The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton
This novel is considered to be both a novel of manners and a social satire. The main character of the story is a young, upper class woman, Lilly Bart, who happens to stumble down the social ladder because of sudden financial reversals. This is a truly complex story about the relationship between wealth and love, as well as the social pressures imposed on women.
Lilly lives a life of comfort and great wealth until her father loses all of his money, and her world starts crumbling down. Lilly’s extraordinary beauty is both a blessing and a curse. She is an unusual character: a bit vain and arrogant, but also fragile and yearning for love.
She exists as a fixture of a rotten society, with its intrigues and malicious atmosphere, gossip, and affairs. Lilly does not want to settle and isn’t used to struggling in life, but after the death of both of her parents, she is forced to find her way forward. The pressure she suffers through revolves around her struggle to find a husband.
From a contemporary perspective, this is oppression at its finest: even today, many young women are pressured to get married, and the most common phrase they hear is – you’re not getting any younger.
That’s exactly what Lilly goes through in the novel: she has to find a husband for existential reasons, because pursuing family life is a natural step for a young girl like her. Lilly is a tragic character who loses ground steadily through the narrative, and you as a reader don’t know what to feel: should you pity her, or does she deserve what happens to her?
The fact is, she is torn between what her heart wants and what reality has to offer her. Emotions you will feel will probably come down to feeling respect for her ability to endure and feeling sad for her. The end of the novel represents the climax of her misery, which is explained through the way she was brought up:
She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.
The House of Mirth teaches you about loneliness and the things you cannot control. In its subtext, you can see how important it is to try to understand someone’s story, instead of being detached and judgmental.
The Song Is You, by Arthur Phillips
Arthur Phillips isn’t a famous name in contemporary literature, but some critics say he’s just getting started. This novel may not have the dramatic plot twists you hope for, but Phillips is a true master of psychological portraiture, and has an ability to create scenery and inner-character relationships suitable for a movie production.
This novel is a modern story about grieving, loneliness, obsession, and love. It focuses on Julian Donahue, an advertising executive, who seems to have a strong connection to music. Every song triggers a memory, and so he relives his memories just by listening to music.
That turns out to be a two-edged sword: although he does find comfort in music, it is also a mine field of bad memories which crush him. Julian is somewhat hypersensitive, as he feels everything on a deep emotional level. Since he lost his mother as a young boy, he fell under the influence of his tragically bitter father, and gradually became distant from real life and a true cynic in his nature.
After the death of his two-year-old son and the failure of his marriage, Julian becomes apathetic and introverted. Out of nowhere, Julian is awakened from his emotional coma by the songs of the Irish singer, Cait O’Dwyer. Awkward as he is, Julian doesn’t meet her, but instead follows her around and stalks her.
He does make a connection with her: initially, he leaves her some advice on bar coasters, and they stay in touch by e-mail and via stranger ways of communication. Julian actually helps Cait through her career, lurking in the shadows of her life, but he becomes more and more obsessed with her over the course of the novel.
Her music makes him feel alive again, so he becomes enchanted by her lyrics and melodies, and of course – with the whole of her. All of this leads to an unusual love story that eventually gets ruined by too much jealousy and obsession:
Love is not sufficient. It never has been. Stories that claim otherwise are lies. There’s always SOMETHING after happily ever after.
The Song Is You is a dark homage to the modern form of love: alienation is real and we have replaced face-to-face contact with text messages or e-mails. This is the story of a crushed father who does not know how to handle his loss and desires to be loved and protected. Music plays a great part in the storyline, leaving us with an impression of Julian as a strange man trapped in his own world, with a heart that has suffered too much.
Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
This classic novel is humorous and very insightful, since it depicts different kinds of love: romantic love (which comes with compromises within a marriage), family love, and conditional love. The storyline focuses on the love between the young Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza.
Similar to the love story in the previous novel on our list, Florentino and Fermina nurture their relationship without any real contact – with love letters and the telegraph. Fermina’s father is against their love, and so he takes his daughter and moves to another city. The two young lovers continue their communication, and Florentino asks Fermina to marry him.
She is excited at first, but then rejects him: they don’t really know each other, their relationship is not real, but based on romantic, superficial letters that have nothing to do with real life. Fermina then settles down in a marriage with a medical doctor named Urbino, the groom her father chooses for her.
He provides her with everything she needs and is a stable and responsible husband. They stay married and grow old together. After Urbino’s tragicomic death, Florentino reappears and courts Fermina, after many years. He falsely swears on his faithfulness during all those years, and so Fermina eventually gives in:
Florentino Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months and eleven days and nights. ‘Forever,’ he said.
Love in the Time of Cholera speaks of love as a farce, so vivid and complicated, full of white lies and deceits, but also filled with true emotions, desire, and desperation.
The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje
This great love story in layered. It is mainly focused on one character (when we talk about the romantic form of love), but its scope is broad and deep, while embracing one great truth – people who share the same suffering care for each other deeply. The story is set during World War II, during the Italian Campaign.
Four characters are in focus: an unrecognizably burned man whom everyone calls the English patient (because of his assumed nationality); his Canadian nurse, named Hana; an Indian Sikh, serving in the British army, called Kip; and a Canadian thief, Caravaggio. They are very different from one another, but they are all come together in the same place, in the ambience of one Italian villa – where they learn to cope with their differences.
The English patient is the most intriguing persona in the villa: he lies in the upstairs room and is often the topic of the other characters’ conversations. The novel is a bit hard to follow since it has many reminiscences, and it moves back and forth between the past and the present.
It speaks of events in the Second World War, but drives the reader’s attention to the individuals who suffer through these events, not just psychologically, but emotionally, too. It turns out that the English patient is not English at all; and through the novel, you’ll find out a touching and tragic story about the love of his life, Katharine Clifton. She was unfortunately married, but the two were madly in love:
I believe this. When we meet those we fall in love with, there is an aspect of our spirit that is historian, a bit of a pedant who reminisces or remembers a meeting when the other has passed by innocently … but all parts of the body must be ready for the other, all atoms must jump in one direction for desire to occur.
The English Patient teaches us about the tragic nature of true and honest love that gets distracted by external factors. The novel speaks about mutual love that is real but seems morally impossible because of the obstacles of real life.
Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
The last novel on our list focuses on controversial, obsessive, and incestuous love. But it is far more complex than that. Morrison manages to draw fully realized, psychological portraits of the characters, relying on Freudian theories. Her contemplations about love are deep and always contextualized.
The etymologies of the characters’ names are references to biblical characters, which is another way of portraying them. The story focuses on Macon Dead, with the nickname Milkman. He got this nickname because his mother breastfed him during his childhood.
This was just the beginning of unhealthy family relationships: Milkman’s mother was obsessed with her father, Doctor Foster. After his death, she was completely devasted. This further complicates the relationship between the Milkman and his mother, since he blames her for tying him to her, suspects that she was sexually involved with her father, and blames her for not loving her husband (his father) as much. This novel is an open history of one family tree, in a modern way, similar to Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude:
It’s a bad word, ‘belong.’ Especially when you put it with somebody you love … You can’t own a human being.
In Song of Solomon, the causes of many complex relationships are explained through the way characters were previously treated. There is a lot of passion going on, unrequited love, attempted murders, and suicides. Morrison has managed to strip naked the essence of every human: the need to love and be loved.
No matter what era they come from, these novels are directly connected with 21st-century perceptions of love. We may say that some things never change – and the mechanisms of love could be one of these things. If perceived from the right angle, these writings can teach us a thing or two about relationships, self-acceptance, self-love, and the dynamics of giving and receiving love.