Valentine’s Day and the release of the 50 Shades of Grey film has been all over the news lately, inspiring me to think about stories of love and stories of sex and where the two intersect. What is it about 50 Shades of Grey that makes so many people crazy for it? What, if any, unique formula makes this love/sex story different from the hundreds of others we are exposed to every day? Is the sex really that titillating? I admit: I haven’t read the book. I have, however, google searched “50 Shades sexiest passages” and what I read did not impress me as particularly earth shattering. In any case, I can’t fault a book that made the flailing publishing world so much money and inspired so many people to read something other than their phones.
I would like to offer some alternatives, however: A selection of books that offer good writing, three-dimensional relationships and even a steamy love scene or two. Here are my choices for books about love and sex and everything in between.
This one has a particular place in my heart as it played a role in my early relationship with my now husband. We met working in a bookstore, and I gave him a copy of this book, which was my favorite at the time. Almost 10 years later, we gave our daughter Lucia the middle name Milan, after Mr. Kundera.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being tells the story of a woman in love with a man torn between his love for her and his impulsive womanizing. The story also follows one of the man’s long time mistresses and one of her devoted lovers. Set during the Prague Spring in the 1960s and 1970s, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is full of Kundera’s lovely, probing ruminations on relationships, sex, death and the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life. Despite the infidelity at the heart of this story, it is not your typical misogynistic alpha male narrative littered with degrading female characters (looking at you Phillip Roth and John Updike). Nor is it the story of a couple who have fallen out of love or a husband whose midlife ennui has given him a roving eye (barf). It is a full-bodied, one of a kind, sophisticated read that stays with you for a long time. Savor it over a cup of tea or a glass of wine. You will miss it when it’s over.
This book was made into an excellent film starring the amazing Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche, who were perfectly cast.
Will appeal to fans of literary fiction , translated stories, and foreign films.
Possession by A.S. Byatt
I read this book during a snowy winter many years ago, a few months after a breakup. I spent most of my time with this book in bed, under my covers, reading by the light of the blinding white snow that was everywhere outside. Possession tells the story of two graduate students with very different personalities who discover a secret love affair between the two Victorian authors they study. One of them finds a secret letter hidden away in a London archive and sneaks it away to investigate. As the two scholars discover the details of their subjects’ secret affair a century before, they—you guessed it—fall in love themselves. Flashing back and forth between the Victorian era love affair and the relationship forming between the two modern-day scholars, the novel uses a variety of narrative techniques: diary entries, letters, poems, and traditional prose. It is a dense read, no light undertaking, to be sure, but well worth your time if historical fiction is something you enjoy. Personally, this book seeped into my brain and inspired me to write letters on paper again and use elaborate speech and prose in my everyday life. It was kind of ridiculous, of me, I admit, but I loved every second. It pulled me out of a funk and gave me a much-needed shot of hope and romance.
This story was made into a move starring Gwyneth Paltrow and you SHOULD NOT SEE IT.
Will appeal to fans of literary fiction and criticism, historical fiction and bodice rippers alike.
If you haven’t read this book yet, I don’t know what you’re waiting for. I mean, you should just cancel all of your plans right now and get started. It is hand-to-forehead swoonworthy. The Time Traveler’s Wife tells the story of Henry and Claire, a married couple who struggle to have a normal relationship in spite of Henry’s rare condition, known as Chrono-Displacement Disorder. This disorder causes Henry to be displaced in time, bouncing back and forth between moments in his own life from his past and his future. His time jumps are spontaneous, wreaking havoc on his life with Claire. Despite this rather wild plot point, Henry and Claire’s time together and their devotion, as depicted by the startlingly talented Audrey Niffinegger, is so exquisitely rendered that you will find yourself completely glued and sobbing your eyes out. Woe on anyone who interrupts you!
Will appeal to anyone who likes a good love story, fans of time travel stories, Whovians.*
*I did not see the movie, which I heard was awful, but harbor a secret fantasy that it will be re-done starring David Tennant as the time traveling librarian/lover Henry. <sigh>
While the above love stories are definitely sexy, they are also fully realized novels with multidimensional characters who will ring true to you. If what you are looking for is something altogether steamier, try reading the work of Henry Miller, a writer very well-known for his, ahem, attention to detail. Also check out the work of his very capable, and some (me!) would argue better, lover Anais Nin. Besides the many thoughtful and entertaining journal collections available, look for her novel Delta Of Venus if you really want the hot stuff.
Finally, have you ever read a delightful 19th century novel that ends with a wedding and then wished you could keep reading right into their wedding night? There have been many attempts to write about the sex life of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, for instance, but by many accounts, they are rather awful, and I am loath to ruin my idea of the relationship between those two by reading someone else’s crappy rendering. One alternative is to read a well-written bodice-ripping romance novel by someone who can write quite capably about the time period. Eloisa James was recommended to me by some fellow librarians with impeccable taste, and I found her work to be satisfactory indeed. I read Much Ado about You, which is the first in a series about the Essex sisters who are all in need of, wait for it, a husband. Imagine the usual Jane Austen-esque plot, interspersed with a ton of sex scenes. It is great fun and will make you blush and cover your face with your hanky for sure. Eloisa James knows what she is doing and is having so much fun doing it that it will help you get over your snobbery about genre romance novels and just enjoy yourself, damnit.
What about you? What are your favorite books about love, sex or both? Comment anonymously, if you must!