For Valentine’s Day, we’ve compiled a list of novels from the Booker Library with a powerful love story at their heart
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.
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.
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.
Jude and Willem in A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Nobody picks up Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize, expecting a simple love story. After all, the 800-page behemoth found fame for the utter devastation it unleashed, its heartbreak whispered from reader to reader until it became an internet phenomenon. It’s a tale of four college friends trying to find their way in post-graduation NYC and beyond, while one of the group, Jude St. Francis, battles a dark past. Yet nestled between the pages of trauma and pain lies a beautifully rendered relationship, between Jude and his close friend Willem, who supports Jude through his many agonies. It’s a slow-burning relationship and a portrait of utter devotion; of two people who need each other to survive.
‘It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.’
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.