The best books about the romances of famous literary couples

The Books I Picked & Why

Passion

By Jude Morgan

Passion

Why this book?

Passion features major artists and poets from a long-past yet oddly familiar period: the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a time in some ways like our 1960s and 70s: free love, revolutionary acts, creative and sexual freedom, and advances in art, science, politics, and literature. The novel stars riveting, romantic, larger-than-life literary figures: Mary Wollstonecraft, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Augusta Byron. Why can’t I time travel and inhabit such bygone eras – for a while, anyhow! But a good historical novel is the next best thing.

If it’s full of intrigue, romance, fantastic settings, and the occasional steamy encounter in which characters shed cool-sounding period clothing, even better...plus, the author’s uncanny ability to convincingly inhabit the minds of these exciting people, in first-person voice, was impressive. Highest accolade: by story’s end I wished I’d written it myself!  


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Under the Wide and Starry Sky

By Nancy Horan

Under the Wide and Starry Sky

Why this book?

I’m married to a novelist, so I like books about writing couples. That’s what drew me initially to this novel about Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and the American writer Fanny Osborne. She was 38, ten years his senior when they met in France in the 1870s; married with children but separated from a philandering husband back in California. Stevenson was single, sickly, immature, and eccentric, but Fanny eventually realized this was outweighed by his kindness and imagination. By turns comic and tragic, the story moves from out West to Europe and back again. Horan’s portrayal of the strengths and all the flaws and faults of the real-life people involved – even that unfaithful husband! -- never slights their humanity. Not an easy task; one I still struggle with in my own writing at times. This fascinating story by the author of Loving Frank taught me even as it entertained.         


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Gertrude and Claudius

By John Updike

Gertrude and Claudius

Why this book?

Everyone may love a hero, but let’s face it: They’re far more enthralled by a really good villain. An antagonist can be far more conflicted and complex, and thus more interesting, than a steady, predictable protagonist. And when it comes to infamous couples gone bad, two of the most famous are Gertrude and Claudius from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. I was once part of a traveling Shakespeare company, years ago, and sometimes still act. So novels that feature characters from classic plays and either update or develop them more deeply fascinate me. Updike’s skilled, vivid take on Hamlet’s mother and scheming uncle-turned-stepfather does not disappoint. He makes them far more sympathetic and human than one would ever infer from the original play, and I was quickly immersed in the setting and era he so vividly recreates. But, fair warning: You may find yourself rooting for the opposition in this revisionist historical romance!   


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Twisted Fate

By Dana Miller

Twisted Fate

Why this book?

I mentioned that I love a well-crafted update of a classic tale. Twisted Fate is Shakespeare’s The Tempest in modern dress, moved across the Atlantic to Staten Island with a brief stop in the Bahamas. I was hooked immediately when protagonist Laina, a bookshop owner grieving the death of her beloved brother, is a last-minute fill-in at her cousin’s Bridezilla wedding (wearing the gown of the absent pregnant bridesmaid, which keeps falling down). Laina over-imbibes at the reception and (briefly) even sets herself on fire. Hey, we’ve all been there...as events progress, there’s fate, mistaken identity, misplaced love, and of course the requisite tempest. Only great character development can immerse me in a story. This author’s dry humor is a deft foil for that. Which isn’t always the case; comic romances can suffer from cliches and worn caricatures. Not this book; it’s a gem.    


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Jane Eyre

By Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre

Why this book?

I’ve always had an affinity for the underdog. Maybe that’s why I’m a Bronte girl instead of an Austen girl. I’ve read Jane Eyre repeatedly since junior high. Though not an orphan, I deeply identified with Jane (who, once you read of the author’s life, often seems to be Charlotte herself, thinly disguised) and her oppressive existence -- first as a scorned charity case and then poor governess. I love that the novel -- published in the early 1800s whose mores are now considered outdated -- in its own time was considered shocking. Condemned as depraved, “unwomanly,” and “anti-Christian” because its protagonist sought love on her own terms, rather than those demanded by the times. And when she finally returns (spoiler alert) to her boss and would-be lover, the formerly rude, obnoxious Mr. Rochester, it’s not until he’s been humbled and made dependent on her. Another favorite thing – a nice turn at the end. 


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