I was once stuck in a house for two weeks, no library nearby, with only a box full of Harlequin romances to feed my reading habit. I read them all. I’ve never had any desire to read another. A couple of years later I had a friend who was hooked on “bodice-rippers,” the books that have a picture on the cover of a beautiful young woman with a lowcut dress and a sexy tall-dark-and-handsome who looks as if he’s about to rip it off. I read half of one of those and again never had any interest in reading another. If you like either genre, there are plenty of them out there. However, I’m a sucker for real romance, the kind of romantic story that shows both the difficulties and the joy of initiating and sustaining a loving male/female relationship, aka a marriage. Here are a few of my favorite intelligent and multi-faceted romances —just in time for St. Valentine’s Day:
The Love Letters by Madeleine L’Engle. Charlotte is running away from home, running away from her husband Patrick and from their very troubled marriage. She runs from New York City to a Portuguese retreat, and there she discovers a book of love letters written by a seventeenth century Portuguese nun, a nun who pursues a forbidden love to its bitter end. Charlotte struggles with her marriage vows as she reads about Sister Mariana’s struggle with her vows.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Yes, I think Gone With the Wind is an intelligent romance. It’s a tragedy; Scarlett realizes, too late, that she’s given her life to goals that are foolish fantasies and in the meantime she’s missed the love she could have had. Yes, it paints a somewhat sentimental picture of the antebellum South, but actually the book is much less sentimental and shallow than the movie was.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Newland Archer is torn between the expectations of society and his own desire for stability and respectability and the passion and adventure he experiences with the exciting and forbidden Countess Olenska. He must choose between May Welland, the woman whom all New York society expects him to marry, and Ellen Olenska, the woman who needs his love and awakens his passion.
Emma, Pride and Prejudice, or Sense and Sensibility, all by Jane Austen. What can I say about Jane Austen that hasn’t already been said? One of my daughters hates Jane Austen’s novels in which she says “nothing happens.” I think she’s just not grown-up enough to see the action that lies under the surface calm.
The Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger. Adventure and romance in Renaissance Italy. Andrea Orsini poses as an up-and-coming son of the minor nobility trying to make his way admidst the intrigue and danger of Italy’s labyrinthine political situation during the time of the Borgias. Madonna Camilla is the beloved wife of the old and respected gentleman, Lord Antonio Varano. The two of them have nothing in common, but their lives become intertwined and their fates are joined.
A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Van Auken. This one is a true love story that not only tells the story of the human love of a man and a woman who were determined to have the ideal romantic relationship, but it also tells what happened when God unexpectedly entered the relationship and changed the lives and the marriage of Mr. van Auken and of his wife, Davey, forever.
Christy by Catherine Marshall. Christy is an eighteen year old innocent idealist when she goes to the mountains of Appalachia to teach school in a one-room schoolhouse. By the end of the story she’s a grown-up woman who’s experienced friendship, grief, and love.
Anna Karenina and War and Peace are both very romantic novels. They’re probably not any longer than Gone With the WInd, and people who see you reading one of them will be much more impressed with your reading choices. Kitty and Levin and Natasha and Pierre are both very romantic couples, not without their share of obstacles to a perfect marriage.
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. Kristin also begins her story as an innocent, but she makes choices as a teenager that set the course of her life. Again, the choice is between established expectations and passion. Kristin chooses the passion, and the rest of this 1000+ page novel in three parts demonstrates the consequences, good and evil, of that decision.
All moms need a little romance in their lives. I think I’ll buy a copy or two of one of these romances to give to a friend for Valentine’s Day.