Valentine’s Day – 5 Books to get the heart beating faster

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?


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