When I was around 9, I received a Valentine’s Day card from a boy who was at the same local village school. I was mortified. Confused. Terrified. Why? Because, as he thrust his card in my hand, he nervously asked me to marry him. By his very asking, was I obliged to say yes?
I didn’t want to hurt him, but I didn’t want to marry him, especially on Valentine’s Day, and in that typical pre-teen angst, I didn’t want that kind of attention from that kind of boy. I wasn’t familiar with any Jane Austen back then, but I could easily have been prepping to be in one of her novels.
This is what Valentine’s Day has represented to me over the years:
– Pressure – how many cards, if any, will I receive?
– Unrequited love – the person I sent a card to was never the person who sent me a card
– Conformity – doing the same as everyone else
– Commercialisation – the idea that I am somehow coerced at best, forced at worst, to celebrate something just for the day, rather than in the moment, every moment
Now I’m married, with a couple of small children, Valentine’s Day is a non-event in our house. For my husband, the ‘being ripped off’ cost of a dinner far outweighs any romantic notion of spending quality time with his wife. Er, that’ll be me cooking dinner again then.
So I rather like the idea of escaping to a romantic place that won’t cost me a fortune, and in the time frame that suits me (dipping in between folding the washing or cooking the dinner).
These are the top 5 books that are on my Valentine’s Day reading, or re-reading list. They might not be the standard love and romantic books, but they are guaranteed to to make your heart beat faster:
- Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert. I was amazed to read that she found love in Bali when, 10 years earlier, I came across nothing but honeymooning couples and swarms of mosquitoes. But I was nursing a broken heart and can readily accept that I wasn’t in the right headspace, filtering everything through my reticular activating system – the bit of the brain that affects what you put your focus on.
- Shantaram – David Gregory Roberts. A tome of a novel, just short of 950 pages. How could I not be gripped by the opening sentence: “It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make.” Has everything that I love in a good novel: love, seedy shenanigans, betrayal, mystery, intrigue, whimsical and/or tautly drawn characters, beauty, light, darkness, India, spiritual gurus, underworld criminal gangs.
- Collected Stories – Paul Bowles. These stories might be called anti-romantic as they deal with loss, abandonment and vengeance. But Bowles mastery at evoking the settings draws you into a false sense of romantic security – and then bam! Exploded. The story of a man sold into the North African slave trade has been etched into my memory for decades.
- The Catastrophist – Ronan Bennett. Another doomed love story, this time set in Belgian Congo. Atmospheric, gripping and unlikely lovers whose love affair is falling apart as fast as the country is.
- Snowdrops – A.D. Miller. Classified as a moral thriller, it again deals with big themes – moral corruption and responsibility, deception and betrayal wrapped around a love story set in Moscow.
I realise that these aren’t your classic loves stories. And most of them raise issues about moral/political corruption and deception, not to mention doomed love in one way or another. So I’m going to throw in a jollier book as a bonus – Valentine’s Day is supposed to be celebratory and I did promise to make your heart beat faster.
I Wouldn’t Thank You for a Valentine: Poems for Young Feminists by Carol Ann Duffy. Actually could have included any of her work – Rapture, or The World’s Wife are particular favourites from the Poet Laureate.
Happy Valentine’s Day – I do hope you enjoy your dinner/roses/chocolates/smooching and general loved-upness. Do you think I should plan for something romantic next year?