February 11, 2021 | Arts and Culture
books to have and to hold
literary love for valentine’s day
I kind of feel like college is breaking up with me.
I don’t want to graduate and leave college life behind, especially not in the middle of a pandemic. But college keeps telling me I need to get ready to move on. What? In my heart of hearts, I feel like I’m still in March of my junior year. Definitely not a senior. Definitely not ready to move on. (Cue Taylor Swift’s “Right Where You Left Me” from Evermore). I guess, really, that this long breakup started last March, given that nothing since then has been as it should be.
The good news is that unlike college (and unlike some people), books don’t tell you to suck it up and move on. They don’t tell you that your time is up, whether you’re ready or not. They’ll never reject your love. So here are six books about love to love forever, at Brown and beyond.
- To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han: Although many people are familiar with the Netflix adaptation of this novel, the book will always have a special place in my heart because I read it as the campus shut down last year. In the absence of classes and any semblance of normalcy, I took refuge in this light-hearted rom-com romp of a YA novel. It turned out to be exactly what I needed in the midst of all that chaos—a welcome and comforting source of escapism, complete with a happy ending. Lara Jean Song Covey has always written secret love letters to her crushes, though never with the intention of actually sending them. However, when the letters are mysteriously mailed out, she finds herself playing the role of Peter Kavinsky’s girlfriend. Peter is trying to make his ex-girlfriend jealous, and Lara Jean needs to cover up her crush on the boy next door—who just so happens to be her own sister’s one-time boyfriend. TATB has everything from a fake dating scheme and solid sister relationships to a popular Netflix movie adaptation with Asian American representation.
- Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein: Platonic love deserves more love, and Code Name Verity gives it its due. The heart of this cleverly told, heartbreaking YA novel is the strong friendship between Julie and Maddie, a relationship that highlights the endurance and courage of women during World War II. Arrested by the Gestapo and forced to write a confession explaining her mission, the British spy Julie takes the opportunity to tell the story of how her friendship with pilot Maddie came to be. Julie writes: “It’s like falling in love, finding your best friend.” I read this book right after getting my wisdom teeth removed in 2017, and I was so engrossed in Julie and Maddie’s story that I forgot my pain entirely. That’s really saying something.
- The End of the Affair by Graham Greene: If happily ever after isn’t your thing, look no further than this novel centered on the writer Maurice Bendrix, his lover Sarah Miles, and Sarah’s husband Henry. Like Code Name Verity, Greene’s novel is set in World War II. The war and its aftermath serve as the backdrop for Bendrix and Sarah’s tumultuous affair—which does, indeed, come to an end. I read Greene’s novel during my first semester of college, in an English class called Love Stories. The Apostle Paul offers a famous definition of love in the Bible, writing: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” But many of the fictional relationships we studied were far from such patience and kindness. The End of the Affair is riddled with the dark side of love: bitter jealousy and fierce possessiveness. Greene further complicates this story of human love and hate through the characters’ tortured relationships to God and Catholicism. After Sarah breaks off their affair, Bendrix becomes jealous of God once he realizes that Sarah has embraced the Catholic faith. Even though he insists that he hates God, Bendrix himself is dogged by a sense of the divine.
- Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery: I once wrote a love letter to Gilbert Blythe, the beloved character from Montgomery’s classics—but don’t worry, it was for an assignment (I’m not that obsessed). We were instructed to write a love letter modeled after one of Edgar Allan Poe’s, which is to say that it had to be overdramatic and overpopulated with dashes. There’s much to praise about Gilbert: he’s hardworking, and generous, and funny, and intelligent. If given a choice of romantic leads, I’d take Gilbert over Mr. Darcy any day, but the truth is that he belongs with none other than our imaginative, impulsive heroine Anne Shirley. Romance aside, however, Montgomery’s books are about far more than the (unbeatable) rivals-turned-friends-turned-lovers dynamic between Anne and Gilbert. Anne of Green Gables embraces familial love and tight-knit friendships as the red-headed orphan Anne becomes part of the Cuthbert family and wins the hearts of everyone in Avonlea. Of course, she’ll win you over, too.
- Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: Deserving winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Gilead has a wide fan base, including Barack Obama and, of course, yours truly. The novel illustrates love on every scale imaginable, from human to divine. Elderly Congregational minister John Ames is approaching the end of his life, and he pens a long letter to his young son about his love for his family and for the wondrous, beautiful world around him. Although Ames believes in grace and unconditional love, he struggles to extend such grace and love to Jack Boughton, his closest friend’s misfit son. Ames finds it difficult to forgive Jack’s past actions, and as a result, he makes incorrect assumptions about Jack’s intentions in the novel’s present. Every time I read Gilead, I cry more than the time before. It’s the kind of book that will break your heart and then quietly and gently heal it.
- Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi: This “memoir in books” is, in many ways, a love letter to the power and importance of fiction. I read Reading Lolita in Tehran at a time when I was questioning everything about being an English concentrator. (Let’s be honest: sometimes I still question it). Was it even worth it? What was the point? It seemed a second-rate endeavor, neither serious nor legitimate in the face of my peers’ pre-med and CS aspirations. But Azar Nafisi actually put her life on the line for literature. Once a professor of literature, Nafisi eventually forms a secret—and illegal—book club with some of her female students. She analyzes and interprets various novels, including Lolita and The Great Gatsby, as she describes life during the Iranian Revolution and its oppressive aftermath. If Nafisi found literature worth risking incarceration and execution for, then it’s surely worth four years of study and a lifetime of love.