The best books on the messiness of life and love

Roisin Meaney Author Of Life Before Us
By Roisin Meaney

Who am I?

I’m Irish, writing since 2001. I’m fascinated by the impulses that propel us towards or away from another person, the ways we are hurt or charmed or offended or beguiled by another, and how we react to all of the above. I’m not married or in a relationship myself; somewhere along the way I realised that I’m happier alone, and I think it puts me in a good position to observe the behaviours of friends and family, and sometimes strangers (yes, I’m that person sitting nearby on the train or at the airport or in the cafe, tapping furiously into her laptop as you converse with your partner).

I wrote...

Life Before Us

By Roisin Meaney,

Book cover of Life Before Us

What is my book about?

George and Alice are destined to meet – or are they? Their lives run on different tracks, but now and again there’s a wiggle, a near-miss, an almost-encounter. They might just be one another’s perfect mate – if only they could find themselves in the same place at the same time. A will-they, won’t-they exploration of how fate, serendipity, destiny, call it what you want, plays a part in finding The One. 

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).


By Vladimir Nabokov,

Book cover of Lolita

Why this book?

It was on my reading list in college, many moons ago. The first sentence blew me away – and all the ones that followed did the same. It’s a feast of a book, an incredible read that doesn’t shy away from anything. The narrator is an anti-hero, a monster led by his physical desires, but I couldn’t hate him because I was too busy pitying him and his huge, helpless, twisted love for Lolita, his gum-popping streetwise nymphet of a stepdaughter who evokes memories of his first lost love as a young teenage boy. The road trip they undertake, just the two of them, is marvellous. Every scene is a gem. Nabokov’s writing, in a language that wasn’t his first, is sublime. 


By Ian McEwan,

Book cover of Atonement

Why this book?

This book, set initially in England just before WWII, is rich with big themes – a love that crosses class boundaries, war, jealousy, guilt. Because of a wrongful accusation, a housekeeper’s son is imprisoned and eventually finds himself going to war. His accuser, the younger sister of his lover, attempts over the years that follow to make atonement. It’s a sad and beautifully told tale of lost love and years of regret, and what might have been if one hasty act had gone undone. The twist at the end is amazing. This story stayed with me for a long time after I closed the book. Unusually, the film is a fine adaptation. 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

By Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows,

Book cover of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Why this book?

This book overflows with charm, while also managing to balance a very dark theme – the hardship of occupied Guernsey during WWII – with a beautiful love story. The tale begins in the immediate aftermath of the war when London-based writer Juliet Ashton responds to a letter from Dawsey Adams of Guernsey, a total stranger, who has come across her name written in a second-hand book, and has some questions. She enters into a correspondence with him, and in time with all the members of the extraordinary Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The narrative dips into the past to show the horrors of occupation and the resilience of the islanders. The book led to my travelling to Guernsey to see it for myself, so taken was I with the depiction of life there – and it’s well worth a visit, a beautiful island rich in history. 

A Slipping-Down Life

By Anne Tyler,

Book cover of A Slipping-Down Life

Why this book?

This book has one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever come across in fiction. Evie Decker is an introverted and slightly eccentric teen living in small-town America whose ordinary life takes a completely different turn when she hears a young musician, Drumsticks Casey, being interviewed on the radio. Anne Tyler can be depended on to create fascinatingly quirky characters – I’ve long been a big fan of her writing – but I think she outdid herself with Evie. The story is unexpected and moving and funny and sad – really, it provides all the feels. The evolving relationship between Evie and Casey, with its ups and downs and twists, is perfectly told, and the dialogue sparkles with authenticity. 

The One-In-A-Million Boy

By Monica Wood,

Book cover of The One-In-A-Million Boy

Why this book?

I’m recommending this because it will break your heart, and everyone needs that experience now and again with a book. It tells the story of a unique and unlikely love that blossoms slowly between a 104-year-old woman (whom you will learn to adore) and a young boy scout who calls to her house to fulfill one of his tasks. There’s a tragic twist early on that introduces us to the boy’s parents, and there are some lovely subsequent turns in this most magical tale. It’s the first Monica Wood book that I read, but I must hunt her down and read more. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in a middle age man, rock music, and immigrants?

5,809 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about a middle age man, rock music, and immigrants.

A Middle Age Man Explore 9 books about a middle age man
Rock Music Explore 129 books about rock music
Immigrants Explore 83 books about immigrants

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Anxious People, The Leopard, and Rebecca if you like this list.