For Valentine’s Day, we’ve compiled a list of novels from the Booker Library with a powerful love story at their heart

Written by Donna Mackay-Smith and Gazelle Mba

Publication date and time: Published

Within the confines of literature, romance can get a bad rap. Yet scratch beneath the surface of some of the world’s most acclaimed novels and you’ll find that, more often than not, they have a love story at their heart. 

Writers have been using this universal connection to explore the human condition since they first put pen to paper. And it needn’t be all ‘happily ever after’. For authors of quality fiction, truthfully rendered love stories encapsulate both the ecstasy and agony of relationships, while avoiding tired tropes of eternal bliss. 

So, with Valentine’s Day upon us, we’ve compiled a list of Booker Prize-nominated novels featuring the most memorable relationships – from the will-they-won’t-they of first loves to the suppressed desire of what might have been, these books celebrate love in all its heartbreaking glory.

Robbie and Cecilia in Atonement by Ian McEwan

As childhood companions, Robbie and Cecilia have known each other their entire lives. Both are deeply in love, yet a complicated class gap has always been a barrier. Finally, in the hazy summer heat, the two confess their feelings. 1935 England is the backdrop to Ian McEwan’s 2001 Booker-shortlisted novel, where in a short 24-hour period their promising future together is shattered after Robbie is wrongly accused of a crime and imprisoned. Though separated, the pair maintain their love through a series of heartfelt letters, but are cruelly divided once again by the Second World War. 

Told through the eyes of Cecilia’s sister, Briony, an unreliable narrator, McEwan’s acclaimed novel shows how someone else’s actions have the power to derail a relationship and life. It remains one of literature’s most tragic love stories. 

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Stevens and Ms Kenton in The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Not all love stories have happy endings. Some, in fact, barely even have beginnings, such as in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day. The novel follows Stevens, a long-serving butler, as he reflects on the misguided loyalty of his past and attempts to reconnect with Ms Kenton, the housekeeper who worked alongside him - the woman he desperately loved, but for whom he never dared crossed a professional line. While Stevens hopes for a resolution at their reunion, Ms Kenton alludes to what might have been but concludes ‘there’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what might have been’. 

And so one of literature’s most heartbreaking love stories ends with a devastating whimper, and with all the subtlety and restraint that captured the hearts of readers to ensure Ishiguro won the Booker Prize in 1989.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Boulder and Samsa in Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches

A chance encounter results in a life-changing love affair In Eva Baltasar’s 2023 International Booker Prize-nominated novel, Boulder. Baltasar’s eponymous narrator is a plain-talking nomad who cooks on a merchant ship. While in port, her paths cross with Samsa, an Icelandic woman with ‘white-blonde hair [and] swimmer’s shoulders’. Baltasar’s prose, translated by Julia Sanches, is deeply sensual, often crackling with electricity as she chronicles queer love.

‘I can’t not look at her, like when you peer over the edge of a boat and come face-to-face with a shark. I forget to add sugar to my coffee, I burn my tongue. I feel the hardness of the rock in which desire has become lodged, as if for all time. I look at her and feel woozy, even though she’s Scandinavian and makes her living from a multinational with blood on its hands. I look at her and she fills every corner of me.’

Praised by the International Booker Prize judges as a ‘sumptuous exploration of desire,’ the novel is also a tender exploration of motherhood. While Boulder and Samsa’s relationship ebbs and flows on a tide of parental pressures and the limitations of familial life, the book provides a captivating examination of intimacy, independence, love and loss.

'Boulder' book cover on top of red heart abstract illustration.

Connell and Marianne in Normal People by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney’s 2018 longlisted love story about Connell and Marianne’s on-again, off-again relationship is undoubtedly the love story of a generation. We follow them from school in County Sligo to university in Dublin as they transition into adulthood together, full of angst, hormones, and adolescent lust. It’s a coming-of-age tale of two people figuring out both how to love and to be loved. Told through Rooney’s sparse yet delicate prose, it is expertly crafted to get under the skin.

‘I like you so much, Marianne said. Connell felt a pleasurable sorrow come over him, which brought him close to tears.’

Allowing readers to feel every beat of a couple who seem destined to be together, despite the agony it takes to get them there, Rooney’s second novel went on to be a bestselling phenomenon, selling over three million copies worldwide. 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Thomas and John in Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

In Sebastian Barry’s ninth novel, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017, the diminutive Thomas McNulty flees from Ireland to escape the famine, exchanging one country’s hardships for those of another. Barely an adult, he finds a place fighting in the Indian Wars, and later the American Civil War, where he encounters ‘Handsome’ John Cole. It is there, amidst the chaos of battle, their bond deepens, evolving from brothers in arms to lovers, partners, and eventually family.

‘In the darkness as we lie side by side John Cole’s left hand snakes over under the sheets and takes a hold of my right hand. We listen to the cries of the night revelers outside and hear the horses tramping along the ways. We’re holding hands then like lovers who have just met or how we imagine lovers might be in the unknown realm where lovers act as lovers without concealment.’

This work of historical fiction may seem an unlikely setting for a love story that challenges binary notions of masculinity, gender, and familial structures, but Barry’s light touch ensures the connection is seamless. His portrayal of 19th-century America in the making is at times brutal, yet the gentle, unwavering relationship at its core elevates it far beyond its genre.

'Days Without End' book cover on top of red heart abstract illustration.

Andreas and Marie in A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, translated by Charlotte Collins

From humble beginnings as a young orphan taken in by a farming family, Andreas Egger grows into a man of few words, living a simple existence on an Alpine mountainside.

As an adult, he meets and falls deeply in love with Marie. When the time comes, he enlists the help of friends to light her name across the mountain at dusk to ask for her hand in marriage.

Fate deals Andreas a cruel hand, and the couple’s happiness is cut short when Marie tragically dies in an avalanche. Yet Seethaler masterfully intertwines these agonies and ecstasies as integral parts of a greater whole – a whole life – wherein the story of Andreas and Marie finds its place as the love story of a lifetime.

Seethaler’s prose is spare, delicate, and thoughtful, while decidedly unsentimental. Yet it still manages to pack an emotional punch. A moving panorama of one man’s life, A Whole Life was nominated for the International Booker Prize in 2016, and went on to be adapted for film in 2023.

'A Whole Life' book cover on top of red heart abstract illustration.

Sue and Maud in Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Love can blossom where you least expect it. At least that seems to be the case in Sarah Waters’s delightful Victorian romp, Fingersmith, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2002. The novel tells the story of Sue Trinder, an orphan, abandoned as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a conniving and resourceful ‘baby farmer’, whose bread and butter comes from raising children to become petty thieves - fingersmiths - in the London slums. Sue’s world changes forever when Gentleman, a well-dressed and sophisticated con-man arrives with a tantalising proposition. He offers her the chance to take part in a clever ploy to steal the inheritance of Maud Lilly, an isolated and vulnerable heiress, by posing as her maid and encouraging her to marry Gentleman.

But nothing is quite how it seems. Sue and Maud soon kindle an unlikely friendship that becomes a passionate love affair. Waters crafts an exhilarating and unforgettable journey through the Victorian underworld, filled with villains, deception, debauchery and, ultimately, love. 

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Nadia and Saeed in Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Nadia and Saeed, protagonists of Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 magical-realist novel Exit West, show true love can be forged in the most unlikely of circumstances. Around them, civil war is breaking out and their city crumbles, while people are subject to curfews and even executions. Realising they need to escape if they want any semblance of a future together, the desperate couple take a chance on an exit via an otherwordly portal through which they can never return. 

Bound by a shared past, they must navigate their new lives as refugees in alien and hostile landscapes, losing fragments of themselves along the way. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017, this bittersweet tale of migration, with a sweeping love story at its heart, will leave you in a crumpled, sodden heap. 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Francis and Harvey in The Bird of Night by Susan Hill

Since its publication over 50 years ago, The Bird of Night has confounded readers and critics. One of Susan Hill’s most challenging and misunderstood works, which was shortlisted for the 1972 Booker Prize, it is the fictional portrait of a 20-year friendship between Francis Croft, the greatest poet of his generation, and his faithful companion Harvey Lawson. Hill’s unflinching prose renders the bouts of madness endured by Francis that stretch Harvey’s devotion to his friend almost to breaking point. This mesmerising novel plumbs the dark recesses of the human mind and asks the question: how far can one go for love? 

The Bird of Night by Susan Hill

Randolph and Christabel in Possession by A.S. Byatt 

The intertwining stories at the heart of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, winner of the 1990 Booker Prize, will transform how you think about love. Byatt’s postmodernist epic takes as its subject the relationship between two Victorian poets, Randolph Ash (loosely based on the English poet Robert Browning or Alfred Lord Tennyson) and Christabel LaMotte (inspired by Christina Rossetti). The novel leads the reader down a rabbit-hole composed of clues from letters, journals, diaries and poems attributed to Randolph and LaMotte that have been discovered by present-day academics Roland Michell and Maude Bailey. We join them in their literary detective work as they attempt to reconstruct the torrid affair of the two poets.

Byatt’s trademark intellectual rigour and literary erudition bring to life a narrative that blends past and present in order to question whether love requires total possession of the other or whether it is possible to wrestle oneself free and claim agency over one’s life.

Possession by A.S. Byatt

Anna and Sharif in The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif

‘How can it be that a set of the shoulders, the rhythm of a stride, the shadow of a strand of hair falling on a forehead can cause the tides of the heart to ebb and to flow?’

When Lady Anna Winterbourne travelled to Egypt in 1900 she did not expect that she would meet and fall in love with Sharif, an Egyptian Nationalist fiercely committed to the liberation of his country. Fast forward a hundred years, Anna and Sharif’s descendent, Isabel Parkman, an American divorcee, travels to Egypt with an old family trunk, inside of which are the notebooks and journals that detail Anna and Sharif’s forbidden love. Ahdaf Soueif’s 1999 Booker-shortlisted novel looks at love from the perspective of a historian, making sense of time’s effect on human bonds.

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif