Alternative Love Stories for Valentine’s Day

12th Feb 2014

Tired of heart-shaped boxes of sickening chocolate, oversized novelty cards, and couples holding hands over candlelit dinners? Fancy something more unusual (more realistic) this Valentine’s Day? Check out these tales of alternative romance from a wealth of women authors.

Unhappy Endings

In her short story collection Wish I Was Here, Jackie Kay perfectly captures the often disappointing reality of relationships and the melancholy of the everyday.

These stories are a refreshing and rare antidote to the familiar melodramatic romantic epics concluding neatly with an optimistically simple happily-ever-after.

Kay ignores love’s usual maudlin protagonists and gives voice to its maligned characters, whether it’s a couple accepting the fizzling out of their relationship, a woman coping with the small, sad practicalities of living alone for the first time after breaking up with her long-term girlfriend, or a perennial singleton clinging to the outskirts of her best friend’s new relationship.

Wish I Was Here takes a touching look at some often forgotten but achingly familiar experiences of love.

The Almost Romance

Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss centres on Bertha’s growing attraction to one of her dinner party guests; Pearl. Numerous components contribute to the ‘bliss’ of the title: a well-arranged bowl of fruit, Bertha’s young daughter, cushions on chairs and sofas, the pear tree in the garden that captures Bertha’s attention.

Through snapshots and snippets over the course of the dinner party, readers are invited to share in Bertha’s growing assurance of her and Pearl’s mutual attraction, so it comes out of the blue that in fact Pearl is having an affair with Bertha’s husband. All readers, and Bertha, are left with is an image of the pear tree in the garden, and the memory of what could have been.

All too often, prominent books and films about love insist on hammering home the message that finding a man is the only acceptable narrative conclusion for womenIn Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first novel, this coming-of-age tale also progresses contrary to expectations. The usual trajectory for girls becoming women centres on the introduction of the male love interest: a Prince Charming, ready to whisk our heroine away from danger and live out their lives in a nice cottage by the sea.

Thankfully, that doesn’t happen here; though Kambili and Father Amadi exhibit aspects of the traditional love story (furtive glances, tremors, touching of hands), it’s cousin Amaka who makes more of an impression. Worldly, politically engaged, and already in full possession of her own voice, Amaka’s influence over Kambili shows that you don’t need romantic love in order to grow.

Opting Out

All too often, prominent books and films about love insist on hammering home the message that finding a man is the only acceptable narrative conclusion for women: that no amount of personal growth and achievement is worthwhile if you don’t snag Mr Right to boot.

Margaret Atwood riffs on this theme in her first novel, The Edible Woman. Her protagonist Marian prides herself on her absolute conventionality as a woman, and has even managed to land a plastically perfect and reassuringly macho fiancé.

Then Marian begins to feel deeply uncomfortable with this picture-perfect ‘normality’ and a second love-interest appears, in the complicated and quirky Duncan.

Readers might expect this book to turn into a Beauty-and-the-Beast type narrative, drumming out the tired and rather one-sided message that women need to look beneath the surface of their suitors.

Instead, Marian realises that she will be better off by herself, emphasising the message that independence can be the most satisfying conclusion.

The Realistically Happy

One of Ali Smith’s greatest strengths is her rich portrayal of gay relationships. Often in literature featuring a queer character, readers experience the realisation, the denial, the fear, and finally the acceptance that this character isn’t heterosexual.

It’s refreshing (and unfortunately a little rare) to witness characters who, from the offset, are happy with their identities. In Girl Meets Boy, Anthea and particularly Robin are strikingly comfortable with who they are and forming a relationship.

Happy Being Herself

Relationships often end up defining women in literature, but often the women who have entirely steered clear of all this are looked on as failures (you’d be hard pressed to find many women who would relish titles like ‘spinster’). They frequently end up in the dusty corners of novels as governesses, surrogates and busybodies, always on the fringes of the main stories.

But it’s important that we also celebrate literature’s unromantic women, like, for instance, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple: she’s sharp, active, witty and confident, able to stay totally in control of tricky situations and three steps ahead of everyone around her. And she happens to have no romantic attachments whatsoever.

Disney would have you thinking that the quest for happiness culminates in a search for Mr Right and living happily ever after. But what about the intricacies of love and romance? The heartache, the lust, the contentment, the stagnation, the passion – the reality? To undervalue the realism of love is to reduce it to some melodramatic and tawdry sentiment in a couple of lines of a shop-bought card.

So whether you’re single, part of a couple, or happy being neither, celebrate women writers this Valentine’s Day.

Written by Aimee and Melissa, whose first date ended standing over a bin, eating takeaway burgers.

What do you think? What alternative love stories are missing off our list, and can a romantic date ever really beat a good book?