They don't write literary romances like they used to

October 11, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

What are your favorite literary romances?

I've put together a list of 11 literary romances that I've enjoyed through the years.

Three are British, two are by the same author, two are Russian, one German, two are U.S. novels set in the South, and many are set during wars. Five writers are male, five female. I checked my list with other readers and librarians and most of our lists were similar. So if you're in a romantic mood, and you haven't already read these, sample the favorites listed here. In chronological order:

  1. "Wuthering Heights" (1847) by Emily Bronte
  2. "Jane Eyre" (1847) by Charlotte Bronte
  3. "Anna Karenina" (1877) by Leo Tolstoy
  4. "The Sun Also Rises" (1926) and "A Farewell to Arms" (1929) by Ernest Hemingway
  5. "Gone With the Wind" (1936) by Margaret Mitchell
  6. "Rebecca" (1938) by Daphne du Maurier
  7. "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" (1939) by Katherine Anne Porter
  8. "Arch of Triumph" (1945) by Erich Maria Remarque
  9. "Dr. Zhivago" (1956) by Boris Pasternak
  10. "Cold Mountain" (1997) by Charles Frazier.

As I look at this list, I have to wonder what happened in the 41-year period between 1956 (the year that "Dr. Zhivago" was published) and 1997 (the year "Cold Mountain" was published). Where were all the romances during these years? And don't tell me about "Love Story" or "The Bridges of Madison County" because they don't count.

As I thought about it, the answer to my question became clear.

In recent years, the big literary romances have become smaller love stories tailored to specific audiences: gay, black, Asian, Latino and East Indian. Take for example Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" ; "Women of the Silk" by Gail Tsukiyama; "Like Water for Chocolate" by Laura Esquivel or "The Mistress of Spices" by Chitra Divakaruni.

These are wonderful books, too, and deserve to be celebrated.

But don't neglect the books on my list. For instance, if you haven't read "Pale Horse, Pale Rider," be prepared. Have a box of tissues by your side. This short novel is set in New York City, 1918. That was the year of a virulent flu pandemic in which millions of people died worldwide.

The story's protagonist, Miranda, 24, becomes deathly ill with the flu and is nursed by her soldier boyfriend, Adam. No steamy sex here. The two live in the same boarding house and have known each other for all of two weeks when the story opens. He's going off to war, she works for a not-quite-reputable newspaper. Yet Katherine Anne Porter convinces the reader that they are lovers for the ages.

And I was delighted to find out that Fawcett has just released a new paperback edition of "Arch of Triumph." This novel is set in Paris, 1939, and concerns a German refugee, a doctor named Ravic, who gets paid under the table for performing surgery for less skilled French doctors. Most of the books on this list have been made into movies and this was, too. But it wasn't a good movie so do yourself a favor and read the book instead.

I hope no one is going to come forward and suggest that "Cold Mountain" isn't really a love story. It certainly is. Inman, the Confederate soldier who walks away from the war, and Ada, the preacher's spoiled daughter, may only spend a few hours together, but it's quality time. This National Book Award winner is now out in paperback.

And of course I had to include "Gone With the Wind," that other Civil War classic. In a discussion about that book, a friend pointed out that its author, Margaret Mitchell, was a battered wife. Mitchell kept her first marriage a secret from the press because court records regarding the divorce contained a nasty account of her husband's attempted rape, an assault that left the author hospitalized for two weeks. Mitchell feared that this graphic information, so at odds with the famous marital rape at the end of her famous book, would sour her romantic readers. However, a little honesty about her personal life might have better served her readers in the years ahead.

The runaway favorite among those I polled about these books remains "Rebecca." Some say du Maurier wasn't that gifted a writer. That may be so, but she could tell a gripping story and describe a romantic setting and landscape better than anyone.

Literary romances. Sigh. They don't write them like they used to.

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