It seems like beautiful love stories are always found at the end of rainbows, or at the top of the ferris wheels on first dates. But in my opinion, the love affairs that shine the brightest originate in hard times—like war, famine, or failed postapocalyptic social experiments. Fortunately, contemporary novels abound with bittersweet tales of romance found under the bleakest of circumstances, rewarding our full hearts with scenes of momentary happiness and the exhilaration of new love. Below, a few of my current favorites:
Lovers at the Chameleon Club Paris, 1932, by Francine Prose
Bohemian Paris in the 1930s was a haven for artists of all ilk. Painters, musicians, writers, and photographers flocked to the thriving, throbbing city for inspiration, and many of their paths converged at The Chameleon Club, a dazzling nightclub whose owner not only challenges gender roles on her main stage, but also harbors desperate runaways with desires that fall outside of traditional social norms. First on the eve of war, and then during German Occupation, love in Prose’s richly imagined Paris is always desperate, and never without ulterior motives, but while some of the liaisons are hopeless and tragic, one relationship alone is resilient and sustained.
The Snow Queen, by Michael Cunningham
In lovely, emotionally piercing prose, Cunningham’s latest novel encompasses the complex relationship between the Meek brothers, addressing, among many other intangibles, spirituality, drug addiction, and terminal illness. A backdrop for an ideal love affair it is not, but Cunningham deftly sets the stage for a moving meditation on the enduring power of love.
Edge of Eternity, by Ken Follett
Book three of the Century trilogy, Edge of Eternity is a masterly epic—no less engrossing than its two predecessors—and serves as a witness to the tumultuous latter third of the 20th century. From the Cold War to the fall of Communism, this intermittently dazzling and dark finale to Follett’s ambitious trilogy is filled with personal intrigues, collusion, and, of course, passionate entanglements.
Secrets of the Lighthouse, by Santa Montefiore
Ellen Trawton has successfully escaped her smothering aristocratic existence in London, desperately seeking peace and solace in her aunt’s cottage on the craggy coast of Ireland, just beyond a haunted lighthouse. A new romantic relationship presents itself, but the ghost in the lighthouse, of a young wife and mother unable to let go, stands in the way of Ellen’s happy ending. In thrillingly lyrical prose, Montefiore’s portrait of two struggling women demonstrates love’s ability to hold us back—and propel us forward.
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri
Two inseparable brothers—one feckless and one cautious—are torn apart by conflicting ideals, and by a country mired in a widely disparaged revolution. Spanning nearly 50 years and 2 continents, this intimate story tenderly examines the transcendent love between brothers and between lovers, as well as the fierce, ultimately redemptive bond between parents and children.
What are some of your favorite novels in which you’ve found love amid the ruins?