Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, as you probably know whether you’d like to or not. It’s not that we have anything against people celebrating their relationships on a particular day per se, but sometimes it’s valuable to cut against the grain a little. So this weekend, you can find our editors enjoying these books about doomed romances, hopelessly awkward OKCupid prowling, and solo travel. We hope our partners don’t mind.
Regina: They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in the case of Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, a picture is worth an entire novel—a very, very good novel. Inspired by Brassaï’s famous photograph, Lesbian Couple at Le Monde, 1932, Francine Prose has created an unforgettable cast of characters, including not only the eponymous lovers, but also the photographer, the owner of the popular nightclub, a wealthy Baroness with a shameful secret, and a bitter American hoping to become the next Hemingway. The audiobook employs a fantastic cast and each character is performed with lively distinction. Like friends I’ve come to know over the course of a long trip, I can still vividly hear their voices, each with its own particular accent and inflections. Through these extraordinary characters, Prose explores big topics like sexuality, art, and politics in Paris during an unparalleled time. Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is a story about much more than cabaret, champagne, and the joie de vivre; it’s a multi-dimensional account of passion, heartbreak, and the origins of evil.
Alex P: Ah, Bukowski. I can think of no other poet more appropriate for an anti-Valentine’s pick. Love is one of his major themes, but, as the title can attest, he doesn’t often have kind words to say about it. For me, Bukowski’s power comes from the way he juxtaposes his surprisingly intimate vulnerability with the brutal realism of his details. The results are often thrilling, and Love is a Dog from Hell is full of such classic moments. More than just about any other writer, Bukowski embodies the strange, symbiotic relationship between vulnerability and cynicism; he feels too deeply to not have had the ravages of disappointment and betrayal take their toll. That’s what always draws me back to Bukowski: it’s worth wading through the self-destructive habits and occasional misanthropy to get a peek at that bluebird he keeps deep down inside, as when he writes:
I loved you
like a man loves a woman he never touches, only
writes to, keeps little photographs of. I would have
loved you more if I had sat in a small room rolling a
cigarette and listened to you piss in the bathroom,
but that didn’t happen. Your letters got sadder.
Your lovers betrayed you. Kid, I wrote back, all
lovers betray. It didn’t help.
Justin: Jim Dixon is a lecturer at a provincial university in England. He hates his colleagues, who are pompous and self-absorbed. He hates his girlfriend, who makes more money than he does but never picks up the bar tab. He hates his job, which pays poorly and affords him little hope of career advancement. Hate is the prevailing feeling of this book—and yet Martin Amis, through his masterful writing, manages to elevate this base emotion into something different—something completely relatable, even sympathetic, and devastatingly funny. Take, for example, the following passage, probably the best depiction of a hangover ever written:
He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth has been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by a secret police. He felt bad.
Lucky Jim is a book about feeling bad. But more than that, it’s a book about feeling bad that can make you feel better.
Isobel: Blue is the Warmest Color is the story of a young girl named Clementine who finds her feelings at war with the judgments of her parents and her peers. She doesn’t understand why she fears intimacy with her boyfriend or what it means that she keeps dreaming about the beautiful blue-haired girl she locked eyes with in the park the other day.
Alternating between present and past, Blue is devastating, funny, and at times achingly vulnerable. We are first introduced to the full-color world of Emma, Clementine’s partner, who accompanies us through the pages of Clementine’s adolescent diaries to discover an innocent inner life where everything is black and white until love walks by.
Blue’s message, that “only love will save the world,” is as stunning and necessary as it is straightforward. I only wish that the end didn’t come so quickly: I would have liked to linger in Emma and Clementine’s world a little longer.
Mallory: The gist of A Time of Gifts is simple: in 1933, an eighteen-year-old boy drops out of school and walks from Holland to Istanbul, alone, passing through the heart of Europe the moment before it is changed forever by WWII. But don’t be fooled: this book is far, far more than an adolescent gallivanting about Europe. Equal parts philosophical treatise, history, and travelogue, A Time of Gifts brings together European history, classical literature, philosophy, cultural observations, personal memories, and, of course, adventure.
To illustrate: As Paddy walks through south-east Germany, he sings and recites poetry to himself to rescue his mind from the monotony of the walk. He reflects on the literary canon that he had to memorize in school: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Keats, Coleridge, Carroll, Virgil, Horace. Then, in characteristic fashion, Paddy the narrator’s mind leaps ahead several years, to his time as a British officer in WWII, when Paddy finds himself on the island of Crete with a kidnapped German general that he’s managed to carry off to the mountains and hold in captivity until he can be retrieved by British forces. One morning at dawn, Paddy hears his enemy reciting the beginning of one of Horace’s Odes. Upon recognizing the particular bit of verse, one Paddy himself recited years before while wandering through the general’s home country, he picks up where his captive leaves off, and together the two men complete the poem. “[F]or a long moment,” Paddy writes, “the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.” It’s an extraordinary moment, one that defines Paddy’s character and the book as a whole.
Paddy is loquacious, meandering, and in possession of an extensive and sometimes obscure vocabulary, so the book was, at first, a challenging read. But as I reached this particular passage, about one-fourth of the way in, the challenge was transfigured into sheer pleasure. Never before had I admired a writer—a writer as a person—so much, and I knew that this would be one of the defining books of my life.
Shaenon: I find Liz Prince’s autobiographical comics hopelessly adorable. Her first collection, Will You Still Love Me if I Wet the Bed?, captures Liz in a hipster-cute relationship, but in Alone Forever she’s single and bouncing between varying degrees of frustration. She goes to punk shows, hangs out at coffee shops with friends, and trawls “the human horror buffet that is OKCupid,” but somehow can’t find the nerdy bearded man of her dreams. Maybe it’s her crabby attitude, or the way she dresses exactly like the guys she wants to impress, or her method of flirting by describing her bathroom stains. Who knows? Prince’s scribbly lines capture every awkward emotion. Plus she draws great cats.