Maybe you're staring down a Valentine's Day filled with romance and long walks down city streets with your one love, or maybe you're confronted with a day of sheer misery, of deep and irreconcilable trouble.
It won't be good for you, and it won't be good for anyone in your life, but if you're a writer, maybe your readers will be happier, and maybe if you scan your own bookshelves you'll see ample evidence of the prurient pleasure human beings have always taken in drinking in the destruction of others out of love and lust and impulse and indecision. As has been said by almost every storyteller everywhere, what's bad for life is good for stories, and maybe on this Valentine's Day, if you find yourself alone in your trouble, you might find a little solace in the news that you're not the first to the parade of human tragedy rising from human desire, that thing that so rarely lines up, one person to another, both at the same time.
So here is a list of 15 literary companions, affairs that scorch in the ways we like most and the ways we don't like at all, excitement and sorrow enough for 15 Valentine's Days at least:
1. Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias: A married woman invites a man she has just met to dinner in her apartment in Madrid, but after she undresses in the bedroom, she suddenly dies, leaving the man alone in the apartment with her sleeping two-year-old son. The rest of the novel unravels outward from the terrible question the man faces: What do I do now?
2. Possession by A.S. Byatt: A mystery about a secret love affair between poets not unlike Robert Browning and Christina Rosetti, a historical love story chased by fierce British scholars, and offered in a tantalizing stew of diaries, letters, fairy tales, myths, and, most of all, Victorian romance.
3. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink: Seven years after the breaking off of a forbidden affair between a 15-year-old boy and a 36-year-old illiterate tram conductor, the boy resurfaces as a law student observing the war crimes trial in which the woman stands accused of having allowed 300 Jewish prisoners to die in a church fire at a concentration camp near Auschwitz. What happens next becomes a parable for post-war German culpability in the wake of the Holocaust.
4. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones: Secret long-term bigamy is at the center of this story of two sisters, daughters of different mothers but the same deceptive father.
5. Mitko by Garth Greenwell: A short, elegant novel of erotic longing between an American expatriate and a Bulgarian hustler in the gritty underbelly of Sofia.
6. The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd: The best study of grief, eroticism, and middle-aged sexuality anyone has published so far this century. A little-known masterpiece that will become better known as more readers discover it.
7. We Don't Live Here Anymore by Andre Dubus: A compassionate novel in three novellas originally published separately over a six-year period, concerning two couples whose intertwined marriages come of age--and fall apart--in the era of free love.
8. All is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang: Interlocking love triangles, including a secret student-teacher affair, fire the plot of this short novel set in a prestigious graduate writing program not entirely unlike the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
9. Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth: The most audacious novel by the most audacious American novelist, concerning an ever-increasingly transgressive affair between the dirty puppeteer Mickey Sabbath and Eastern European immigrant innkeeper Drenka Balich, who raises the stakes in the novel's memorable first sentence: "Either foreswear fucking others or the affair is over."
10. The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro: The central relationship in this novel-in-stories isn't an erotic one--it is a stepmother-stepdaughter tale. The heat is in the backstory, especially in the story "Wild Swans," in which an elderly preacher commits a sexual transgression on a train while pretending to sleep, and the young woman who submits to his advances never decides exactly what to do with the memory.
11. Love, Anger, Madness by Marie Vieux-Chauvet: A novel in three novellas written by a Haitian novelist in exile, and the first, Love, is a masterpiece narrated by 39-year-old virgin Claire, whose obsession with her sister's husband Jean Luze (who is, in turn, sleeping with a third sister) gives way to a biting clarity that ends in the surprisingly heroic killing of a local strongman.
12. The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat: A novel-in-stories about the aftermath of the Duvalier-era terror squads, which ends with the unlikely love affair that sets the rest of the book into motion, and which creates the mysteries that most of the book's characters can never entirely reconcile.
13. Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson: The primary love affair in this book is between the narrator, known to the reader as Fuckhead, and heroin. But the secondary affairs are no less intense, including the one between two participants in "Dirty Wedding," which ends chillingly: "I know they argue about whether or not it's right, whether or not the baby is alive at this point or that point in its growth inside the womb. This wasn't about that. It wasn't about what the lawyers did. It wasn't what the doctors did, it wasn't what the woman did. It was what the mother and the father did together."
14. Pitch Dark by Renata Adler: A novel concerned with the question: What happens when a woman flees a nine year affair with a married man?
15. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene: An explicitly Catholic novel, loosely based on Greene's long-term love affair with British socialite Catherine Walston, that is in no way orthodox on the subject of adultery or love.
Kyle Minor is the author of the new book, Praying Drunk.
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