7 Novels About Falling In (And Out Of) Love in London
Genevieve Wheeler, author of “Adelaide,” recommends meet-cutes and heartbreaks unfolding amidst the charm and grit of the British city
London has served as the setting for many a novel—the backdrop to tales of scrappy orphans and drunk, dancing thirty-somethings, of marmalade-adoring bears and magical nannies. It’s also, of course, the setting for so many love stories.
Not quite as romantic as Paris, nor as hustle-and-bustle-y as New York, London sits somewhere in the middle, a charming city with grit, a gritty city with charm. And its greatest love stories often walk a similar tightrope. Sure, some feature the type of happily-ever-after in which the music swells and crescendos at the end; but, like its own identity and character, the majority of London’s love stories are constructed from a combination of toughness and tenderness, of joy and complications. They capture the beauty of falling in love, of course, but they also capture the reclaimed power that comes—sometimes—with falling out of it.
It’s a balance I’d like to think my own novel, Adelaide, has struck. Set in London, it details the rise and fall of a torrid and toxic relationship between the titular Adelaide Williams and a foppish-haired, emotionally unavailable Englishman named Rory Hughes—a relationship Adelaide eventually (and somewhat disastrously) exits, choosing instead to put herself first. Toeing the line between commercial and literary fiction, Adelaide, like London, hopefully balances light with dark—something so many brilliant writers, and their London-based novels, have done before.
This reading list features seven books that strike a similar balance—each telling its own version of what it means to fall in and out of love in the British capital.
Ghosts by Dolly Alderton
I’ve heard other writers describe Dolly Alderton as a millennial Nora Ephron—big shoes to fill, surely, but if anyone can wear them with confidence, it’s Dolly. And Ghosts, her debut novel, is a shining illustration of why.
It follows Nina Dean, a food writer in her early thirties living in north London, as she navigates the shifting nature of a number of relationships: with friends, with parents, with ex-boyfriends, and one, notably, with a beguiling man named Max. Alderton brilliantly captures the twists and turns of modern dating—the joy of late-night dancing, the distress of being ghosted—with sharp humor as well as big-hearted tenderness. An Ephron-esque talent, no doubt.
Maame by Jessica George
Maame by Jessica George is predominantly a coming-of-age story about 26-year-old Maddie Wright, but it’s speckled with romantic adventures (and entanglements) throughout. George tackles everything from the magic of first kisses to the hellish nature of apps (including the fetishization and microaggressions to which Black women are far too often subjected) to the challenges of dating while grieving with unparalleled grace and wit, painting a painfully accurate portrait of one young woman’s love life in London.
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers by Xiaolu Guo
An exploration of love, language, and identity, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers details the adventures of Zhuang—or, simply ‘Z,’ as she becomes known (it’s difficult for the English to pronounce her full name)—a Chinese student who’s just arrived in London. Cleverly written in “broken” English, we read as Z enters into an affair with an older Englishman, experiencing infatuation and culture shock in equal measure.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
When Hornby’s 1995 novel High Fidelity opens, Rob Fleming—a 35-year-old record shop owner in London – is reflecting on his ‘all time, top five most memorable split-ups’ (his most recent split—from a woman named Laura – doesn’t make the list). We then join Rob as he revisits these past relationships, attempting to understand what’s led him to a rather lonesome present.
Like most of Hornby’s work, it’s full of charisma and self-effacing humor, seeking to understand the very nature of what it means to love and be loved.
One Day In December by Josie Silver
A slow-burn, contemporary romance, One Day In December tells several love stories over several years in London—each one messy and complicated in its own unique way. At its center, though, is the relationship between Laurie and Jack—two strangers who lock eyes through a misty bus window one day in December (as the title implies)—and the ways in which fate thrusts them together and tears them apart.
Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Named for the bustling street in east London, Brick Lane is a novel about an arranged marriage between Nazneen, a new immigrant, and Chanu, a middle-aged man living in London (on Brick Lane, naturally). After moving from Bangladesh and eventually building a family with Chanu, Nazneen begins an extramarital affair with a younger man, and drama, understandably, ensues. The book grapples with themes like motherhood, loyalty, and—of course—the meaning of love, all through the lens of Nazneen’s relationship with herself and with others.
The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary
A light-hearted romantic comedy, The Flatshare follows flatmates Tiffy and Leon, who share an apartment, but—due to conflicting work schedules (Leon is a night nurse, while Tiffy is in publishing)—have never actually met. It’s quirky and hopeful—a romp of a read—but it also addresses the challenges that come with haunting, lingering past relationships and gaslighting behavior, proving that even the happiest of ever afters aren’t free of trials.