So, put the kettle on, pull out a packet of chocolate digestives and put your feet up – today’s the third and final part of my selection of top ten romance novels! And as brilliant as part one and part two were, I have saved the best ’til last. But be warned – today’s selection is not for the faint-hearted. This is the romance heavyweight selection – but oh, what a selection! You’re in for an exhilirating ride.
- Return From the Stars, by Stanislaw Lem
I expext scifi fans will be horrified to find one of their all time classics appearing in a selection of romance novels, but I defy you to find a more romantic hero than Hal Bregg. Hal is an astronaut who returns from a ten year trip to the stars to find 100 years have passed on earth. The world is now a sort of drugged, lifeless utopia. Hal is the ultimate masculine hero: brave, strong, adventurous, chivalrous – a sort of superman – but there is no place for his type of heroism in the placid world in which he now finds himself. He falls in love with a woman on this new earth. When he learns his former colleagues are planning a trip to Sagittarius, he has a choice to make – remain with the woman he loves in this pleasant, dull utopia, or return to a life of dangerous adventure.
I make no apology for picking out the love story element in this novel, but the short synopsis here doesn’t do justice to a brilliant work. I urge you to try it for yourselves. If you’d like to see a more in-depth review first, try this unsual book review from someone equally obsessed with all things Lem. In the meantime, power to the geeks!
….and now for something completely different…
- Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens
I’m constantly changing my mind about which exactly is my favourite Dickens novel, but Nicholas Nickleby is pretty much always up there. A cast of hundreds of extraordinary characters, a plot that twists and turns, heart-melting good guys and melodramatic bad guys – all the elements of a magnificent romance. In fact, there’s more than one romance going on in the story: Nicholas and the beautiful Madeline Bray; his sister Kate and Frank Cheeryble; their friends Tim Linkinwater and Miss LaCreevy – don’t the names just say all you need to know? Kate Nickleby in particular makes a marvellous romantic heroine, and she’s pursued in nailbiting fashion by the unpleasant rake, Sir Mulberry Hawk. The character I love the most, though, of all, of all, and maybe the most of all Dickens characters ever, is Smike. If you don’t know the story, Smike is a poor simple-minded orphan who is devoted to Nicholas and suffers tragically from an unrequited love for Kate. I know it’s “only a story” (don’t you just hate it when people say that?) but without giving away too much, Smike’s simple character absolutely moves me to tears every single time.
If you’ve never tried Dickens, I can’t recommend this one enough. A cracking read.
And now I’ve saved the best ’til last…
- War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
Yes, I really mean it. War and Peace is my all-time favourite romance novel. In fact it’s my all-time favourite novel full-stop. People often express surprise that I’ve actually even read such a notoriously weighty tome, but in fact I’ve read it and re-read it, and in the words of my teenage nephew, I’m not even lying.
So what makes it so great? I’m only here to focus on the romance elements and am doing this masterpiece no justice, but here goes. The main female character is Natasha Rostov, who is 18 when the story starts. Anyone who tells you that male authors can’t portray women hasn’t read Tolstoy. She’s a flawed character who makes a tragic mistake and I’d defy anyone not to fall utterly in love with her. In fact there are two men in the novel who do fall in love with her – Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (absolutely my swoonworthy romantic hero of all time) and Count Pierre Bezuhov (also my romantic hero of all time, but this time in a more awkward and geeky way). So, three great characters already – and I haven’t mentioned any of the other brilliant characters in the novel or the intense drama and horror of the war action. The first time I read this book I had no idea what was going to happen to the characters and I’m not going to give anything away in case I spoil it for you. If you really can’t face reading close to 1,500 pages of this epic novel (although I implore you to), there is an excellent BBC series available on DVD. I don’t normally like seeing novels I love on the screen, but in this series a young Anthony Hopkins plays one of the finest roles of his entire career and his portrayal of Pierre Bezuhov is perfect. It’s brilliant.
So there we have it! The end of my top ten romance novels. Hope you’ve enjoyed reading, and please, please let me know if you have any favourite romance novels you can add to my list. Otherwise, I may be reduced to re-reading War and Peace – in which case, get out another pack of biscuits, pour me another cup of tea and switch off my phone – I’m reading!