Five books for Valentine's Day

By Yvonne Zipp
Wednesday, February 9, 2011

It's almost upon us: the most romantic day of the year - or the biggest con job since P.T. Barnum, depending on your view of Feb. 14. (Still, some of us will accept any excuse to eat chocolate.) It's also the season for love stories, poems and cards dripping glitter and sentiment. While these five novels might sound like the equivalent of a heart-shaped box, they are more for those who like their candy spiked with cayenne pepper. There isn't a conventional romance in the bunch. In fact, I defy Hallmark to create a greeting card to cover some of these scenarios.

1What could be more romantic than falling in love in Paris? Unless you are already married, in which case it's a little more complicated, as in Herve Le Tellier's Enough About Love (Other; paperback, $14.95). It's got not one, but two love triangles: Thomas, a therapist, falls in love with a married attorney at the same time that Anna, one of his married patients, is smitten by a writer working on a novel called "Abkhazian Dominoes." ("You really do go to great lengths to make sure your books don't sell," Anna tells him. "Put 'love' in the title.") Le Tellier writes about middle-aged desire and its consequences with empathy and humor.

2Family reunions are so touching - except when it's your family. Nick, social-climbing prodigal son, returns home after 20 years at the request of his younger brother in Louise Dean's remarkably astute comic novel, The Old Romantic (Riverhead, $25.95). His dad, Ken, an octogenarian who makes Archie Bunker sound like Miss Manners, wants a divorce from Nick's stepmom and is determined to reunite his family before availing himself of the services of the female funeral director he follows around. (Ken's plans would have a better chance of success if he could stop spewing invective whenever he opens his mouth.) Dean has perfect pitch when it comes to sending up the British working class, but she sneaks in just enough grace to give her characters a chance to prove Thomas Wolfe wrong: As long as you don't expect anyone to get out the good china, you can go home again.

3It's that age-old story: Boy meets Girl. Boy realizes he prefers boys, but Girl is fun to hang out with, and besides, neither Boy nor Girl is any good at relationships. It's the setup for "Will & Grace," but Ralph Sassone takes a less campy approach in The Intimates (Farrar Straus Giroux, $24). Maize and Robbie meet in high school, date briefly, settle for friendship and then become roommates as both struggle with life after college. "The Intimates" is a bit of a misnomer, however: Robbie and Maize don't confide in anyone, even each other.

4 As readers of Frank Delaney's earlier books know, Ben MacCarthy is a member of the Irish Folklore Commission (a job that must come with extremely flexible hours and unbelievably high pay). As The Matchmaker of Kenmare (Random House, $26) opens, Ben's pregnant wife has been kidnapped and may be dead. Despite the missing spouse, he becomes fascinated by Kate Begley, a matchmaker with an endless supply of platitudes. When Kate spots a handsome American soldier and decides to make a match for herself, she drags Ben with her into an espionage caper in order to land her mate. Then Capt. Charles Miller goes missing in action, and Kate and the unwilling Ben set off behind enemy lines to find him. This shaggy dog story - seriously, it's practically a puli - jumps from Europe to America, involving fat men and giraffes before both characters' searches are over. Those who haven't read "Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show" are going to be befuddled by the missing-wife plot (frankly, even if you have, it's frustrating), which gets shoved aside until an unsatisfactory wrap-up near the end.

5David Levithan, co-author of "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist," throws out plot entirely in The Lover's Dictionary (Farrar Straus Giroux, $18), which is written alphabetically rather than chronologically. A bookish young man explains his two-year relationship with a hard-partying girl by defining words that apply to it. Take "exacerbate, v.": "I believe your exact words were: 'You're getting too emotional,' " or "fledgling, adj.": "Part of the reason I preferred reading to sex was that I at least knew I could read well." Despite the occasional sappy entry, such as "ardent" and "ethereal," Levithan creates a genuine emotional arc for his unnamed characters that makes this book much more than a gimmick.

Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor.

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