14 books to read, gift, love this Valentine’s

In the middle of love stories, I pause to sigh and wonder. How different these people are from me, yet how well I understand their feelings. From dozens of books that touched my heart, here are 14 personal recommendations:

Emma by Jane Austen, John MURRAY, 1815, Rs264

1. If you are looking for Classic Romance, read Emma by Jane Austen.

It is my favorite of all the Jane Austen novels. Emma as a heroine is annoying, all-knowing and a reminder of our arrogant, youthful selves. Mr. Knightly as the gentlemanly suitor might not be as breathtaking as our beloved Mr. Darcy, but he is quite adequate. The village of Highbury is a languid and enjoyable world to lose yourself in.

2. If you like the enemies-turned-lovers trope, read The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

The first 70 pages of this workplace romance are strange and awkward, and then it suddenly gets cute and tense and romantic. The dialogues and intensity are the butterfly-inducing kind. It is quite cliched and theatrical, but the journey is enjoyable. It is hilarious in parts.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, WILLIAM MORROW PAPERBACKS, 2016, 384 pages, Rs1000

Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott, ROBERTS BROTHERS, 1868-1869, Rs400

3. Gift Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott to the little and big friends in your life.

Patience, friendship, first love, courage – what beautiful things Little Women leaves us with! The four March sisters exemplify the bond that runs deep and strong all through our lives, even in the midst of skirmishes and differences. And Laurie – he is the friend we all pine for. A book recommended to everyone eight years and above.

4. For lovers of Bildungsroman romance, Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy is a comforting read.

It starts out as simple friendship among adolescents and expands to include so much more: their ethical and moral choices, career, loyalty. It is innocent, and beautiful, and the characters undergo everything we do during your adolescence, and grow into relatable adults. Reading it now, I wonder if there is no subtle moral policing inherent in Binchy’s books. Even so, this novel will make you yearn to walk the streets of Dublin.

Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy, CENTURY PUBLICATIONS, 1990, Rs809

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows, DIAL PRESS, 2008, Rs250

5. Afficionados of historical romance will be delighted by The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

Read for its wonderful, witty, strong protagonist Juliet and the full-of-life letters she writes to people, known and unknown. Also read for the general feel of the novel - warm, hopeful, always eager to believe the better sides of people. It is set just after the second world war so it should be depressing, and it does not shy away from describing the devastation and pain, but it is still uplifting. Sometimes it is too sweet to be believable, as if it is a Disney movie where all good characters get their due and bad ones are punished. But even this childlike poetic justice will touch your heart.

6. If you are tethered to the idea of first, forever love, read An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy.

Two kids fall in love, and never grow out of it. It is not the best book stylistically, but the stirring love story evokes such tenderness, sadness, and detachment... it has to be felt, not read. It is set in the charming bylanes of a small town in Bengal. The story spans three generations and multiple characters, and can leave you feeling quite forlorn.

An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy, FREE PRESS, 2008, Rs632

Normal People by Sally Rooney, FABER & FABER, 2018, Rs1118

7. Those who like their love stories to be undefinable, complicated, yet all-consuming, should read Normal People by Sally Rooney.

Normal People will put readers in a state of abnormal anxiety and heightened unease. It will revive first loves and passionate infatuations, sensual encounters and bodily frustrations. The novel holds a power, a sly, uncommon draw that goes much deeper than its mundane tone. There is only one thread of a story, a well-worn one at that. Popular boy and the uncool girl have a fling in school, which unravels because of the boy’s refusal to acknowledge the relationship. In college, the girl suddenly turns into a sparkling swan. She is now a head-turner, while the boy is unpopular. He grapples with depression; she with her own demons. They meet, separate, reconcile, come together, part. That is the story—without any other surprise or suspense. But this inability to live with and without a person has been picturised in such beautiful and sad detail, that the allure of the novel lies therein. Read to ache.

8. If you believe in love as destiny, reach for Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire.

Kamila Shamsie has a command over language that is extraordinary, a way of distilling situations into a few well-chosen words that drip with beauty and context. Home Fire is a marvelous retelling of the Greek tragedy Antigone - a sister seeking justice for her brother, even though the entire world might think him wrong. In London, responsible elder sister Isma looks after her twin siblings after their Jihadi father dies on way to Guantanamo, and their mother passes away soon after. The twins behave like a single soul, their relationship uncanny and surreal. When the brother is lured away, by ISIS to Syria, and begins looking for a way back, his twin Aneeka would do anything to deliver him back to safety - including beginning a tumultuous affair with the son of the Home Secretary. But it is a dangerous, passionate, mysterious game that unfolds... The triangulated relation of lover-beloved-brother is tender, unearthly, nothing more needed between them than a touch and two words. It is very much a novel of the times, of families torn apart in meaningless exchanges of fidelity, identity, faith. Yet it is an age-old story, of having to choose between the impossible and the improbable. A book that is for the heart.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, RIVERHEAD BOOKS, 2017, Rs866

Fragile Mountains by MK Limbu, VAJRA PUBLICATIONS, 2005, Rs450

9. Multiple love stories set in Nepal? Try Fragile Mountains by M.K. Limbu.

Limbu’s underrated novel is an ode to our country, and the hundreds of crisscrossing loves and fates that exist within. A girl pines fervently for her soldier beau, but finds happiness with someone else. A couple thirst for the love of a child. A young girl is lured to the mountains by her dashing boyfriend, but eventually settles for someone else. A young man loves the idea of foreign riches. A slow, leisurely walk through the forests and hills of Nepal, filled with the adoration of its beauties and the diversity of its people.

10.   Lovers of fantasy and young adult fiction will devour His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.

“We'll live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and pine trees and in clouds and in those little specks of light you see floating in sunbeams... And when they use our atoms to make new lives, they won't just be able to take one, they'll have to take two, one of you and one of me, we'll be joined so tight...” After eons of them walking together, slaying fantastic beasts and saving the world, readers will weep a little when Will and Lyra turn to each other with these words. It is the simplest and purest kind of love, one that springs from companionship.

His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, SCHOLASTIC, 1995-2000, Rs1896

Small Island by Andrea Levy, HEADLINE REVIEW, 2004, Rs250

11. If you are looking for a book to describe your soul sister, grab Small Island by Andrea Levy.

Two women. One a Jamaican native, educated and vibrant, disbelieving that anyone could shame her for the color of her skin. Another a British, sympathetic and understanding, but still held back by the idiosyncrasies of her race and class. Their paths cross in an ‘amazing’ manner. The novel attacks racism. Hard, swift, and with precision. It makes us think of our privileges, the ways we are subtly discriminating or being discriminated against. The best part is its intersectionality. It talks of Jamaicans and Indians with equal passion, shows us the hypocrisies of the Scandinavian and Americans in equal measure. It deals with serious issues, but it tells the story with humor and compassion. Hortense and Queenie are the heroines we need, to remind us to love our selves.

12. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a little bit of every kind of love: Friends-turned-lovers, sad love, queer romance, brotherhood, love for life.

This might not be the typical romance, for readers will need to wade through many hundred pages before getting to it. Those pages, lingering over the histories of four friends in New York, are agonising and traumatising. But what a gamut of emotions the novel manages to capture. This is for readers who have liked ‘A Fine Balance’, or ‘The Year of the Runaways.’ Several trigger warnings.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, DOUBLEDAY, 2015, Rs958

Honour by Elif Shafak, VIKING, 2012, 342 pages, Rs798

13. Familial love, hurtful love, the kind of love that does not hesitate to kill… look no further than Honor by Elif Shafak.

Elif Shafak was born to be a writer- that everyone knows. Her artistry and magic shines through in this novel set in Turkey and London. Beloved twin sisters are forced to lead separate lives in two continents, yet their fate is linked together through their history of blood. This novel, especially on the day that celebrates love, is a reminder of the dangerous and toxic forms love can take and culture that garbs itself as concern and protection. It is the love that we want to free ourselves from.

14. And the perfect chick lit? The Undomestic Goddess, by Sophie Kinsella.

This is how chick-lit should be done – improbable, dramatic, wild, genuinely funny, and with a supercharged heroine. Top lawyer with zero household skills ends up as a housekeeper and falls in love with the resident gardener. It is a rollercoaster of a ride!

Honorable Mentions: Lara Jean series, Sister of My Heart (Part 1 and 2), All the Light We Cannot See, The Kiss Quotient, The Bride Test, Red, White & Royal Blue, The Guide.

The Undomestic Goddess, by Sophie Kinsella, BANTAM PRESS, 2005, Rs499

Richa Bhattarai is a writer and book reviewer.