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Edward Rochester is my kind of guy: intelligent, complex, sardonic and bored by rich, beautiful women. But what makes Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre my favorite love story is not only her couple's mutual passion but Jane Eyre's character. Here is a female protagonist who does not lose her moral compass, whose brain does not turn to fondant the moment she becomes enraptured.
John Crowley's magnificent fantasy novel Little, Big is also an epic family saga, the sort with a family tree in the front, and the bright red line that runs through that tree is the happy marriage of Smoky Barnable and Daily Alice Drinkwater. Their youthful courtship in the first chapter captures better than any other account I know the giddy mixture of joy and incredulity of a young man in love, that lucky-bastard feeling of disbelief that this stunning, ethereal and even wise creature could possibly fall in love with a toad like me. And even more miraculously, this love survives through children, infidelity, aging and the end of the world as we know it. In the saddest and most beautiful ending I've ever read, one of them dies and the other (because this is a fantasy) becomes royalty among the fairies, and the survivor preserves the memory of their anniversary as a summer's day "of such brilliance, a morning so new, an afternoon so endless, that the whole world would remember it ever after."
When I read recently that Arthur Miller, nearly 90, was engaged in a dalliance with an artistic woman in her mid-thirties ("I had thought he was dead!" she confided to an interviewer), my mind raced back with pleasure to one of the last short stories V.S. Pritchett ever wrote, "On the Edge of the Cliff."
Anton Chekhov wrote "The Lady with the Little Dog" in 1899, when his tuberculosis forced him to live out his winters in "the hot Siberia" of Yalta while his future wife, the young actress Olga Knipper, stayed in Moscow to star in his plays. The point of view throughout this extraordinary and unforgettable story is that of Dmitri Gurov, a cynical, married philanderer, as he seduces a young married woman he has seen walking with her little Pomeranian by the sea at Yalta. ("And only now when his head was grey he had fallen properly, really in love -- for the first time in his life.") In the process, Gurov minutely observes his whole life, and yet to the end he remains a mystery to himself. More than any other love story I know, "Lady" illustrates how no love affair is ever generic: It is as peculiar and irreplaceable as its set of lovers.
I know it's everybody's favorite book of all time, but reading Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude nearly killed me; it certainly did a good job of convincing me that magical realism wasn't ever going to be my thing. ("Hold on . . . people can just do what they want? Whenever they want to do it?") So I have no idea why I read Love in the Time of Cholera shortly afterward. I was in my twenties, and I dimly recall that it seemed to me at the time that I was going to be in love with the same unattainable woman for all eternity, and then I found a novel dealing explicitly and perfectly with this unhappy state. My own misery lasted just long enough to enable me to finish the novel and weep; if you find yourself in a similar place, pop a copy in the post to the relevant party today. It can't do any harm -- unless a little old man or lady knocks on your door in 50 years' time, expecting long-deferred and rapturous sexual union.
In the months following my husband's death, I reread three of my favorite love stories: Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song and Alfred, Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam. All deal with love, death and the struggle to find that which endures. All grapple with doubt and faith. Of the three, Tennyson's beautiful and complex elegy affected me the most deeply, perhaps because his pain was so raw and his description of loss so real: the mourning, and then the dreadful missing; the "wild unrest that lives in woe"; the nights and seasons that pass unshared. Yet hope prevails -- despair cannot indefinitely "live with April days, / Or sadness in the summer moons" -- and love, however altered by time and circumstance, remains: "[The years] they went and came, / Remade the blood and changed the frame,/ And yet is love not less, but more."