I love Valentine’s Day. It’s the perfect excuse to be really cheesy and give things to people you care about. In the past, I’ve always given really sappy gifts and cards to my friends, like these matchbox valentines that I made a couple years ago.
Some people don’t like Valentine’s Day, though, or they’re going through relationship problems. This holiday can be hard if you’re going through a break up— any day can be hard, but the incessant mentions of love and eternity that permeate our culture around the 14th don’t make things easier. Neither does the flip side: bitterness and cliches about women watching sappy movies while crying into their pints of chocolate ice cream. I don’t watch many movies, but I love to read. And when I’m upset, even the slightest mention of something sad in a book can set me off.
SO, for the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to put together a post highlighting novels for people who weren’t really looking forward to Valentine’s Day. I wanted to make a list of great books that wouldn’t catch readers off guard: no cheating lovers, no abuse, no sudden deaths, no relationship-driven emotional scarring. Books that are well-written but don’t rely on romance as a plot device to move the stories along.
I couldn’t find any. I had admittedly high standards; Karen Russell’s Swamplandia came the closest, but I vetoed it as soon as I read the term “Adultery Fridays,” although there’s a scene at the end that also discounts it. Night Circus has a broken heart; The Magicians has infidelity; Goon Squad has, for starters, that sad scene with the girl and her married lover in the club. Definitely not Silver Sparrow or Bad Marie. Aimee Bender’s Invisible Sign of My Own and Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake almost make the cut, but they’re laden with too much heartbreak, even if it isn’t romantic, to count. Both Emma Donaghue’s Room and The Road by Cormac McCarthy center around a parent and child who spend the majority of the novels in each other’s company, but even they touch on abuse and abandoning distraught partners, respectively.
All of these books are wonderful, but they all contain sadness. Can it be done in fiction for adults? Is it possible to write a good novel without putting adultery, abuse, or heartbreak? I can think of strong young adult and middle grade books that fit into this category—Konigsburg, for example— but nothing meant for older audiences. Is it possible to write a good novel without hurting your characters? I once workshopped a story and had my professor tell me that it was too “gentle,” that the main character needed to have her life shaken up a little more. Good stories have conflict. But does it have to be of the heart? Can’t the crisis be getting rejected from your top choice of colleges or not getting a green card?
Can you think of any novels that fit this criteria? Please share them! I’m currently reading Cutting for Stone, and up next are Open City, The Art of Fielding, and American Dervish, so maybe one of them will make the cut.
Also, here’s a piece that NPR published today (we’re on the same wavelength apparently). 3 Biting Books for Those Bitter on Valentine’s Day.
EDIT: What about Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld? I love this book and I think it might fit: Lee has her share of troubles at Ault, some of them boy-related, but nothing truly awful happens to her the four years of high school that the novel spans (although I do wish dearly that Sittenfeld would put out another novel featuring Lee forty years later so that we can see if she’s finally happy). Thoughts?