Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Top 5... Love Stories

I've given you mysteries. I've given you fantasy. Next up on my canon of countdowns is that most curious of literary creatures: the love story.

In real life, I like romance as much as the next man.  But I hate to read about it.  It rings false, it jars on the page, and it is often so sickly sweet that it makes my teeth hurt.  And let's be honest; a book whose entire plot revolves around two people being in love is kind of boring, right?  (Twilight, I'm looking at you.)  But in the hands of a capable author, two people can share something profound and emotionally rewarding that contributes to the potency of the story without it being the be-all and end-all. 

Here are my five.

5. Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite (1993)
Possibly the most reader-friendly of her earlier horror novels before switching to food-lit, Drawing Blood is rich with Brite's trademark prose, a swampy, Southern lethargy, and characters that are so bizarre and yet so real that they seem to jump off the page and grab you by the throat.
On the run from the law is Zachary Bosch, a hacker with a lust for life and lots of other things.  Returning to his childhood home is Trevor McGee, the sole survivor of a family bloodbath years before.  Both men are damaged goods, but when they cross paths in a haunted house in North Carolina, they soon discover they may be able to help heal each other.
Drawing Blood boasts an enjoyable cast of supporting characters and a sinister backdrop of paranormal intrigue against which the young men's relationship is able to grow.  Fairly violent in parts and sexually graphic in others, Drawing Blood is the perfect romance for horror fan - and her vampire novel Lost Souls is a refreshing antidote to the namby-pamby bloodsucker fare of today.

4. Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote (1958)
Let me be clear about one thing: I'm talking about the novella, not the Hepburn-starring film adaptation.  While the movie is one of those rare occasions where I actually enjoyed and appreciated the tacking-on of a conventional Hollywood ending, which brings emotional satisfaction to an audience who have spent two hours watching George Peppard and Audrey Heburn dance around each other, the book is a different animal entirely.  Holly Golightly is, as is often repeated by critics and fans alike, "top banana in the shock department".  In other words, she's no ordinary girl.  And as such, Truman Capote would never allow for her to settle down with her upstairs neighbour, no matter how much they loved each other.  She's too much of a free spirit, you see.  Also, he's poor and cash is king in Holly's world.  But that doesn't stop Miss Golightly from sharing a deep connection with the nameless narrator over the course of one year in New York, before she vanishes off into the sunset on her next adventure.

3. Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare (1598-ish)
Yes, I know it's not technically a book, it's a play.  But I am including it for the simple reason that Beatrice and Benedick's witty, acidic banter is hugely enjoyable, and their realisation in the final act that they love each other is so matter-of-fact, so very in keeping with the characters: "I love nothing in the world so much as you; is not that strange?"  Not to mention that the pair whose mutual antipathy masks a mutual attraction are essentially the blueprint for Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, that most famous of romances (which is not on the list for the simple reason that I prefer its companion novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).

2. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (2008)
This is one of my favourite books for a number of reasons, and I've mentioned it already on more than one occasion on this blog.  The Gargoyle is, in many ways, the perfect love story for me.  Neither of its two central characters are perfect.  In fact, they are both hard to like at times.  The narrator is a former playboy, pornstar and addict whose life is turned upside down by a car accident that leaves him permanently disfigured.  Marianne Engel is an intensely religious artist who begins to visit him in his hospital room, telling him stories to pass the time, much like Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights.  Her tales include that of an Italian blacksmith, an English farmer's wife, a Japanese glassblower and a Viking artisan, all of whom suffer and ultimately die for love.  Interspersed with these stories is the history of how Marianne first met the burn victim, hundreds of years before in another life.
The Gargoyle is part fantasy, part historical thriller, part sheer fever dream.  But at its core, without ever once being sentimental or overly emotional, is a love story.

1. Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
One day in the summer of 1935, young Briony Tallis becomes witness to an adult encounter between her older sister Cecilia and family friend Robbie - an encounter that she doesn't quite understand.  When she tells her version of events, which mutates into an outright lie, Cecilia and Robbie are separated - first by his imprisonment, then by World War Two.  Briony spends her entire life regretting the incident, and sets out to make amends to the couple who have since been reunited after the war.
The tragic twist in this tale is, Robbie and Cecilia are never reunited.  The scenes in Atonement where Briony visits them in their London flat, desperate to make things right, turn out to be a fabrication, yet another figment of her wild imagination.  In truth, Robbie died in the war and Cecilia was killed during the Blitz, leaving Briony with the awful knowledge that she single-handedly destroyed any chance they had at happiness together.  Only a handful of pages in this 371 page novel are devoted to actual scenes between the two of them; an exchange near a fountain, a tryst in a library, and a meeting in a cafe following Robbie's release from prison.  But every single word is charged with feeling, even if neither of them dares to acknowledge it.  Atonement's film adaptation remains loyal to the book, and this doomed love is played out perfectly by James McAvoy and Keira Knightly (it is a stroke of marvellous casting that Knightly closely matches Ian McEwan's physical description of Cecilia).

Other books about love, lust and relationships that nearly made the grade: Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, One Day by David Nicholls, Lisey's Story by Stephen King, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters.

Check out the first two instalments of my Top 5 series:
Top 5 Mysteries
Top 5 Fantasy Novels

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