Five Books in Which Romance Sneaks Up on You

All kinds of novels can contain love—and the pleasure of encountering a good one that does is universal.

A line drawing of a person reading a book with a heart on the cover.
Gabriela Pesqueira / The Atlantic

Good love stories are irresistible: They appear in almost every genre and culture, and are the subject of centuries of lore. Love in Color, the British Nigerian writer Bolu Babalola’s collection retelling myths from around the world, demonstrated just this last year. These stories persist because they carry healing and hope. Everyone can use the vicarious drama and swooping emotion a truly great romance brings, especially in these dark days.

Yet as much as I adore and respect the genre, not every reader takes to romance novels, where these tales are most easily found. Thankfully, plenty of other options exist—some obvious, some more unexpected. All kinds of narratives can follow characters falling for each other or building lives together. In fact, sometimes the greatest companions show up at the end of a plot’s long and winding road; sometimes a match is made and then lost, and fiction shows how to cope with that eventuality.

With that diversity in mind, here is a list of five surprising literary love stories. These books explore the consequences of war, the psychological toll of genocide, and intergenerational inheritances, but loving relationships provide their heart. Though none of them is romance in the standard sense, the treatments are original, the writing is stunning, and they all share a belief in love’s truth and power.

The cover of This Is How You Lose the Time War, with a cardinal and a blue jay.
Gallery/Saga Press

This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

In this abstract, experimental, and deeply romantic science-fiction novel, enemy combatants commit the ultimate sin: They fall for each other. As spies traveling through time and multiple realities on behalf of two radically different warring factions, Red and Blue communicate through secret messages. Gradually, those missives evolve from hostile taunts to flirtation and then settle on passionate, effusive, unlikely love, which runs contrary to their missions. From there, the goal becomes not winning the war but defying indomitable forces to be together. Yet neither Red nor Blue is fully sure they can trust the other. Their relationship could be an elaborate honey trap, a possibility expressed in the most striking prose. As Blue writes to Red in one bulletin: “You’ve always been the hunger at the heart of me, Red—my teeth, my claws, my poisoned apple. Under the spreading chestnut tree, I made you and you made me.” Ironically, there’s something very old-fashioned about the central conceit, which is basically an epistolary romance—but one whose letters soar across space and time.

The cover of Less, featuring a cartoon white man falling through clouds.
Little, Brown

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

Greer’s Pulitzer-winning comic novel juxtaposes a romantic setback with a milestone birthday. When his casual but long-term lover, Freddy, breaks things off and announces his engagement to someone else, the middle-aged and barely midlist writer Arthur Less is on the cusp of turning 50. He’d do anything to avoid the wedding, so he cobbles a trip around the world out of a series of literary engagements. Arthur is absolutely running away, but in a colorful and creative manner, and the journey makes for quite an adventure. What Greer pulls off in Less, with savvy social observations and subtly hilarious sentences, is nothing short of a miracle: His hero is a self-pitying and privileged man who is disappointed in life, himself, and his expectations for the future. A story with that character at its center shouldn’t be a barrel of laughs, but it is, and it’s also more romantic than one would think a plot propelled by heartbreak could be. Love is the reason for Arthur’s sojourns, and eventually, his cherished destination.

The cover of A Play for the End of the World

A Play for the End of the World, by Jai Chakrabarti

Few happy endings are harder earned than the one in A Play for the End of the World. This heart-wrenching yet hopeful debut, long-listed for the 2022 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, uses the 1912 play The Post Office, by the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, as a malleable symbol and a tool of political resistance. Janusz Korczak, the medical doctor and educator who runs the orphanage where 9-year-old Jaryk lives in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, hopes that by staging the play during the Nazi occupation, the children he cares for can experience a kind of liberation by imagination. It works, at least temporarily, until they are sent to a death camp. On the way to that terrible place, Jaryk has the life-altering fortune of escaping from a train car, becoming the group’s lone survivor. A Play for the End of the World primarily focuses on what happens to Jaryk after, and how a new life can take root following ruin. A key part of that fragile new existence involves Lucy, the woman he falls in love with in New York. With a complex narrative that includes several jumps forward and backward in time, Chakrabarti puts his main character on a journey of recovery that interrupts and supersedes the trajectory of the love story. But the back-and-forth in the relationship and the ending are both worth savoring, and so is the reflection on the role of art and love in survival.

The cover of Monster in the Middle
Riverhead Books

Monster in the Middle, by Tiphanie Yanique

In this unique novel blending recent history with a touch of magical realism, love is a multigenerational phenomenon. Moving from California to the Virgin Islands to Ghana and back again to the United States, Yanique maps how one couple’s connection is influenced by the family lore and legacies that precede them. The book opens with a letter from parents to their children before later introducing the reader to Fly, then Stela. The narrative’s fundamental organizing principle is that understanding who they are requires understanding the people who raised them, so in the novel’s first sections, we learn about how their respective parents grew up, met, and fell in love before we’re shown how Fly and Stela first discovered romance and sex as individuals. Yanique details decades of significant relationships and formative experiences that made them the slightly bruised and battleworn adults they are when they finally find each other. The third and last section, “Stela and Fly,” brings the couple together, highlighting the challenges they face as they choose each other. Though some readers will find the happy ending a bit wobbly as recent world events intrude, the voyage is one worth taking.

The cover of Lessons in Chemistry

Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus

With strikingly relevant subject matter and an Apple TV+ series adaptation under way starring Brie Larson, this darkly funny and poignant novel, out in April, is likely to be a blockbuster. Following Elizabeth Zott, a research scientist in conservative 1960s California, Garmus paints an excruciating portrait of what her awkward and brilliant protagonist has to deal with on a daily basis both in academia and the corporate world. Recognizing the hoops she must jump through, Elizabeth is fiercely focused on her career. And yet true love is hard to ignore. The novel’s original center is the gorgeous, nerdy pairing of Elizabeth and a fellow scientist, Calvin. Their relationship provides a beautiful anchor until their lives take a tragic turn. From there, the book evolves into a story about other important loves: that of a woman for her daughter, Madeline, and the brilliant dog she rescues from the street, and that of the makeshift family that forms around Elizabeth and Madeline in the aftermath of their terrible loss. These threads hang together beautifully, making Lessons in Chemistry’s excellent experiment more quirky and heartwarming than harrowing.

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