As a special treat this Valentine’s Day, I am sharing a post on this website from my other blog – The Indefatigable Reader. I do that for the sole reason that I think all of you would love the wonderful books I have included in this very unique list and I can’t think of a better gift to give you than the gift of reading. So read on and enjoy yourself!
Valentine’s Day is here, love is in the air, and yet, I feel like recommending books other than romances this week. That is why my list today has a twist – most of the books don’t fall strictly in the genre of romance but have some elements of romance in them. There is fiction, non-fiction, a YA novel and even a book by a Nobel Prize winner, however, the one thing all these books have in common is that all of them are damn interesting and at its heart, each has a love story which has stayed with me since the time I first read it. So this V Day, let’s go beyond romance and read books which touch our hearts in more ways than one.
Statutory warning: There are a few spoilers here and there.
by Vikram Seth
I rarely do favourites (actually that’s not true – Austen is a great favourite), but when it comes to Vikram Seth, I confess I’m a fangirl. I swooned once when I saw him having dinner with his mother and believe me, I rarely swoon! Anyway, Vikram Seth’s books have a special place in my heart and my bookshelf, but of all his books Two Lives is my favourite. This is a memoir about Seth’s Great Uncle Shanti and his German Jewish wife, Aunty Henny, and traces their lives in Germany and London from the time they met in the 1930s. Their lives were directly affected by the Second World War, especially Henny’s who lost family members in Nazi concentration camps. A large part of the book is about the years of the war and the horrors of Holocaust, but an equally significant part is about the couple’s life after the war and how they overcame the scars the wat left them with. Most importantly, this book is about the love and courage that an unusual couple shared, a couple whose story would ordinarily have been forgotten if not for Vikram Seth’s pen. The relationship, love and understanding shared by Seth’s Uncle and Aunt have always seemed extraordinary to me since I know that theirs’s is a real-life story and not something out of a writer’s imagination.
In writing this book, Seth had the benefit of having a firsthand account from his Uncle, but he pieced together his aunt’s life from personal letters she had exchanged over many years with friends. For a book that would be deemed non-fiction by most book-sellers, this book reads like an engrossing fiction novel. I leave it to you to decide for yourself – read it and tell me what you think.
The Remains of the Day
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Mr Ishiguro is the Nobel Prize Winner on this list in case you were wondering – he won it in 2017. He received the Man Booker for this book in 1989. When I picked it up the first time, 6-7 years ago, I knew very little of the book and almost nothing of the author. But sometimes you a stumble upon a book so charming that you feel like reading it again as soon as you’ve finished it. This story narrated by Stevens, the butler of a grand English home, unfolds gently and engrosses you by and by till the time you are so wrapped up in the book that you can’t put it down before you have finished it. Set during the period before and soon after the Second World War, the book touches on issues such as the ascension of the Nazi party in Germany, the declining status of the English aristocracy and the erosion of the age-old order that governed upstairs nobility-downstairs servants in most English houses. At the heart of it all is the unrequited love story of Stevens and the housekeeper, Miss Kenton. There are no brash declarations of passion nor any extravagant gestures of love, most feelings remain unexpressed throughout the book and yet, you are left in no doubt of their depth and resilience.
I highly recommend this book. At a stretch, you can say that this book has themes similar to the TV program, Downton Abbey, but this book is much, much smarter than that program. If there is only one book you are going to read from this list, then make sure it is this one. They also adapted the book into a film in 1993 starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, which does some justice to the story. Even so, the book stands in a league of its own!
Eleanor & Park
by Rainbow Rowell
I had to include a YA novel in this list; I had to – especially this one because this is not just any YA novel but one of the sweetest love stories I have ever read. It doesn’t matter if it’s about two teenagers – after all, we were all teenagers once. When I read this book for the first time a few years ago, it transported me 17 years back to my own adolescence when I had my first crush. It was a time of mix-tapes and holding hands in the school bus and writing notes to each other in class. This is what Eleanor & Park brought back for me – a time when I felt like my world started and ended with this guy I really liked, when every song reminded me of him, when I was naïve enough to think that I had met the person who I was meant to be with. And even though today, I am no longer that naïve, the memories of that time are magical. And that is the reason this book is so special!
I’m sure you’ve guessed the story by now – two teenagers, meet in high school, fall in love, share stolen moments together. Throw in some poverty, abuse and alcoholism and you have a story that will move you to tears more than once. Read it for yourself and tell me whether it brings back some bittersweet memories for you as well or not?
Chander & Sudha (Gunahon ka Devta)
by Dharamvir Bharati (Translated from Hindi by Poonam Saxena)
As the title suggests, this is the English translation of an immensely popular Hindi novel by the name of Gunahon ka Devta written by Dharamvir Bharati. The title sounds cheesy and may even sound pedestrian to some, but believe me when I say that this book when it was first published in 1949 was a tremendous success and in my humble opinion, deservedly so. Now, before I go any further, let me make one thing clear. I have not read the original book in Hindi; I have only read the English translation of the book by Poonam Saxena. That is why my recommendation today is for Chander & Sudha rather than for the original novel. I believe the translation is excellent, which is why I am happy to recommend a translation this one time.
I’m sure you would like to ask me why I’m recommending a book which was written in 1949, a book which depicts the love story of a couple who were forced to remain apart on account of societal restrictions. Things have changed so much then why read the book now? I’ll tell you why. For one – at the risk of being accused of literary snobbery – I’m tired of books with titles such as “I loved you.. but you loved my best friend” or “One and half boy friend” or something on these lines. Tired not in the sense of reading them (and yes, I don’t read them), but tired that they have such little emotional depth. I’m not ashamed to say I read romance novels, but give me something which makes me feel something and not emotional trite. This is where the strength of a book like Chander & Sudha lies – even though I cannot relate to the times, I can relate to the feelings of two people who are deeply in love but cannot be together. This book, set in Allahabad, has an old-world charm, there is poignancy in the love story, and there is honesty in the writing. No matter how old the book gets, that will not change, which is why I’m recommending this book. Read this book and if you’re up for it, read the original and allow yourself to revel in the pleasure of a well-written book.
by Bernhard Schlink
I’m assuming most of you have seen the movie and if you haven’t, do so because the movie is pretty good. It won Kate Winslet a slew of awards, including the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of a Nazi concentration camp guard. But I’m here to talk about the book and not the movie, so let me do that. The book is as good, if not better than the movie. There are many books on the Holocaust, in fact, I have mentioned two others in this list itself, but this book takes a unique perspective because it deals with the aftermath of the horror rather than the actual unfolding of it. This partially autobiographical book translated from German has received criticism from some quarters for portraying some perpetrators of war crimes in a positive light, but sitting as I am almost 70 years after the event, I am willing to read about a slightly different account of history, even if I don’t agree with it in the end.
But the reason I have included this book in today’s list is not because of its accurate (or otherwise) portrayal of history but for its poignant depiction of an affair between an older woman and a 15-year-old boy. It is unlikely you will ever find this book in any list of romantic books, but I feel it deserves a place in such lists. Because I learnt a lot about love from this book. I learnt that love or rather the person you love is not always perfect, that the people you love can make you feel really angry at them and sometimes even ashamed, that sometimes although you think you know someone like you know yourself, one day you may find out that they never let you inside that part of their hearts where their deepest fears reside. As far as complexities of love and foibles of human nature are concerned, this book is spot on and that is why I think you should read it. Believe me, both the movie and book are worth your time!
There are some books which couldn’t make the cut because I didn’t want to make this list too long, but they deserve a small mention here – Baaz by Anuja Chauhan (US edition ), Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx (US edition) (this is more of a short story than a book), Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam (US Edition), Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (US Edition), It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover (US Edition) and The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo (US Edition) (read my detailed review of this book here).
That’s it from me. Happy Valentine’s (or Galentine’s Day if that’s preferable) and happy reading! And don’t forget to let me know which books you liked the most.
For other such reading lists and more book recommendations, check out my blog – The Indefatigable Reader.