Roberta recommends, July 2: love stories

July 2, 2007 at 11:43 pm (books, Mystery fiction)


Evgenia Obraztsova and Andrian Fadeyev of the Kirov Ballet in Romeo and Juliet

Readers are so enamored of love stories that an entire genre – the romance novel – has sprung into (incredibly lucrative and successful) existence in order to help them slake this seemingly endless thirst. As it happens, love stories can often be found in other genres, such as mystery and historical fiction, nonfiction, and short stories.

I recently presented a program of book talks to a group whose members especially enjoy reading romances. I don’t read them myself, but, as I have indicated above, I encounter love stories with gratifying frequency in my reading in other genres. I decided that I needed to specify which of the books that I was bringing to this group prominently featured love stories. Thus was born the “love story alert!” On the list that I handed out, I placed an asterisk next to any title that included a love story.

Of course, no sooner had I come up with this clever idea than I realized that some of these tales should contains caveats; happy endings are often nowhere in sight. Most readers realize the truth of Shakespeare’s dictum that the course of true love never did run smooth, but sometimes love runs aground altogether, producing considerable pain for one or both parties involved.

So, keeping this peril in mind, here are several of the titles on the list that are marked with the “love story” asterisk:

imperfect-lens.jpg anne-roiphe.jpg An Imperfect Lens by Anne Roiphe. See the post “Best of 2006 – Part One” for an annotation of this, one of my favorite historical novels in recent years.

alice-in-exile.jpg piers.jpg Alice in Exile by Piers Paul Read. When Alice Fry’s engagement is suddenly broken, she leaves England for France; eventually, she ends up in Russia as governess for the children of wealthy aristocrats. Set in the years immediately preceding the First World War, this immensely likable and absorbing novel resonates with memories of Dr. Zhivago.

spanish-lover.jpg joanna-trollope.jpg A Spanish Lover by Joanna Trollope. This is the way it is in some families: Lizzie is the one who has it all: devoted husband, adorable children, successful business. Her sister Frances, an unmarried travel agent, is one of many admiring – albeit wistful – satellites orbiting around Lizzie’s blazing sun. However, when Frances is suddenly swept off her feet by Luis, everything changes – not just for her, but for her sister as well. (Note: Once you discover this wonderful author – and yes, she is a descendant of the great 19th century novelist Anthony Trollope – you’ll probably want to read everything else she’s written. Yes – she’s that good!)

shadow-of-the-wind.jpg carlos_ruiz_zafon0.jpg The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Several years ago, this rich, commodious novel came out of nowhere and astounded many readers, myself among them. Young Daniel Sempere, son of a bookseller in Barcelona, is taken by his father to a very strange, surreal place: a mausoleum for lost books. There, the great adventure of his life begins, an adventure that takes the form of a quest, so redolent with its associations with Don Quixote. Daniel even has his own Sancho Panza, the hilarious and inimitable Fermin. We readers are transported to two different worlds, both self-contained yet touching each other in mysterious and fateful ways.; in each of these worlds, a great love story unfolds. (This novel was translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves, daughter of Robert Graves, author of I, Claudius.)

I have encountered some wonderful love stories in crime fiction, which might not be the place your average reader would go looking for them. In several cases, the story of the lovers’ trials and triumphs carries over in the course of several books in a series before it reaches some sort of resolution – if, in fact, it ever reaches one. More often, the wary protagonists work out a modus vivendi, which may be unconventional but is reasonably comfortable for the parties involved. I’m making this sound like a negotiated settlement between feuding nation-states, yet some of these relationships are genuinely passionate and tender; in some cases, they are – at least, for this reader – the most memorable thing about a mystery series.

eight-million.jpg lawrence_block.jpg As I write this, I am thinking, somewhat to my surprise, of a series that I have not read for quite some time; namely the Matt Scudder novels of Lawrence Block. Scudder, an unlicensed private eye, is surely one of the archetypal wounded heroes in detective fiction. Alienated from his family, tormented by alcohol addiction, he is a creature of the night, roaming the streets of New York, seeking justice for those even more downtrodden that himself and also seeking some sort of personal salvation. The one bright light in his bleak existence is his love for Elaine Mardell. Elaine, a high priced call girl, made so much money while on the game and invested it so wisely that she is able to retire relatively young, her mind, not to mention her body, still more or less intact. Best of all, she loves Matt and believes in him.

A word to the wise, though: these books may be too violent for some readers; it’s one of the reasons I stopped reading them. This, despite the terrific writing, deft plotting, and the wonderful evocation of nighttime New York, a realm to which I have returned many times in my life. If memory serves, I’ve read four Scudder novels: Eight Million Ways To Die (1982), Ticket to the Boneyard (1990), The Devil Knows You’re Dead (1993), and A Long Line of Dead Men (1994). I do recall being moved to tears at the conclusion of Eight Million Ways To Die; I had never before read such a harrowing description of an alcoholic’s extreme anguish.

Here are three mysterious love stories that come with a minimum of violence:

beekeeper.jpg laurie-thumb.jpg The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King. King is yet another author who seemingly came out of nowhere in 1994 to hit a home run her first time at bat. Beekeeper is a wonderfully literary, evocative novel in which Sherlock Holmes is a featured protagonist, rendered newly intriguing because of King’s subtle delineation of his character. The relationship that blossoms in this novel becomes real, grown-up love in the sequel, Monstrous Regiment, which additionally affords a vivid portrait of the rise of the British bluestockings in the 1920’s. Recommended especially for fans of Dorothy L. Sayers.

death-joyful.jpg ellispeters1.jpg Ellis Peters is best known for her Brother Cadfael series, but she also wrote procedurals featuring Inspector Felse. Felse is a family man, and in Death and the Joyful Woman (1962 ), he is all but completely upstaged by his son Dominic, one of the most appealing teen-agers I have ever encountered in a work of fiction. The plot of this little gem gets its momentum from Dominic’s infatuation with a beautiful young woman who becomes a murder suspect. The lovesick adolescent naturally does not believe for a moment that she is guilty and will go to any lengths to exonerate her. Those same lengths nearly cause his father, the investigating officer, to become unhinged. Nevertheless, Felse understands and empathizes with his son’s youthful ardor. Joyful Woman is not an easy book to get your hands on. Despite having won the Mystery Writers of America’s coveted Edgar Award in 1963, it is currently out of print. Try your library, try interlibrary loan, try used books, either brick and mortar or online. (I favor The audiobook, published by Recorded Books and read by Simon Prebble, is excellent.

right-attitude.jpg mccall-smith.jpg Then there is Alexander McCall Smith’s lyrical Right Attitude to Rain, a title I discussed in the post entitled “Best of 2006 – Part Two.” This novel is the reverse of Joyful Woman in that an older woman, series protagonist Isabel Dalhousie, succumbs to her attraction to a younger man, her niece’s discarded lover Jamie.

venetian-robilantjpj.jpg Andrea di Robilant, an Italian journalist, learned of a compelling, poignant – and true – love affair involving Andrea Memmo, scion of a distinguished and ancient family, and Giustiniana Wynne, the illegitimate daughter of an English baronet, when a packet of letters was discovered in the attic of a Venetian palazzo by his father. What made the letters especially significant was the fact that di Robilant’s father was a direct descendant of Andrea Memmo through his great-grandmother. These letters were the genesis of A Venetian Affair, an absorbing narrative that offers a fascinating glimpse into the manners and mores of mid-17th century Venice. Even more, though, it is the story of a powerful love that stood the test of time. This is a great example of a book that more people need to know about!


  1. BooksPlease said,

    Hi, Roberta and thanks for visiting my blog. I see we have some things in common, obviously a love of books, but also cats. I was a librarian, but left the library to start a family (now have grandchildren) and I have books from floor to ceiling in two rooms in the house, plus books in nearly every other room as well.

    Your site looks really interesting and I’ll visit again.

  2. An occasion for celebrating books, with a poignant aftermath « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] fiction: The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd Arthur & George by Julian Barnes An Imperfect Lens by Anne Roiphe* Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone The March – E.L. Doctorow Pompeii and Imperium by Robert […]

  3. The art of biography: life stories, and more « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] then there are the love stories. One that I especially cherish is A Venetian Affair by Andrea Di Robilant, an Italian journalist whose own distinguished lineage led him to unearth […]

  4. O joy - a Laurie R. King sighting! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] (I wrote, albeit briefly, about these two titles in a post I did a while back on love stories.) […]

  5. “‘Plato said all science begins with astonishment.’” – The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] enjoyed fiction whose plot did not follow a  strictly linear path. One example would be Shadow the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  Another would be The Professor’s House by Willa Cather. Shadow moves […]

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