To avoid dwelling on the release of a certain movie adaptation this month let’s turn our attention instead to some of the truly great novels of passion to have been penned. Whether it’s passion for vengeance, ideology, a relationship, or a quest to reclaim what was lost, these novels will stir your sanguine emotions in as many ways as Valentine’s Day.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
A solitary young boy on a citywide quest of NYC to uncover a secret his father left behind after he perished in the World Trade Centre disaster. Less fairytale than his other novel, Everything Is Illuminated, Safran Foer brings the same childlike beauty and wisdom to an otherwise tragic story of determination, loss and yearning.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
A war narrative about fighting for ideology beyond national identity that presents concepts rather pertinent to our times. The hero Robert Jordan struggles between conflicting pulls of duty and new love, raising questions about the heroism of wartime death versus the loss such death leaves behind.
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
A vast and detailed portrait of a bygone way of life that was swept away in the carnage of America’s Civil War. Though the anti-slavery revolution was a long-overdue event, one can’t help feeling some Old South nostalgia while reading about the idyllic Tara plantation. What makes the novel truly enduring, though, is the brutal depiction of Scarlett and Rhett’s selfish, tumultuous relationship.
Les Liasons Dangereuses, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
An epistolary novel about seduction, manipulation and degradation, it was said to have been written in order to undermine the illusive virtue of the Ancien Régime in the decades leading up to the French Revolution. Whether or not this is true, the deception and debauchery of the two central characters would shock even the writers of The Bold and the Beautiful.
Les Misérables, Victor Hugo
Disdained by critics in its day, this epic went on to become one of the most popular tomes of all time. Spanning more than a decade and a vast array of characters and personal tales, Les Misérables is as much about obsessive duty, loyalty and personal justice as it is about love and loss.
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
This novel scarce needs introduction. The tale of a sexually stunted man falling for a much younger girl and the pedophilic scenes that ensue are shocking on their own but the tragicomic irony, pathos and cultural observations that construct its clever frame make this novel one of the greatest literary accomplishments of the 20th century.
Music & Silence, Rose Tremain
A beautifully written and lushly depicted novel set in the 17th century court of Denmark’s King Christian IV. Far from being historical, the novel undulates between various time periods and points-of-view to weave several narratives into a fascinating and semi-fantastical Reformation world. Obsession with music and the elusive ‘perfect’ melody form the driving tension and strongest character thread.
Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
A story of sexuality and young love in 1960s Japan, it is the novel that made Murakami a household name. Exploring the protagonist’s nostalgic reminiscences on his relationships with two vastly different women, the novel pointedly depicts the Tokyo student protests as ill-aimed and listless.
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas
Dumas’s ridiculously famous novel of injustice and revenge, complete with escapes from island dungeons, discovered fortunes, assumed identities, daring deceptions, and classic sword fights. What takes this beyond a simple adventure story is Dumas’s exploration of the wide-reaching effects of one man’s obsessive quest for vengeance.
The Godfather, Mario Puzo
The notorious ruthlessness of the Sicilian mafia is distilled and brought violently to life in Puzo’s Corleone family epic. Eccentric characters, short fuses and familial pride lead to fatal power struggles across the five families of New York City. Again, it is the human element that makes this story so good, as we watch the slow mutation of Michael into the Don he never wanted to be.
The Graduate, Charles Webb
An interesting and ironic examination of youthful aimlessness particularly relevant to the new college culture of 1960s America. The protagonist is equal parts aggravating and charming as he wavers unemotionally between pleasurable past-times and trying to decide what to do with his life. It is more the lack of passion that sets this novel apart and makes its climax that much more complete.
The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
The novel centres on Gatsby’s life-long obsession with Daisy Buchanan, but it is narrator Nick Carraway’s compulsive fascination with Gatsby and his lifestyle that keeps us reading and allows Fitzgerald to unpack the peculiar details of Jazz Age depravity that echo at once beautiful and vulgar, and ever so inviting.
The Red and the Black, Stendhal
Another little-disguised satire on French culture in the 19th century, Stendhal’s Bildungsroman follows Julien Sorel from a peasant upbringing through his attempts at overcoming the social restrictions of the time. Littered with superficial love affairs, the narrative is distinct in its dealings with social hypocrisy and political manipulation.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
The immortal story of Heathcliff and Catherine set amidst the desolate moors of northern England is stark in its obsessive brutality and the almost animalistic behaviour of the central characters. A novel of painstaking vengeance and misery with a lost, twisted love story at the centre. Satisfying on so many levels.