7 Obsessive Love Affairs in Literature

Bronwyn Fischer, author of "The Adult," recommends stories of romance, suffering, and desperation

Romeo and Juliet via Wikimedia Commons

To the obsessed, only one thing in the world has luster: the subject of their obsession. The person or thing we are obsessed with is our only answer to incredible longing. Questions like What is my life about? What is worthwhile and what is not? are easy. The answer is her, him, them, it. 

My novel, The Adult, follows Natalie, a first-year university student at the University of Toronto, who has moved to the city from Temagami, a small town in northern Ontario. Deeply uncertain, and lonely, Natalie meets Nora, a 38 year old woman whose unexpected interest gives Natalie a sense of clarity and purpose she has always lacked. The book explores the nature of obsessive romantic love. It asks what we take from one another by loving, it asks what we give, and it asks eventually, what can be salvaged. 

The books on the list below encase the intensity of obsessive love. They are at times, devotions to a beloved, they are relics of love’s overwhelm, they are attempts by lovers to stop loving, to  remember a different answer to the always-there question— how should life be? 

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart

“There are no minor facts in life, there is only the one tremendous one.”

Elizabeth Smart’s work of prose poetry expertly captures the rapturous, all-consuming experience of love, beside which all other experiences pale. Set during World War II, on a journey throughout various states and provinces, Smart shows the ability of tremendous love to make everything around it banal by comparison. The palpable longing in each of her sentences distills the surrounding world, and makes her suffering, her desperation, her love, the only important thing we can think of. 

They Say Sarah by Pauline Delabroy-Allard, translated by Adriana Hunter

Pauline Delabroy-Allard tells the story of a teacher in Paris who is swept up in a love affair with Sarah, a violinist. The book is brief and chaotic, as it oscillates between deep loneliness, desire, fear, pleasure, and despair. The emotional intensity of the protagonist shows how responsive life becomes to the beloved. There is no small gesture, no feeling left unfelt. Delabroy-Allard evokes a love in which everything else in life—work, friends, family—fades. She shows how pleasurable this sensation can be, despite the ruinous effects it can have.

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

Zaina Arafat follows her unnamed protagonist, a young, bisexual woman, through a series of vignettes that take place in the United States and the Middle East. She is riddled with desire, and these longings evolve into reckless romantic affairs and obsessions, and eventually take her to The Ledge, a treatment centre that diagnoses her with “love addiction.” Arafat explores obsession through the lens of self-destruction and introspection; love can be an affliction of the lover and, in this case, her cultural and familial wounds, rather than an obsession with a desired. 

Couplets: A Love Story by Maggie Millner

Told through a series of couplets, Couplets follows a woman who lives in Brooklyn, with her boyfriend and their cat, who has dreams that rotate around desire and seduction. These dreams become real as she has an affair with a woman she meets at a bar, and enters into new communities—both queer and BDSM—and new forms of desire. Maggie Millner writes of the narrator’s “second first love,” the love that comes after coming out, and the ways that this discovery can feel like a new adolescence, with all of its obsession and sentimentality. While this desire brings about chaos and heartbreak, it also brings about a deeper and more in tune sense of self. As Millner’s narrator says, “For any fierce, untrammeled feeling, / now I know I’d give up almost anything.”

Written on the Body by Jeannette Winterson

Jeannette Winterson’s nameless and genderless narrator asks, “You want love to be like this every day don’t you? 92 degrees even in the shade.” The book depicts an affair between the narrator and the beloved, Louise, a married woman. 

Winterson depicts a love affair based on particularities: in Written on the Body, love is specific. It has a subject, a beloved. Winterson describes parts of her beloved’s body against the anatomical definitions of these parts, for example, drawing into focus the separation between a general understanding of a clavicle, and Louise’s collarbone in particular. This particularity is what makes losing love so painful—as Winterson’s narrator states, “[t]his hole in my heart is in the shape of you and no one else can fit it.” 

Y/N by Esther Yi

Esther Yi, conversely, explores the other side of obsessive love: love whose subject is never fully known or understood, despite the intensity of feeling the lover has for them. Y/N follows an unnamed narrator through her obsession with Moon, a member of a k-pop group. The narrator begins writing self-insert fanfiction, in which the reader inserts their name (your/name) and is the main character of a relationship with Moon. When Moon retires, the narrator flies to Korea to search for him, while Y/N journeys towards Moon in their own story. Yi explores our culture’s relationship to celebrity and the kind of love that we feel for people we do not know. Love can, in fact, be a process through which we relate to ourselves, above all. As the narrator’s therapist notes, “[t]he best way to fall out of love is to realize there exists no love out of which to fall.”

Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux, translated by Tanya Leslie

“I had no future other than the telephone call fixing our next appointment. I would try to leave the house as little as possible—forever fearing that he might call during my absence.” 

Told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, Simple Passion is an incisive reflection on a two-year affair with a married man named “A.” Ernaux describes how life transforms itself to accommodate and sustain the affair with “A”, composing an intimate revelation of obsession and passion. Though Ernaux’s novella revolves around “A”, there is a great sense in which her work is not about “A” as an object of love, but rather about the current of feelings experienced by the one who loves. Ernaux gives attention to obsession and love not only as feelings to describe but as ideas to think about. This is a brief and forceful look at a person consumed. 

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