is able to examine our connections with others – both familial and romantic – as her characters navigate a world that positions intense isolation and subtle shared experience directly alongside one another.
3. The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians is an interesting read, with a stream-of-consciousness style that is uniquely accessible to its readers. The story follows Eilis, an 18-year-old acting student from Ireland, who develops a heated and incredibly turbulent relationship with a 39-year-old actor, Stephen. This book is a troubling and beautiful depiction of love, navigating abuse and addiction with a confident and tender hand. If you are looking for an honest reflection of love in the face of troubled pasts and fractious differences, The Lesser Bohemians is definitely the book for you!
4. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
While most of us are familiar with the film adaptation, Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s gets far less attention that it deserves. For a Valentine’s Day full of fascinating and independent female characters, this story is one that shouldn’t be overlooked. As with the film, the novel follows Holly Golightly – a cafe society girl in New York City, who passes her time befriending wealthy men and attending parties. Holly is a fascinating character and Capote’s favourite creation. Unlike the film, the novella does not centralise a love story nor does any romance develop between Holly and the unnamed narrator. It is the perfect read for anyone looking to escape the traditional couple-centrism of Valentine’s Day and a wonderful reminder of the ways that vivacity and personality exist easily outside of romantic relationships.
5. Mapp and Lucia by E.F. Benson
If you are looking for a read to make you laugh his Valentine’s Day, Mapp and Lucia is the perfect place to go. The collection of stories follows two women – Mapp and Lucia – as they position themselves at the heart of their respective English villages and all social events. When the two meet, following the death of Lucia’s husband, chaos ensues as the two fight for control of the townspeople and their activities. The stories are a wonderful study of strong, opinionated and independent women and the manner in which friendships can serve us when we are faced with loss or loneliness.
6. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
I’m well aware at this point that The House of the Spirits features on just about every list that I put together. That said, I have no qualms about adding it here because the novel is truly perfect for anyone looking to escape the ‘traditional’ Valentine’s reads. Following the Trueba family across generations, this epic story offers insight into a variety of relationships – romantic and familial – which, over the course of years, reap a plethora of consequences. The book is a study on family, abuse, and the cycles of love and violence to which we can so easily find ourselves subject. You can check out my full review for even more detail!
7. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamana Ngozi Adichie’s incredible novel Americanah is one that I would recommend, regardless of the time of year. For Valentine’s Day, however, the book is a wonderfully realistic study on love in the face of diverging and irreconcilable experiences. The story follows Ifemelu and Obinze, two teenagers who fall in love in Lagos, Nigeria. When Ifemelu departs to study in the US, Obinze leaves for the UK after finding his US visa rejected in the wake of 9/11. The two meet again, many years later, in Nigeria and must confront the possibility that their separate experiences of life across cultures have damaged the chance of lasting romantic reconciliation. The novel is an incredibly touching and powerful examination of cultural assimilation and love across these divides.
8. Persuasion by Jane Austen
Since this is a list for Valentine’s Day, I felt compelled to include at least one Jane Austen novel. To me, however, Persuasion is both Austen’s most underrated and romantically significant book. Devoid of most of the romantic cliches typically associated with Austen (although I must confess myself a total sucker for the cliches!), Persuasion is the story of Anne Elliot – a ‘spinster’ at 27-years-old, whose only real experience of love was thwarted by family and friends. This love interest, Captain Frederick Wentworth, suddenly reappears into Anne’s life, still reeling from her rejection of his proposal. As Captain Wentworth shows interest in other ladies of their shared social circle, Anne is forced to begin accepting that the persuasion of those around her has damaged her own prospects of future happiness. The novel is a powerful reminder to step back from the opinions of others and (here comes the cliche) to follow your heart.
9. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
I read The Song of Achilles quite recently and felt absolutely compelled to include it on this list. While, for obvious reasons, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the novel as a realistic take on romance – it is, after all, the story of love between Greek warriors, one of whom is half-God – it is a beautiful study on how love can help us to evolve. The novel tells the story of Achilles, the half-God whose destiny it is to help his Greek allies win the battle of Troy, where he will also die. The novel is narrated by Patroclus, the exile who becomes Achilles’ best friend and lover. It is a touching reflection on love and its consequences, and (despite the one quite troubling sex scene) is definitely a novel worth opening this February.
10. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Although not ‘unconventional’ to most of us, I felt that I had to include Wuthering Heights on this list for one very specific reason – I’m baffled by the number of ‘romance’ or ‘Valentine’s Day’ lists that include the novel as a good and serious example of love and romance. Aside from the relationship between Hareton and Catherine (which still has some troubling elements), none of the relationships in Wuthering Heights should be taken as role models for how to do anything. I say this as someone who absolutely adores the book. As adorned with lovely phrases that make for great t-shirts as it is, the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff is one of wilful selfishness and destruction. So I’m including this novel as an ‘unconventional’ read because it’s the perfect book for those who have had enough of Valentine’s Day and want a reminder of the worst that love can do.