Books for Valentine’s Day

“Lezende jongen,” by Frans Hals

Molly Young is on leave for the next several months. In her absence, colleagues from the Book Review will pick up the recommendation torch and appear in your inbox every two Saturdays.

Dear readers,

As a child, I always liked Valentine’s Day. My mom would leave a valentine by our cereal bowls, and sometimes a little heart candy, too. I would spend weeks making cards for everyone in my class, being sure not to leave anyone out and trying to tailor each to the recipient’s tastes. In fourth grade, though, several hours after leaving an offering on each desk, I happened to glance in the brown plastic wastebasket near the spider plant and what should I see? One of my handcrafted valentines, crumpled and rejected. I didn’t particularly care what this person thought — he had recently taken to asking teachers to address him as “the Diceman,” and in fact his card had been one of the shoddiest: an image of a gentleman lolling in a hammock, clipped from Victoria magazine and glued onto a doily. But it was the first taste of the defiant shame of adolescence, and it was bitter.

Books are a safer bet. There are, of course, romantic books — Nikki Giovanni’s “Love Poems,” “Love in the Time of Cholera,” “Under the Udala Trees” — and personal choices, and in-jokes, and might-be jokes. But for my money, you can’t go wrong with a genre that might be called “The Unconventional Relationship.” And not just for perversity’s sake; aren’t all human relationships, ultimately, some mix of connection, power and effort?

Never look in the wastebasket and Happy Valentine’s Day.

Sadie Stein

“Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages,”by Carmela Ciuraru

Nonfiction, 2023

This year, Carmela Ciuraru brings us a new entry to the unconventional relationship genre, one as delicious and infuriating and potentially disillusioning as it sounds — i.e., everything Valentine’s Day should be. (She obviously owes a debt to Phyllis Rose’s 1984 classic “Parallel Lives” and Francine Prose’s 2002 “Lives of the Muses,” both impeccably troubling gifts. And if Nigel Nicolson’s “Portrait of a Marriage” made a teenage me suspect that I would never master the emotional jujitsu necessary to live a Bloomsbury-like existence, Katie Roiphe’s “Uncommon Arrangements” convinced me of it.) Ciuraru’s players: Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal; Kenneth Tynan and Elaine Dundy; Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis; Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia; Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge. She doesn’t explicitly call these marriages “difficult” — that’s what the “literary” part is for, with its bass notes of egotism and melodrama and even “Lives of the Saints.” It should not come as a spoiler to say that this book is a buffet of dysfunction; the real question is who you will hate most by the end. (I ended in a tie; eager to compare notes.) It is also, as blurbs like to say, “unputdownable.”

Read if you like: Literary gossip, group biographies, dry martinis, perfect martinis, vodka martinis, vespers, hating people.
Do not read if you like: Any of the subjects.
Available from: Wherever fine books are sold.

“Fair Play,”by Tove Jansson

Fiction, 1989

If all this angst is simply too much to take on, try perhaps my favorite portrait of a contented artistic couple: Tove Jansson’s deft, unsentimental and starkly lovely series of lightly fictionalized domestic sketches. (If you’re a Moomintroll lover, you may recognize her partner, Tuulikki Pietilä, artist and graphic designer, as the inspiration for the omnicompetent Too-ticky.) In life and fiction, the pair shared adjacent — but separate — studios in Helsinki, and a summer house on a tiny, remote island. Which is to say, the dream. This is a book I love so fiercely, and believe in so completely, that I buy three at a time so I can more easily give it away while always having a copy to hand. Her advice? “It is simply this: Do not tire, never lose interest, never grow indifferent — lose your invaluable curiosity and you let yourself die. It’s as simple as that.”

Read if you like: “The Summer Book,” of course; “Wild Strawberries”; remote islands; Jan Johansson’s seminal “Folkvisor.”
Available from: New York Review Classics

Why don’t you …

  • Never look at that striped shirt the same way again? “The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes,” by Michel Pastoureau, uncovers a surprisingly, well, checkered history of something we take for granted and makes us look again — never a bad thing. (Too-ticky wears a striped top and a pom-pom hat.)

  • Immerse yourself in sibling rivalry? You don’t tend to read much about the artists who committed the cardinal Bloomsbury sin of discretion, do you? Priya Parmar’s 2014 novel Vanessa and Her Sisterbrings the circles and squares of the Stephen sisters’ interconnected lives alive as nothing has since Angelica Garnett and her husband (also her mother’s lover’s former boyfriend)’s recipe for chocolate pots in “The Bloomsbury Cookbook.”

  • Just call it a day and go with Scotty Bowers’s Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars,” a book whose cheerful luridness is matched only by its cast of thousands. The word “essential” is thrown around a lot, but this is the rare title that I think everyone who ever wants to watch “Mutiny on the Bounty” again probably needs.

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