Romantic novels are a lot like okra: you either like them or you don’t. There isn’t much in-between.
I detest romantic novels — and okra — with a passion bordering on the evangelical. If enclosed in a small room with either, I might seriously consider gnawing my leg off in order to get free.
But, every now and then, a novel with a romance-y theme that doesn’t make me want to swallow a handful of cyanide pills sidles into my ken and I am full of admiration, yet again, for the seductive power of the written word in the hands of a master.
I’ve not found a book that can make me feel this way about okra, but we’ll see. We’ll see.
For all of my fellow misanthropes, this list of heart-melting tomes is for you. Some of the choices are decidedly unorthodox. That’s because my literary romantic tendencies tend to run towards the subtle and sub-plotish, the romance that occurs while other, more important plots are trotting alongside. Feel free to sneer or suggest at will in the Comments section, below.
10 Best Romantic Novels for People Who Hate Romance
1. Persuasion – Jane Austen
Persuasion continually falls off book fiend radar with Austen heavies like Emma and Pride and Prejudice hogging up all the attention. But Persuasion‘s tale of love found, lost, and found again has more mature romance in it than all of Ms. Austen’s other works put together. And it’s especially interesting to think that the book’s heroine, Anne Elliott, is closer to Ms Austen’s own character than any of her other creations: Anne doesn’t have Elizabeth’s tendency towards off-the-cuff judgements or Emma’s patronizing self-confidence; she’s unfailingly responsible, intelligent, and quietly level-headed. It’s tough not to imagine that Ms. Austen wrote Anne as a fantasy extension of herself, in the hope that she, like Anne, might have just one more chance to find her Captain Wentworth. Unfortunately, Ms. Austen died a year after completing Persuasion — it was her final novel.
If you’re already a Persuasion fan, waste no time in seeing the Sony Pictures Classics adaptation starring Amanda Root as Anne and Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth. It’s probably the most romantic movie I”ve ever seen and, coming from a bah humbug like me, that’s high praise indeed.
2. The Scarlet Pimpernel – Baroness Orczy
A high-minded tome on two levels: 1) courageous British gentlemen save innocent French artistocrats from an intimate aquaintance with the guillotine, and 2) a snooty wife learns to love a husband she thought she despised. Lots of adventure, a romance that manages to be not one bit schamltzy, and one of the best surprise endings in literature (see the other 9 that made the 10 most surprising endings in literature list, here).
3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
Jane Eyre is the great grandma of all the plain-but-intelligent-girl-gets-the-guy-everyone-wants-stories. And the best of the bunch. Jane is dirt poor and nothing much to look at but she’s got her own mind and doesn’t Mr. Rochester know it. This book has taken on Girl’s Only status of late, but it wasn’t always that way — one of the orginal publishers of Jane Eyre cancelled a dinner party and stayed up most of the night to read the manuscript when he first received it, he was so desperate to know what would happen to Jane.
4. Menfreya in the Morning – Victoria Holt
O.K., so you’d never, even under the administration of medicinal amounts of methylated spirits, be able to mistake a Victoria Holt novel for Great Literature. But you just can’t beat them for unadulterated, unabashed, gothic-y, romantic, mysterious fun. Menfreya in the Morning is one of the finest in the Holt canon since it features an ugly, awkward rich girl who gets the guy as opposed to a poor, beautiful girl or a rich, beautiful girl (how I hate those ones). Also features devil-may-care gentlemen, conniving governesses looking to take the Mrs’ place, and psychotic nannies.
Ms. Holt wrote about a thousand other books of the same genus and species as Menfreya in the Morning but if you power through them all and your thirst remains unslaked, Ms. Holt also wrote a carriageful of “Royal” romances under the name Jean Plaidy. To be frank, they’re pretty horrid. If it’s royal romantic hijinks you want, you’re better off with Carolly Erickson’s outstandingly written and not at all boring biographies of royal women. Take a look at a list of them, here.
5. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Yes, I do think Persuasion is a better book — and a better romantic novel — than Pride and Prejudice. But it would take a heart much stonier than mine to not be charmed by its essential tale of two people learing to understand each other and, in the process, themselves.
Because Pride and Prejudice is such a fun book to read, it takes up an inordinately large amount of space in the Austenite mind. Take a look at A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers On Why We Read Jane Austen and see what I mean.
6. Love Story – Erich Segal
If you’ve seen Love Story’s movie manifestation, you probably think it’s the sappiest thing ever. (And you definitely thnk that if you’ve suffered through a hearing of its horrendous theme song.) But this slim little novel is really quite genuinely emotional. Do skip the sequel, Oliver’s Story, however. It’s a blight on the literary landscape.
7. Doomsday Book – Connie Willis
Yes, yes, this technically is a science fiction/time-traveley/history hybrid (and an admirable one, might I add –it was my favorite book for years, tied with its sequel, To Say Nothing of the Dog) but it has got a fantastically subtle doomed romance subplot between the time-jumping Kivrin and the medieval priest, Father Roche. One of the best scenes comes near the end of the book when the Black Death-stricken Father Roche asks Kivrin to hear his confession since there isn’t anyone else left alive in the village to do so. And what does the selfless priest have weighing on his soul so heavily? Having had “carnal thoughts” about Kivrin, whom he firmly believes is actually an angel sent from God. Sob.
8. Behold, Here’s Poison – Georgette Heyer
Ms. Heyer was one of those rare Golden Age mystery Grand Dames who knew precisely how to write politely murderous tales with a tasty jigger of humor, wit, and romance mixed in. Behold, Here’s Poison features the best of classic British mystery stereotypes — flighty maids with names like Gladys, blustery whiskey-guzzling men of a Certain Age, disapproving aunts — alongside a sweet little Benedick-Beatrice type love/hate romance. What a pity that modern mysteries are such a melodramatic drag by comparison (see The Sensitive Inspector Syndrome — the scourge of the modern British mystery).
9. I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
Ah, young love! It nearly always turns out somewhat badly (in literature, at any rate) and I Capture the Castle, told from the perspective of 17 year-old Cassandra Mortmain is no exception. Two handsome young American men move into the neighborhood and Cassandra and her older sister, Rose, find themselves in some uncomfortable romantic triangles/squares/circles. The ending is uplifting and very fitting, but probably not in the way you’d expect. Incidentally, this is one of the best books for Twilight addicts to while away the months until November with.
10. The Time-Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
Hoo boy, get the handkerchiefs out for this one.
Indulge yourself in more bookish lists:
The 5 most annoying literary romances…and the 5 most romantic ones
The 10 most surprising endings in literature
10 authors every Jane Austen fan should read
10 best books for treating Harry Potter withdrawal
“Pardon me, but are you dead?” 10 best classic kitsch murder mysteries
10 best audiobook productions: so good, they make the print versions seem boring
The Book Examiner’s 10 best books of 2009 and a word (or three) about end-of-year best book lists
The 10 best book club books for 2009
Confession time: 10 books I should love…but, for some reason, I hate