9 Love Stories for People Who Hate Love Stories
Thea Lim, author of ‘An Ocean of Minutes,’ recommends her favorite anti-love stories
The first time we met, my editor asked if we should call my novel An Ocean of Minutes a love story. She said love stories can really only end one of two ways: with the lovers together, or at least one dead. I was so intrigued and infuriated by this clever formula, that I was stumped. It took me days to think of stories that broke those conventions: In the Mood for Love, and Blue is the Warmest Color.
But my ending was one thing I’d always known, even as clinching every other plot detail was like threading a needle with wet spaghetti. And I thought, if readers can accept migrant workers traveling through time to repair an apocalyptic landscape in exchange for health insurance, they can totally accept an ending beyond the binary of death or tidy happiness. But post-publication it turns out that, whether my readers love or hate the ending, many are taken aback by it. What looked obvious, inevitable to me, has been startling to some. What had I been reading, that made me so confident my ending was NBD?
I present nine titles that taught me to believe we can reclaim the Love Story from those love stories that give the genre a bad name — where abuse masquerades as devotion, or love conquers all (including complex characterization). Instead, in these nine titles, we get messy, wrinkled endings, and portraits of love that are as gnarled, sad, and resplendent as the real thing.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
The speaker talks around her heartbreak, by the time we’re halfway through this fantastically strange memoir, her determination to distract herself has her looking at bowerbirds, colour theory, tarps, poison strips, and Wittgenstein, among one hundred other things. The few times that she finally turns her (and our) gaze towards her loss, the effect is blinding.
Empire State: A Love Story (or Not) by Jason Shiga
A shiftless young man named Jimmy carries a torch for a friend for years, and then follows her to New York. Instead of painting this mildly creepy behavior as charming, the narrative douses him in reality. But by some magic it still manages to be delicate with his feelings, and to show their depth and poignance. That gives them much more humanity, than any story that likes to romanticize stalking.
Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
Operatic in its rendering of love and heartache, but never remotely sentimental, Asterios Polyp uses every possible tool at a graphic novel’s disposal (color, margins, panel style, breaks, lettering…) to tell the story of a fool who loses the love of his life. The story insists that loss is irreversible, but yet somehow, manages to affirm the act of living. I love this book so much I tried to copy one of the chapters into my novel, but in textual form.
The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro
The title story of this collection is like the funhouse version of Twilight: it does everything to poke fun at Patrick’s idealized love, to strip away its pretenses and lay bare how it dehumanizes Rose, turning her into a literal object of his affection. But it’s the collection’s final story, which spotlights a love outside of common relationship categories, that best questions what we mean by love. “What could she say about herself and Ralph Gillespie, except that she felt his life, close, closer than the lives of men she’d loved, one slot over from her own?”
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Bendrix is in love with a married woman, and then she leaves him. Driven by bitter rage, he’s dogged in his quest to find out who is his ex’s next. The answer brings him suffering on a far more metaphysical level. “This is a record of hate far more than of love.” If you’re through with love, Bendrix is a good person to spend a few weeks with. Few books I’ve read describe the raptures and horrors of romance in such exquisite detail.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Two childhood friends have been groomed their whole lives to do a certain, uh, job, but now that they’re on the eve of permanent work-related separation, they realize they’re in love. They go on a journey to find the top boss, believing that if they can show they truly love each other, they’ll be released. This book embodies that ardent, human wish that love will make us immortal, and it’s told in the most flat, affectless tone, which makes it all the more devastating. To this day, I can’t even think of the last page (or, to be honest, hear the word “Norfolk”) without tearing up.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
“Goodbye My Love” in Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection looks at many kinds of love — between spouses, parents and children, uncles and nieces. Egan shows how time hides the people we love, behind newer and newer versions of themselves. It is up to us to keep them in view, but do we have the fortitude? “That was all. He’d let her go, and she was gone.”
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Brontë Trojan horses us: you think you’re going to get a high-brow, corseted Victorian affair, but instead you get a spectacularly bizarre ghost story, a proto-paranormal romance, in the greatest possible way. “He’s more myself than I am, whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” Which is not that dissimilar from Kanye’s comment about Trump and dragon energy. If you like pulsing, bonkers artistic ambition, (like Kanye on his best day, not Kanye on a “slavery was a choice” day) this is the book for you.
1984 by George Orwell
(Spoilers ahead, though in my defense this novel is 70 years old.) Just as O’Brien uses Julia against Winston, Orwell takes our investment in the sparse moments of hope and tenderness in this novel, and uses it against us. He proves that oppression poisons everything, even our most private, intimate traits, the ones that make us human, or the ones that make us, us. Balls-to-the-wall bleak.
About the Author
Thea Lim is the author of An Ocean of Minutes and The Same Woman. Her writing has been published by the Southampton Review, the Guardian, Salon, the Millions, Utne Reader, and others. Lim has received multiple awards and fellowships for her work, including artists’ grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council. She grew up in Singapore and lives in Toronto with her family.