Book clinic: where are the romantic novels that aren’t riddled with cliches?

From Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre to Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, Kate Kellaway recommends the best books about love

Q: Can you recommend some good romantic novels that are not cliched?
Annie, 25, Birmingham

A: Kate Kellaway, Observer critic, writes:
Your question makes me think about what it is to be cliched – if only because you might argue that love is the greatest and most necessary of cliches, and if you steer too far from the heart’s core in literature, romance sometimes retreats. Or did you mean that there are obvious romantic books to mention – Gone With the Wind, Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre? You also got me thinking about Jane Eyre in particular because, in her case, it is the lack of cliche that makes for romance. Neither Jane Eyre nor Rochester is conventionally good looking, yet imperfection arrives at its own perfection (there is hope for us all). In her cunning way, Charlotte Brontë does what Mills & Boon novels are required to do: she sees that love triumphs over obstacles. But her casting (among other things) is superior. She knows about ordinary magic.

I imagine you are not insisting that “romantic” involves a happy ending? John Updike’s Couples is full of torment but an addictive read – as is DH Lawrence’s Women in Love. Nabokov’s Lolita about the doomed love between an older man and a “nymphet” – is a sullied romance. Marguerite Duras’s The Lover is erotic (are romance and eroticism permitted, momentarily, to be interchangeable?).

Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera is gorgeously sensual. For those seeking gay romance, André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies and What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell are winners (the last particularly elegiac and passionate). Also worth adding is Sally Rooney’s smash hit Conversations With Friends – balanced between sophistication and naivety; Colm Tóibín’s superb Brooklyn – exploring love when geography is not on its side; and Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday – a beautiful novella about a Jane who does not share Jane Eyre’s good luck.

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Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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