Friday, January 29, 2010

Long Lost Literary Love

Everyone loves a love story. Authors have been mining the pain and passion of long lost, unrequited, and reunited love for as long as literature has been written. Love is gained and love is lost; one lover rejects the other; lovers are separated for days, weeks, years, or even life. Sometimes they come together; sometimes the separation is painfully permanent, leaving lovers to waste away of lovesickness. The heartaches of love stories transcend the dime store romance novel and, in the hands of the right writer, become award-winning and literary masterpieces and classics. This list is a small representation of those fine novels and when you’re through with them, you’ll be yearning to fall in love with these books all over again.

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt, 1990, Random House (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction/ Romance)

When two modern academics, Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, uncover the secret love affair between two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, the stage is set for the unfolding of two remarkable love stories. Even as they bicker over the ownership of newly found love letters, journals, and poems of the eminent Victorians, Roland and Maud fall so deeply into the mysteries of the past that they too begin a romance together. And since author A.S. Byatt skillfully recreates the long lost love letters, journals, and poems of the 19th century lovers, the reader is able to witness the passionately doomed--because both are married to other people--relationship between Randolph and Christabel that made waves so long ago. Roland and Maud’s investigation could really shake up the literary world and could supply them both with enough literary power to reshape the scholarship on both renowned poets. But as the past yields its secrets, Roland and Maud are loathe to betray the confidences they’re discovered, even though the parties involved have been dead and gone for decades. Still, the power of Randolph and Christabel’s passion lingers on their 19th century pages (and on Byatt’s modern ones) and past and present begin to coexist in the most exceptional ways. The dual love stories are companionably accompanied by commentary on scholarship, feminism, social class, and the rigors of academic detective work. And since it is the rich details of the loves, passions and sacrifices, both past and present, of these four distinct people that drive the story, Possession is both smartly literary and highly readable. That unique blend won its author the most prestigious literature awards in England (the Man Booker Prize) and Ireland (the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize). Possession has been hailed as an international best seller, a modern classic, and a love story for the ages.

Atonement by Ian McEwan, 2002, Doubleday (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

It is 1935, the eve of World War II, and strange things are happening at the elegant Tallis family estate in the rich English countryside. The parents are away, and the children will play. The youngest is thirteen-year-old Briony, an odd, observant girl with grand plans for her newest literary masterpiece, a play that she wants her visiting cousins to put on for her much-admired big brother Leon. Gorgeous sister Cecilia is the object of desire for the housemaid’s smart and handsome son Robbie. When Briony intercepts some correspondence and misreads some signals between Robbie and Cecilia, her overactive imagination puts a sinister twist on words and actions. And when the evening ends with a violent assault on cousin Lola, it is Briony’s testimony alone that incriminates Robbie. Robbie is arrested and sent to prison and, through an early release, to war. Cecilia, furious and scornful of her little sister’s accusation, sweeps out of the family home and begins a career nursing wounded soldiers in London. Five years pass, and Briony, now an eighteen-year-old nursing student, is laboring under the impression that she may have been very, very wrong. As Briony attempts to bridge the gap between what she saw and what happened, author Ian McEwan unfolds a plot of what-ifs and might-have-beens. Robbie struggles to survive the horrors of war, Cecilia clings to a few precious memories, and Briony woefully strives to make amends. There are surprises and twists, life-altering tragedies and small glimmers of hope, and an ending that brings the interweaving stories together into a heart-wrenching finale that won’t easily be forgotten. A Booker Prize finalist and a National Book Critics Circle Award winner, Atonement is a haunting tale of love, memory, doubt, and truth.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005, Faber and Faber, originally published in 1989 (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

In the age of gentility that reigned in England’s upper classes, even into the 20th century, it was servants who made the great estates of the great men run like clockwork. Stevens, a dignified gentleman’s gentleman, has served thirty-five years in the service of Lord Darlington and has reached the pinnacle of his profession as head butler. Reserved, proper, and polite, Stevens has dedicated his life to the stiff upper lip. His behavior was correct and impassive when his father lay dying upstairs while Lord Darlington entertained politicians and dignitaries in the pre-World War II days; he was aloof with the beguiling and spirited housekeeper Miss Kenton. But as Stevens ages in the face of approaching changes in the 1950s and 60s, his mask of severity begins to slip and his controlled demeanor begins to crumble under the realization that he has been wallowing in self-deception for most of his life. Lord Darlington is not a “great man,” Miss Kenton became Mrs. Benn long ago, and Stevens is left without ever have experienced any of the simple joys of daily life—including that all-powerful life-altering emotion, love. A final meeting between Stevens and the former (now divorced) housekeeper, which the novel builds to with suspense and style, decides our stoic butler’s fate. Author Kazuo Ishiguro is an Englishman of Japanese descent; when The Remains of the Day was published in England in 1989 it struck deep chords with its native readers and was awarded the Booker Prize. Even for American readers, who lack a history of rigid class structure that’s quite as long, the plight of Stevens is moving and poignant, especially when told in the elegant and precise prose of Ishiguro. A tale of opportunities lost and found, The Remains of the Day is an insightful and illuminating read.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, 2007, Vintage Books, originally published 1988 (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

Author Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for his striking novel One Hundred Years of Solitude; his next book, Love in the Time of Cholera, was just as critically acclaimed and beloved by readers, and the winner of the still-prestigious Los Angeles Times Book Prize . When the distinguished Dr. Juvenal Urbino passes away at an advanced age after a long life, his wife, seventy-year-old Fermina Daza, is none too shocked by the reappearance of her long-lost lover Florentino Ariza, who has been carrying a torch for over fifty years. As Florentino re-declares his love, the reader is plunged back in time to the original affirmation and to all the sweet romance of Florentino and Fermina’s youthful courtship. But Fermina rejects Florentino as a symptom of puppy love and enters into a marriage of more means and security than passion. Florentino holds no grudge, and though he takes many a lover over the years, he never loses sight of his first--and only--real object of desire. Meanwhile, somewhat to everyone’s surprise, Fermina’s marriage to Juvenal Urbino is successful one, with companionship, children, and even genuine affection. But when young love in the form of an eighty-plus-year-old Florentino rears its head once again, all bets are off. García Márquez’s characters are comic and tragic—Florentino, for example, writes love poems, on demand, for other romantics—and loveable and a bit mystical, as is his rendering of the lush beauties of Central America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Vivid and intense, Love in the Time of Cholera is timeless story and an intricately layered study of love in all its forms.

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende, 2008, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, originally published 1999 (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

One day in 1833, in the British colony of Valparaiso, Chile, a baby girl is left on a doorstep. The doorstep belongs to a Jeremy Sommers and his sister Rose, aristocratic Brits with a successful import-export business; very soon the baby belongs to them too. Their new adopted daughter, Eliza, is raised prim and proper with all the privileges of her station. Rose and Jeremy hope for an advantageous marriage and a life of ease, but Eliza, now a spirited sixteen-year-old, has her own plans. Madly in love with a lowly clerk, Eliza is determined to follow when he takes off for the California Gold Rush of 1849. But Eliza is pregnant, and life as a stowaway in the bowls of a ship doesn’t agree with her. Luckily the shipboard cook, Tao Chi’en, is a kind and generous man who takes Eliza under his wing and nurses her through her miscarriage. Tao has his own difficult life story—poverty, hard labor, a brief glimmer of hope when he’s trained as an acupuncturist, and then disaster again when he’s shanghaied out of Hong Kong and forced to work onboard. But Eliza proves to be as great a boon to Tao as he is to her, and the unlikely pair disembarks together in bustling San Francisco. Tao becomes a master healer in Chinatown and Eliza assists him (always with an eye out for her long lost love). But the Sommers back in Chile have won’t give up hope of finding her again, and meanwhile Eliza grows more attached to Tao and the unique freedom of their life together. A resident of both Chile and California, author Isabel Allende knows her history and lovingly packs her story full of romance, adventure, rich historical detail, and complex human dramas. Daughter of Fortune is a Booklist Editor’s Choice, an Oprah’s Book Club selection, prequel to the equally excellent Portrait in Sepia, and a sheer delight to read.

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, 2005, W.W. Norton and Co. (Literary Fiction)

Leo Gursky is an old man, pining away for his long lost love and waiting for the last big event of his life: his death. He’s so alone in the world that he goes out and makes a minor spectacle of himself—dropping his change, spilling his popcorn—just to make sure someone has noticed him. Once a promising writer, Leo traded his pen for a career as a locksmith after he escaped the Nazis during World War II. Alma Singer is a fourteen-year-old girl trying to find a cure for the permanent sadness her mother’s been wrapped in ever since the death of her father seven years ago. Alma thinks the answer might lie in the book her mother is translating, an obscure story called The History of Love. The narration alternates between Leo and Alma and the reader also gets glimpses of the moving, elegantly written History of Love and its mysterious author. As the threads of the storylines weave together to reveal the secrets of Leo’s love affair (including the attempts of a fellow writer to woe Leo’s true love) and the eccentricities of Alma’s family (like her little brother’s Messiah complex), the novel becomes unputdownable. Old Leo and little Alma are an unlikely pair, but they are both survivors of great personal loss. Despite this, neither character is ever depressing—instead they’re winsome and witty, Alma with her love of survival guides and Leo with his old-man charm. Author Nicole Krauss (who won the William Saroyan International Prize for her efforts) writes her characters with tenderness and real feeling, and it doesn’t take long before we’re deeply invested in their lives and loves. So invested, in fact, that we’ll be thinking about The History of Love’s beautiful interlocking friendships and romances long after we’ve turned the last page.

“Brokeback Mountain” in Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx, 2000, Scribner (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction/ Romance/ Short Stories)

Before “Brokeback Mountain” was a critically acclaimed and controversial film from director Ang Lee, it was a small love story tucked in the pages of author Annie Proulx’s collection, Close Range: Wyoming Stories. The stories share a common setting—the big sky open country of Wyoming—and have common themes of love, family, and emotional survival as well. But “Brokeback Mountain” is certainly one of the more memorable tales. Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are roughnecks, country boys brought up through hard work to expect a life of more of the same. When they meet on a job one summer in 1963, herding sheep up and down Brokeback Mountain, they don’t expect to fall in love—and certainly not with each other. But when a sudden, almost wordless passion overwhelms them, Jack and Ennis welcome a chance at real human connection. After their summer fling, the cowboys return to their separate lives and as the years pass, those lives include steady jobs, wives, and children. These scenes of traditional domesticity are forever disturbed when Jack and Ennis reunite and rekindle what becomes a twenty-year love affair. These twenty years, despite the closeness Jack and Ennis share, are not easy—for the couple, for their families, or for the reader. Proulx’s terse, straight-forward prose is ideally suited to conveying the pent-up pains and passions of these unbreakable men who know how they feel but haven’t the words, means, or opportunities to declare it. The Close Range collection was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of the year and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (which Proulx won in 1993 for her novel The Shipping News); “Brokeback Mountain” was singled out for an O. Henry Award and The New Yorker won a National Magazine Award for Fiction when it published the story first in 1998. The gender and orientation of the lovers in “Brokeback Mountain” may be other than ordinary, but few can deny the heart-wrenching power of this simple country story.  In 2005 the story was published in a volume of its own, and paired with the cinematic screenplay.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, 2000, Random House (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

1939, Brooklyn, New York: Sammy Klayman is a short-legged bull of a boy with grandiose dreams of making it big in the burgeoning field of comic books. 1939, Prague, Czechoslovakia: Sammy’s teenage cousin Josef Kavalier is a talented artist and a student of Harry Houdini-style illusion and escape. When the Nazis rear their ugly heads, Jewish Josef makes a daring and miraculous escape to take refuge with his American relations. Sammy immediately recognizes his cousin’s talent and, by combining his knack for storytelling with Josef’s unmatched illustrative style, the duo reinvents themselves as Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier and sets out to take the comics world by storm. Their offering is Tom Mayflower, “The Escapist,” a masked hero with powers of illusion and a blossoming mythology to match that of Superman’s. The young men revel in their success and Joe has big plans to save money and rescue the rest of his family, particularly his young brother Tommy, but lovely, talented, modern Rosa Saks provides a tempting and lasting distraction. When the war begins to encroach on the romance and adventure of their lives in New York, Joe abandons his cousin and girlfriend for a stint fighting Nazis—only to find himself stationed at the top of the world in not-so-green Greenland. Sam, desperately needing a fresh start as his small comic empire crumbles beneath him, is left to be the shoulder Rosa cries on, and when the trio reunites in 1953, their lives have been irreparably altered. The reader is completely riveted through all this by the sole power of Sam and Joe and Rosa’s characters—few literary characters are more real and true than these. With Kavalier and Clay, author Michael Chabon has created a mid-century New York that is classic and perfect, complete with an entertaining history of the Golden Age of Comic Books, a nuanced portrait of the European immigrant experience, and an exploration of the stifling gender and sexual roles of the 1940s and 50s, all wrapped up in high adventure, true love, and virtuoso storytelling. The novel is a Pulitzer Prize winner, a New York Times Notable Book, and nominee for the PEN/Faulkner Award; it’s near perfect and not to be forgotten.

Note:  Michael Chabon loves comics every bit as much as his characers Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay do, so much so, in fact, that, with the help of artists at Dark Horse Comics, he created real comic books about The Escapist.  The comic series is a terrific companion to the novel.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, 2000, McClelland and Stewart (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction/ Science Fiction)

Winner of the esteemed Booker Prize and the Crime Writers' Association Dashiell Hammett Award, The Blind Assassin is one of recent literature’s most successful variations on the novel within the novel. It’s the story of two privileged sisters who share a secluded, uneven upbringing in the years between World War I and World War II. Laura, the younger sister, dies when her car goes off a bridge. Iris, the elder, is the survivor—of Laura, of her parents, of her husband, and of her history, which she narrates to us in all its failed glory. Iris is an old woman when she looks back on her life; she’s writing her memoirs to record the truths of her life. One of those truths is her sister’s book, published posthumously and titled The Blind Assassin. We get Laura’s novel in small doses scattered among Iris’s memories. It’s the story of a young socialite and her passionate affair with a blue-collar man—and there’s a bonus story-within-a-story here too, as the nameless man spins a science-fiction tale of violence and passion for his equally nameless lover. As the stories unfold, we become convinced we know the identities of the lovers in Laura’s books--and then, as the lines between history, longing, fact, and fiction blur and blend, we second-guess ourselves and the enigma of these sisters’ lives and loves becomes deeper and stranger and that much more compelling. The moody touches of mystery are complimented by newspaper articles that document events in Iris and Laura’s lives—Communist scares, political interests, war news, high-society teas and cotillions, balls and dinners, marriages and alliances. Every storyline within author Margaret Atwood’s pages is gripping, but it is Iris--long-since disillusioned by the cruel and subtle realities of life--who really has our attention. Atwood writes Iris with a sharp intelligence and a sympathetic eye, and Iris in turn addresses the reader with a dry wit as she reveals the missteps of her life. The Blind Assassin is a book that cannot be easily categorized—its part fictionalized memoir, historical fiction, science fiction, romance, and Greek tragedy. It is instead a book that should be read and lingered over, absorbed and nurtured for all the subtle surprises it holds.

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