I’ve heard it in various forms from many different corners. “Oh, literature is just too depressing.” “The difference between literary fiction and romance? Love stories in lit fic all end uphappily.” Stick around enough message forums and blogs, or simply talk to enough readers and you’ll hear variations on that theme. Then there are the the literary fiction “guidelines” Robin Uncapher wrote for AAR back in 2007, which definitely skewer certain authors and book trends rather aptly. But is all of it really that depressing for a romance reader?
I don’t read literary fiction all the time, but I’ll go on my occasional forays beyond the familiar genre fiction shelving. True, there are beautifully written but also tragic books such as The English Patient or Bel Canto, books full of ponderous words and perhaps an amount of pretension which seems to have an inverse correlation with the amount of actual plot action, and then there’s stuff that I quite frankly think is absolute dreck(Why do they shelve Nicholas Sparks with literary works? Why, why, why?)
However, the literature shelves are not bereft of good romantic tales. And it makes sense that there would be at least some there. Even if some of the self-declared literati may turn up their noses at romance, great love stories have been a part of human storytelling for centuries – and they don’t all end like Romeo and Juliet either.
You will of course find the classics. If you’ve never read Jane Austen, remedy that now! I know Pride and Prejudice gets the lion’s share of the attention, but Persuasion has always been my favorite. The tale of Anne Elliot, who once let the love of her life get away and who just may have a second chance with her Captain Wentworth, is subtly written but shows off Austen’s powers of perception. Anne is a delightful, quietly intelligent heroine and the small details of this story just make it come alive. It’s great literature, and there’s a delightful romance in there, too.
It’s not just the classics which contain some fine romance, though. Many will argue that Gone With the Wind is not romance. After all, it does have that infamous ending. Even so, there’s a lot of meat to the story that never made it to film – including more subtle layering of Scarlett’s character. I enjoyed the movie, but the book Scarlett intrigues me more. And even with That Ending, the book has an undeniably romantic mood to it in places and while I’ll grant that the ending isn’t a conventional HEA, I do feel it just crackling with possibilities when I read it.
And what about A.S. Byatt’s intelligent and sometimes downright dreamy Possession? This tale of scholarship and poetry has love stories at its very heart. Two modern-day scholars find themselves chasing down the secrets of two Victorian poets in an amazing, multilayered tale of academic intrigue that weaves both a Victorian and a modern-day love story through it. Not every loose end ties up happily but there is certainly a sense of fulfillment by the end. And that idea of the scholar in pursuit of a long-lost love story made me think just a little bit of the Pink Carnation books so many of us love.
One of my very favorite pieces of romance from literary fiction comes from the English language edition of a French novel called Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda. I initially read this book somewhat reluctantly for a book club several years ago. The cover didn’t appeal, I’d never heard of the author and the blurb on my edition made it sound like a book about a bunch of losers having a great big existential crisis. Oh, was I ever wrong. Instead of dreariness, I found myself sucked into an offbeat and ultimately poignant story.
The characters in Gavalda’s novel don’t exactly occupy prime places in society. Camille is a talented and literally starving artist. One day, the cold and sick Camille is found by postcard seller Philibert. Philibert moves Camille into his shabby house to stay with him and his boorish roommate Franck. Franck and Camille take an instant dislike to one another, but they gradually start to discover more facets of each other’s lives and personalities. And as they do so, they fall adorably in love. It’s by no means a conventional romance, but Hunting and Gathering is still very sweet and there’s just something life-affirming and happy about this quirky novel.
Just as I would love to see lovers of literature stop bashing romance(not that I’m holding my breath, but still…), there really are some treasures in the world of literary fiction and I know there are romance readers who would love some of them. These are only a few books to start with, but I imagine some of you could add more. Have you read any good romances in literary fiction? List them in the comments!
– Lynn Spencer