Top 10 novels about long-distance relationships | Amber Medland

The pleasures and perils of sustaining human connection while physically separated have inspired writers from Sally Rooney to Vladimir Nabokov

The problem of being separated from the person you love is as old as transport. But 50 years ago, international telephone conversations were off the table. Thirty years ago: no internet. My grandad proposed by letter, from a two-year posting on an island in the Indian Ocean, having met my grandmother once. More people are in long-distance relationships than ever (careers, family, global pandemic) but the experience has changed. We expect immediacy, to know what is going on now.

There’s a bittersweet pleasure in missing someone, and joy in reunions and in having new stories to share. But so much can go wrong! Calls are missed, messages are over-analysed, arguments that could be ended with a kiss fester. That gap between what is meant and what can be communicated is a writer’s dream.

In my novel Wild Pets, Iris – a depressed writer studying in New York – is in two transatlantic relationships, one with her boyfriend, Ezra, who is touring with his band, and one with her best friend, Nance. They email, WhatsApp, Skype, FaceTime, share Spotify playlists, etc. Technology promises a sense of togetherness, but it cannot appease our hunger for physical closeness.

According to the internet, one LDR strategy is to read the same book at the same time and discuss it. I never had the diligence. But the idea of being in a LDR while reading a book about loving at a distance is pleasingly meta. Here are my recommendations:

1. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Meet Henry De Tamble, a librarian with a wolfish streak and Clare Abshire, a visual artist. Henry has a genetic disorder that means he’s sucked out of the present and hurled naked through time at random. The novel alternates between their perspectives, so we see how each experiences their love story inflected differently. It is longing accelerated: Henry is always vanishing, and Clare, missing him. But they wring the juice out of each moment they have together. The book is near edible in its descriptions of food, books, punk, sex and the smell of manuscript paper.

2. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A study of how plotlines in love stories can break apart and then converge. Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love at high school in Lagos. She goes to the US to study. Obinze tries to follow her, but post 9/11 he cannot get a visa, and slips into undocumented life in London. They both face a matrix of different, racially loaded challenges. Their bond is close and this book shows how hard it is for young people to grow at the same pace in the face of so much change. When something happens to Ifemelu that she cannot bear to share with Obinze – he doesn’t need to know – she stops taking his calls.

3. Beautiful World Where Are You by Sally Rooney
This novel alternates between third-person chapters and an email correspondence between Alice and her best friend Eileen. As readers we see what happens and how the girls choose to relay events to each other, which tells us a lot about self-styling; what we share and what we choose to hold back. I really enjoyed how freely the girls express themselves in writing, and the scope of the subjects they discuss online compared with their shyness around each other.

4. Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li
Li’s son, Vincent, killed himself when he was 16. A series of dialogues between 16-year-old Nikolai and his grieving mother, this book is set in “in a world unspecified in time and space”, “a world made up by words and words only”’. Such a space is the only one in which she can keep him and their relationship alive.

Vladimir Nabokov on a butterfly-hunting expedition near his home in Switzerland in 1962.
Vladimir Nabokov on a butterfly-hunting expedition near his home in Switzerland in 1962. Photograph: Express/Getty Images

5. Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov
This book would reward diligent study by a couple keen for something to talk about. It is presented as the memoir of Dr Ivan (Van Veen) who is among other things a “student of time” chronicling his lifelong love for Ada Veen. It spans 100 years, but it’s so teeming with puns, anagrams, puzzles, and references that if you were to unfold every allusion to something else, it might hold infinite time.

6. Bluets by Maggie Nelson
A rush of 240 poetic fragments or what Nelson calls “propositions” reaching out for her ex-lover, “the prince of blue”. The book was written over three years while Nelson was heartbroken and caring for a close friend rendered quadriplegic. It’s like what happens when the relationship ends, but one person keeps talking. She draws on Sei Shōnagon, Buddhist theology, John Berger, Leonard Cohen and Marguerite Duras, among many other writers, rarely addressing the prince directly. When she does it is devastating: “No 81: What I know: when I met you, a blue rush began. I want you to know, I no longer hold you responsible.”

7. The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante
Over the 60 years covered by the four books, Lila and Lenu (when they are talking) switch modes of communication – letters, phone calls, their near-psychic connection. In the first book, Lenu’s belief in Lila’s brilliance is deepened by Lila’s ability to communicate in writing; before Lenu becomes the writer, she is Lila’s reader. You have the sense that she’s absorbing Lila’s words and repurposing them. One summer, Lenu writes an emotional letter that is pages long. When Lila finally replies, Lenu is enthralled: “I read and I saw her, I heard her.”

8. Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller
Elle and Jonas have loved each other since they were children, but she’s moved countries and they’ve both married other people and had kids. In a moment of innate connection, burnished by lust, time and distance can fall away (temporarily). When they meet again it’s like a piece of origami – 50 years of daily pleasure, lies and trauma folded into 24 hours. In one of my favourite moments, they both fall about laughing at a joke made 30 years earlier. Jonas’s wife doesn’t laugh.

9. Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro
Maggie, who is married, starts exchanging letters with James, a poet. She falls in love, panics, and starts writing letters to God. Right at the beginning, Maggie says “the safest way to fall in love with someone who isn’t your spouse: imagine the life you might have together after both your spouses have passed away”. It captures how much of long-distance relationships relies on loving the person you believe the other will become, and a willingness to both narrativise your own love story and persist in imagining its future.

10. Love from Paddington by Michael Bond
This book was released in 2014, after the film, in which Paddington writes Aunt Lucy letters at the Home for Retired Bears in darkest Peru. It contains 15 of these letters, retelling the stories from Bond’s original books, including Paddington’s friendship with Mr Gruber the antiques dealer and his attempt to cut his own hair. There’s marmalade too.

  • Wild Pets by Amber Medland is published by Faber. To help the Guardian and Observer, you can buy your copy from

Amber Medland

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