Finding Romance in Literary Fiction

heart_book 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

38 thoughts on “Finding Romance in Literary Fiction

  1. The Far Country by Nevil Shute
    A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
    Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
    Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

    Then you get into the books I find amusing because lit fic fans who turn their noses up at “trashy romances/bodice rippers” fall all over themselves about how good they are, when really they’re based on romance tropes that romance readers would have spied 100 yards away and have seen done much, much better:

    The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson (ends up being a pirate romance)
    The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (the first 300 pages are straight up older woman romance)

  2. Love Pride and Prejudice. A book I can re-read again and again.
    Persuasions is on my read-again list. It’s been too long since I’ve read it.

    Other favorites are:
    E.M.Forster – Maurice
    E.M.Forster – A Room with a View

    Not sure if it counts as ‘literature’ but it stunned me when I read it years ago: Laura Argiri – The God in Flight

  3. Nicolas Sparks terrible books are filed under fiction, not romance because: 1. he make it very clear that he writes “love stories,” not romance. (You may tomato, I say thamato). 2. He’s a man.

  4. A.S. Byatt’s Possession is a book that I love with all my heart.

    Nicholas Sparks, never read him, never will.

    • Ditto: love Possession and have no plans to ever read Nicholas Sparks.

      Re OP: Loved reading Robin’s Literary Guidelines. So true!

  5. The Major and Mrs. Pettigrew. Terrifically multiracial romance, always filed under literary, for some stupid reason.

  6. Over the years, I’ve found a fair few good romances in the lit fic shelves (many thanks to AAR posters, in fact!). My favourites:

    Spending, by Mary Gordon – the narrator is a painter in her 50s, the love interest is a man who offers himself up for the role of her muse/patron, when she complains that female artists never have what male artists have long had -someone to take care of all mundane worries, leaving them free to concentrate on their art. It’s a lovely romance.

    Emotional Geology, by Linda Gillard – Takes place in a remote Scottish island, where the heroine has moved to take refuge after the chaotic end of an affair. Great romance, and I also really liked the very matter-of-fact way the author dealt with the heroine’s mental health issues (she’s bipolar. Basically, it’s not about dealing with bipolar disorder, it’s about someone who happens to have bipolar disorder.

    Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, by Mario Vargas Llosa – This one might not fit the bill that well, because while there’s a very sweet romance with a HEA (well, in the book), it’s not what makes the book great. It’s about a young man in 1950s Peru who divides his time between romancing an older woman (the Aunt Julia of the title, who’s not really his aunt, just a distant relation) and working for a small radio station, which has just hired an outrageous scriptwriter for its afternoon radio soaps.

    I also really enjoyed some of the books already suggested, like Gaskell’s North and South and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (UK title), by Helen Simonson.

    Also, these are not really *lit* fic, but they’re great books which should be shelved as romance but usually aren’t.

    The Food of Love, by Anthony Capella – Cyrano de Bergerac, but with food instead of letters.

    The Chocolate Run, by Dorothy Koomson – really amazing friends to lovers story. Koomson’s other books aren’t really romance novels (the ones she’s writing these days really, REALLY aren’t!), but this one is, and it’s great.

  7. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winnifred Watson has a nice secondary romance plot.

    Along with North and South by Gaskell that’s already been mentioned, I’d also recommend Wives and Daughters.

    If we allow for lots of angst and sadness along with the love story(ies), then I’d include Les Miserable.

  8. Some not mentioned:

    James Hilton: Random Harvest
    Mark Helprin: A Winter’s Tale
    Sebastian Japrisot: A Very Long Engagement
    John Fowles: The French Lieutenants Woman, Daniel Martin, the Magus (in it’s own strange way)
    Gabriel Marquez: Love In The Time Of Cholera
    Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The Shadow Of The Wind
    Jim Grimsley: Comfort & Joy
    Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist
    Connie Willis: Bellwether
    A.L. Kennedy: So I Am Glad, Original Bliss
    Edith Wharton: Glimpses Of The Moon (an actual Wharton HEA)
    Charles Dickens: Our Mutual Friend, Martin Chuzzlewit, Little Dorrit etc
    Anthony Trollope: Can You Forgive Her
    Thomas Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd, Under The Greenwood Tree

    • Funny, I just downloaded Glimpses of the Moon (free for Kindle) before I saw this. Glad to see Random Harvest on someone’s list (but then, I probably got it from a rec from you ages back anyway!)

  9. I am grateful to many poasters for mentions of the books I am going to check out.

    That’s how I came to romance – via literary fiction with romantic elements. It just became too depressing after reading too many unhappy endings.

    Anyway, I second recommendations of Jane Austen’s novels and Connie Willis’s Bellwether and would like to add to the list:

    1. The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett
    2. Freedom and Necessity by Steven Brust and Emma Bull
    3. The Semi-Attached Couple by Emily Eden

  10. Loved Bellwether. How about Eleanor Lipman? I have read several of her books many times.

  11. Of the books mentioned above, I adore Possession with all my heart. I also love Forster’s A Room with a View, mentioned above. And I’m fond of Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale.

    To these I would add the English translation of A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot, a French post World War I literary mystery novel.

    • I haven’t read A Very Long Engagement yet, but I know I picked it up on someone’s recommendation. It may have been yours from a while back, actually, and I know it also got DIK’d here back when I was a new(ish) reviewer. I should probably dig that one out of the TBR and read it. It sounds like a fascinating read.

  12. Terrific article, Lynn!

    Great list, PWNN!

    I love E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence too, Alix and Nina.

    Funny, accurate comment, Linda X! LOL

    Thanks all.

  13. Doomsday by Warwick Deeping and the short story, Love Among The Haystacks by D.H. Lawrence. Both very romantic with happy endings.

  14. Many books in the “magical realism” genre will have strong romantic elements in their plots, although not all of them end happily.

    One that does, that I “hand-sell” a lot, is THE GOOD MAYOR by Andrew Nicoll. (Warning: there is adultery and spousal abuse as well).

    And to go Old Skool indeed, I have always loved the romances in THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (including a f/f pairing with a sorta kinda happy ending!)

  15. I love alll the books of Mary Wesley but especially “The Camomile Lawn” and “Part of the Furniture”. Don’t know if they are even in print these days as my copies were all found at second hand sales. Settings are usually around the 1940s. “Part of the Furniture” has the best ever final chapter.
    From RosieH

    • I loved A Part of the Furniture and The Camomile Lawn, but I think my absolute favourite of Mary Wesley’s was A Sensible Life. Her books are still available in print and on Kindle at least. I’d recommend most of them, except possibly Jumping the Queue, Dubious Legacy and Second Fiddle in which I did find the characters fairly unlikeable. This is probably more a case of simply not to my taste, rather than a lack of quality however.
      Some may find the huge age difference in Part of the Furniture not to their taste. It’s about 40 years as I recall. Normally that would hit my ick factor, but this book really, really works, and as R. Hitchcock says, the last scene wins the Best Last Chapter EVER cookie, hands down.

      • Oh, I don’t think I’m familiar with this author at all! Those descriptions sound interesting, though. I’ll have to try to find some of these.

        • Do, Lynn. I found Mary Wesley about 20 years ago and fell in love with her books. Quirky and politically incorrect to the max. There are also some very good TV adaptations of her books. I have DVDs of The Camomile Lawn (four part series) and Harnessing Peacocks which I enjoyed as much in that form as I did the books. Very unusual. I believe there are adaptations of some of her other books but I’ve never been able to track them down.

  16. Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie mystery series has a satisfying love story that develops over the course of the series. I read the one where the romance truly blooms at a time when I desperately needed a corrective to other things that were going on in my Real Life and in my reading: my oldest son was in Iraq, attached to a medical unit, and I’d just read the Elizabeth George book where she’d killed a major character. I found the McCall Smith to be such a joy, and it was exactly what I needed at the time. Like many of his other books they are cozy but not blind to humanity’s frailties and foibles, clear-sighted but hopeful.

    Anthony Capella’s “The Wedding Officer” is a charming book about a British officer in Italy near the end of WWII who is charged with keeping the soldiers from making improvident marriages to the Italian women they meet. The book is filled with gorgeous descriptions of food and a lovely romance.

  17. Great topic and lots to add to the TBR pile.
    If the definition of “literary fiction” is where they are shelved then these contain some great romances/romantic supplots:

    Audrey Niffenneger’s Time Traveller’s Wife
    Sara Donati’s Into the Wilderness (and most of the rest of the series as well)
    Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (not a perfect book but if you skim all the political propaganda Dagney has some awesome love affairs along the way)
    Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife
    James Clavell’s Noble House

  18. I second anything by Elinor Lipman.

    I loved Nicolas Drayson’s ‘A Guide to the Birds of East Africa’. Major Pettigrew fans should find it right down their alley.

    Karen Lord’s ‘The Best of All Possible Worlds’

    Here’s some more: Books by Dorothy Sayers, Barbara Trapido, Diana Norman, Judith Merkle Riley, Patricia Finney/P.F. Chisholm

  19. I’ve read many of the books already mentioned, but I need to add any book written by Penny Vincenzi or Deirdre Purcell. Wuthering Heights is my all-time favorite, though.

  20. The Monk Downstairs.

    The Inn at Lake Devine and Then She Found Me by Elinor Lippman. Many of her books aren’t romantically satisfying IMO, but those two are.

  21. Wonderful topic! I’m tired of the (real or perceived) divide between readers of literary and genre fiction — especially romance — too. Not sure how rigid the literary designation is, but I have been most powerfully affected by the romance in Sally Gunning’s novels of 17thc Cape Cod, beginning with The Widow’s War, which is one of my all time favorite novels.

  22. I love that romance novels are evolving and changing to embrace strong female role models and bringing a story to the reader that is a bit more complex and thought provoking! I loved your line, “great love stories have been a part of human storytelling for centuries – and they don’t all end like Romeo and Juliet either.” I am very drawn to historical romance novels. I feel they can transport me to a different era and many times a different culture! I have come across a fabulous book that I have to recommend after reading your post called “Shanghai Love” by author Layne Wong (http://laynewong.com/). It is an unlikely love story between a Chinese herbalist and a Jewish refugee looking for safety from Nazi Germany. The herbalist, Peilin, was betrothed to a man who was killed before their wedding but tradition and honor forced the marriage along anyways. She is sent to Shanghai to manage his family’s herbal shop. Shanghai is also Henri’s destination as he has graduated from medical school as Hitler is rising to power. He flees to Shanghai where he’s befriended by Ping, Peilin’s brother. Through her kindness, Henri becomes fascinated with Chinese herbs as well as the exotic culture surrounding him. It is such a gripping story with a female character that you care about and that deserves a happy ending :)

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