Great classic romantic novels

Who says romantic novels can’t be heady? Romance has its share of literati glittering in its history as in any other writing genre; as romance was among the very first genres within the wonderful world of novels, this history stretches back centuries and includes some of the greatest who ever penned a line.

(Of note: that notorious bunch of classic writers today studied as leading figures in Romanticism of the 19th century – Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, William Wordsworth –  just weren’t that romantic in our sense of the word. Which is not to say that works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are not incredible, just not Rendezvous Books’ idea of romance.)

So check out the Rendezvous Books list of great classic romantic novels, and get ready to visit (or revisit) a read whose prose is as exquisite as it is pleasurable.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782)

We’ll start with an easy one. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses is four novels’ worth of epistolary story that is at once necessarily a product of his time and yet well ahead of it. The story of noble-class frenemies Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont is replete with details of the social mores among decadent elites juuuuuuuuuuuuuuuust before the Revolution, witty repartee and, of course, seductive sex. As challenging a read as it is rewarding – and steamy.

Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice (1813)

If these books were listed in qualitative order, Jane Austen’s incredibly deep tale of the Bennet Family. Second-eldest daughter Elizabeth Bennet has become one of the most well-loved characters in all of fiction, but each of her supporting characters is marvelously detailed without bogging down in the purple prose so characteristic of early 19th-century literature. Incredibly, Austen’s prose is so clean, direct and no-nonsense that this 200-year-old work reads not archaic at all. A must-read for book lovers of all stripes.

Wuthering Heights (1847) and/or Jane Eyre (1847)

Two books by two sisters published the same year – and two opposite sides of the coin. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is a desperate tale of impossible love that was forever after often imitated rarely equaled; Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is a lighthearted romp with a fantastic, bubbly central character. Both are worthy of your time, so is the glass half-empty or half-full for you right about now…?

Madame Bovary (1856)

Would you believe a book so racy as to be labeled “obscene” by *French* authorities? So it was with Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a novel as replete with classically educated characters with (gasp!) active sex lives. Several archetypes of the romance genre would be created here, including man-married-to-old-widow, the sexy doctor and the sexy-yet-naïve college student. Did we mention it’s French? Movie:

Lady Chatterly’s LoverLady Chatterly’s Lover (1928)

With D.H. Lawrence to their credit, it’s amazing that the British have such a reputation for passionlessness. All of Lawrence’s 12 novels are loaded with steamy sensuality and hot ‘n’ bothered characters aplenty. Lady Chatterly’s Lover – written some 13 years after the petticoat-ruffling Sons and Lovers – was thought to be so overheated by Lawrence himself that he had the novel published by an obscure Italian printer. By the time Lady Chatterly finally came to light in 1960, British prosecutors went to work in labeling it obscene and inspiring bans of the book. This work remains the exemplar of the racy novel to this day. Movie trailer:

Rebecca (1948)

Another archetype-creator, Rebecca was a best-seller in the late 1940s/early 50s that was usually dismissed as B-grade pulp fiction but, along with several other works, has seen become recognized as a top work by author Daphne du Maurier. Our heroine marries a British gentlemen in a story that soon turns to suspense, replete with a scary-ass matronly housekeeper. Equal parts romantic and suspenseful, Rebecca is the very essence of a novel ready for the screen – if du Maurier were alive today, she’d certainly be taken quite a bit more seriously.

L’Amour/The Lover (1971)

How wonderful is Marguerite Duras? The emotional power and passion nearly literally flow off the pages of her novels – her screenplays as well, for that matter. And the prose style is unbelievably minimalistic, packing so much into every word, into every sparsely laid-out page. As with most truly transcendent art, L’Amour must be experienced to be believed. (Incidentally, if you’re fluent enough, give The Lover a go in the original Franch. Duras’s sparse directness makes it a rare Franch-lanugage literary classic that the non-native speaker can grok.

The Unbearable Lightness of BeingThe Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)

Those who know the extremely sexy-yet-cerebral work of Milan Kundera know that he’s about the only guy in history who could have made a sexy, compelling fiction despite devoting a good one-third of its pages to riffing on Nietzschean philosophy. In short, Unbearable Lightness brings together a group of characters a few generations descended from Madame Bovary and sets them against the halcyon events of Prague 1968. Brilliant and very hot in spots.

Norwegian Wood (1987)

And while Kundera’s protagonists were uprising in Czechoslovakia in 1968, so were Haruki Murakami’s in Japan. Norwegian Wood is an early novel from Murakami, today probably the most well-known and -loved Japanese author in “The West,” and features the story of a young man’s first experiences with sex and love in two romantic relationships around the time of the Summer of Love.

The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)

With the preponderance of science-fiction in mainstream art & entertainment, it’s not surprise that the occasional romantically-tinged book comes down the pike. Such is The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger’s astounding mix of the two genres that became yet another unfortunate case for the Book Was Waaaaaaaay Better Than The Movie Department. In the novel, the title character’s love interest possesses a genetic malady which causes him to randomly travel backward and forward through time. Movie trailer: