Well, here we are. Valentine’s Day. Perhaps the oddest, most manufactured holiday we celebrate in the west. A holiday that even in my current happy relationship I do not love. One that gave me serious anxiety (and, I’d bet, others) in high school, awaiting the one or two dollar flowers I hoped to receive and secretly loathing the girls whose college boyfriends sent bouquets of flowers (real ones) to the front office. It’s a weird holiday.
At the very least, Valentine’s Day serves as a great time to for some literary love discussion, perhaps the most ubiquitous yet hardest thing to write. More specifically, I’m talking about love scenes. Equally as difficult but employed just as often, heartache. Let’s be honest, in literature, when it’s on, it’s on, but oh my is it painful to read poorly written sex. (I can pull out about thirty of my mother’s 90’s romance novels to prove my point.) To help me demonstrate my point, I’ve compiled a list of my top ten favorite love scenes and heartbreak done right (from my own collection). I’m sticking to contemporary literature here (no Mr. Rochester this time around) with the exception one very, very important book. Oh wait, no, two. You’ll see. You can probably guess.
Without further ado…The (Un)Official Top Five Lists of Best Scenes of Literary Love and Heartbreak (From My Own Collection)
Puig’s story follows two men sharing a cell in an Argentine prison. The story itself is powerful, and is told almost entirely through dialogue. This is the first time the characters make love, and Puig brilliantly manages to tell us more in the silences than in the dialogue:
–Valentin…Can I touch you too?
–I want to touch the mole there… right above your eyebrow.
–And this way, can I touch you this way?
–And this way?
–It doesn’t disgust you to have me caress you?
–You’re kind to me…
–Really, you are…
–No, you’re the one who’s kind.
–Valentin… If you like, you can do whatever you want with me… because I want you to.
–If I don’t disgust you.
–Don’t talk like that. It’s better if it’s quiet.
–I’m squeezed up against the wall a little.
–I can’t see at all, not at all…it’s so dark.
–No, that way it hurts a lot.
–Wait… no, it’s better like this, let me lift my legs.
–A little slower…please…
–Thank you… thank you…
Egan perfectly weaves her tightly bound prose into the emotions of the character Stephanie, who finds an innocuous golden bobby pin and understands instantly that her husband has been cheating on her. What I love about this scene is Egan’s ability to maintain a calm, even tone throughout the discovery. This is the tone of a woman already exhausted by the prospect of her husband’s infidelity, already ready to move on from it.
Stephanie paused, holding the pin. There were a thousand reasons it could be here – a party they’d had, friends who might have come up to use the bathroom, the cleaning woman – but Stephanie knew whose it was as if she had already known, as if she weren’t discovering the fact but remembering it. She sank onto the bed in her skirt and bra, hot and shivery, blinking from shock. Of course. It took no imagination at all to see how everything had converged: pain; revenge; power; desire. He’d slept with Kathy. Of course.
Love: Jonathan Franzen, Corrections
Robin’s voice on the executive chef’s line came to signify tongue. She didn’t say more than a word or two before Denise tuned out. Robins’ tongue and lips continued to form the instructions demanded by the day’s exigencies, but in Denise’s ear they were already speaking that other language of up and down and round and round that her body intuitively understood and autonomously obeyed; sometimes she melted so hard at the sound of this voice that her abdomen caved in and she doubled over; for the next hour-plus there was nothing in the world but tongue, no inventory or buttered pheasants or unpaid purveyors; she left the Generator in a buzzing hypnotized state of poor reflexes, the volume of the world’s noise lowered to near zero, other drivers luckily obeying basic traffic laws. Her car was like a tongue gliding down the melty asphalt streets, her feet like twin tongues licking pavement, the front door of the house on Panama Street like a mouth that swallowed her, the Persian runner in the hall outside the master bedroom like a tongue beckoning, the bed in its cloak of comforter and pillows a big oft tongue begging to be depressed, and then.
Heartache: Junot Diaz, This is How You Lose Her
In a box on the top shelf of the closet he has a stack of Virta’s letter, cinched in a fat brown rubber band. Nearly eight years’ worth. Each envelope is worn and frail and I think he’s forgotten they’re here. I found them a month after he stored his things, right at the start of our relationship, couldn’t resist, and afterward I wished I had.
He claims that he stopped writing to her the year before, but that’s not true. Every month I drop by his apartment with his laundry and read the new letters she has sent, the ones he stashes under his bed. I know Virta’s name, her address, I know she works at a chocolate factory; I know that he hasn’t told her about me.
The letters have grown beautiful over the years and now the handwriting has changed as well—each letter loops down, drooping into the next line like a rudder. Please, please, mi querido husband, tell me what it is. How long did it take before your wife stopped mattering?
After reading her letters I always feel better. I don’t think this says good things about me.
Love: Stuart Dybek, We Didn’t
The short story is filled with lush language that can make one break out in a sweat; it’s poetic, it’s erotic, it’s playful. His lyrical prose leaves us with one very clear sensation: yearning.
We didn’t in the light; we didn’t in the darkness. We didn’t in the fresh-cut summer grass or in the mounds of autumn leaves or on the snow where moonlight threw down our shadows. We didn’t in your room on the canopy bed you slept in, the bed you’d slept in as a child, or in the backseat of my father’s rusted Rambler, which smelled of the smoked chubs and kielbasa he delivered on weekends from my uncle Vincent’s meat market. We didn’t in your mother’s Buick Eight, where a rosary twined the rearview mirror like a beaded, black snake with silver, cruciform fangs.
At the dead end of our lovers’ lane—a side street of abandoned factories—where I perfected the pinch that springs open a bra; behind the lilac bushes in Marquette Park, where you first touched me through my jeans and your nipples, swollen against transparent cotton, seemed the shade of lilacs; in the balcony of the now defunct Clark Theater, where I wiped popcorn salt from my palms and slid them up your thighs and you whispered, “I feel like Doris Day is watching us,” we didn’t.
Heartache: Paul Murray, Skippy Dies
Murray’s language here is what does it for me: cuts to the core of how it feels to really have one’s heart broken: the million questions swirling, the desperate need for it all to be undone. In a relatively zany book, this passage always stands out as one of the most truthful moments.
And a part of her is thinking of feminism! A part of her is thinking of all the women who fought for their rights, and feeling ashamed for letting them down, because as the story of his infidelity unspools, she feels only an agonizing crumbling, a horrible literal disintegration, as though she’s turned into slush and cascaded all over the floor; he tells her how he doesn’t know how he feels, he doesn’t know what he wants—and all she wants is for him to mop her up and gather her together as she was; she wants to plead and beg and cry so that he’ll unsay what he’s just said, hold her in his arms, tell her that nothing has changed, that everything is all right. But of course that is not what happens.
Love: Michael Ondaatje, Coming through Slaughter
You didn’t know me for instance when I was with the Brewitts, without Nora. Three of us played cards all evening and then Jaelin would stay downstairs and Robin and I would go to bed, me with his wife. He would be alone and silent downstairs. Then eventually he would sit down and press into the teeth of the piano. His practice reached us upstairs, each note a finger on our flesh. The unheard tap of his calloused fingers and the muscle reaching into the machine and plucking the note, the sound traveling up the stairs and through the door, touching her on the shoulder. The music was his dance in the auditorium of enemies. But I loved him downstairs as much as she loved the man downstairs. God, to sit down and play, to tip it over into music! To remove the anger and stuff it down the piano fresh every night. He would wait for half an hour as dogs wait for masters to go to sleep before they move into the garbage of the kitchen. The music was so uncertain it was heartbreaking and beautiful. Coming through the walls. The lost anger at her or me or himself. Bullets of music delivered onto the bed we were on.
Everybody’s love in the air.
Heartache: Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Such waves began for me on the morning of December 31, 2003, seven or eight hours after the fact, when I woke alone in the apartment. I do not remember crying the night before; I had entered at the moment it happened a kind of shock in which the only thought I allowed myself was that there must be certain things I needed to do. There had been certain things I had needed to do while the ambulance crew was in the living room. I had needed for example to bank the fire, because I would be leaving it. There had been certain things I had needed to do at the hospital. I had needed for example to focus on the bed with telemetry he would need for the transfer to Columbia-Presbyterian.
And, *drum roll please*… the (unofficial) number one literary love and heartbreak go to…
Love: Leo Tolstoy, Anna Kerenina
That which for nearly a year had been the one absorbing desire of Vronsky’s life, supplanting all his former desires; that which for Anna had been an impossible, terrible, but all the more bewitching dream of bliss, had come to pass. Pale, with trembling lower jaw, he stood before her and besought her to be calm, himself not knowing how or why.
“Anna! Anna!” he said in a choking voice. “Anna, for pity’s sake!”
But the louder he spoke the lower she drooped her once proud, gay, but now shame-stricken head, and she crouched down and sank from the sofa where she was sitting to the floor at his feet. She would have fallen on the carpet if he had not held her.
“Oh god, forgive me!” she said, sobbing and pressing his hands to her breast.
She felt so sinful, so guilty, that nothing was left to her but to humble herself and beg forgiveness; but she had no one in the world now but him, and so to him she even addressed her prayer for forgiveness. Looking at him, she had a physical sense of her degradation and could not utter another word.
Heartache: Zelda Fitzgerald, Letter to Scott
Zelda wrote these letters while held in an asylum in the 1930s. The torturous, bouncey-ball-like love between she and Scott borders on hate, but still seems to be an unbreakable thread tying them together. Of note, the subsequent letter, sent only weeks after this one, begins with the line: “Goofy, my darling, hasn’t it been a lovely day?”
I have just written to Newman to come here to me. You say that you have been thinking of the past. The weeks since I haven’t slept more than three or four hours, swathed in bandages sick and unable to read so have I.
The strangeness and excitement of New York, of reporters and furry smothered hotel lobbies, the brightness of the sun on the window panes and the prickly dust of late spring: the impressiveness of the Fowlers and much tea-dancing and my eccentric behavior at Princeton. […] We lived in the rue Vaugirard. You were constantly drunk. You didn’t work and were dragged home at night by taxi drivers when you came home at all. You said it was my fault for dancing all day. What was I to do? You got up for lunch. You made no advances toward me and complained that I was unresponsive. You were literally eternally drunk the whole summer. […]
I have just begun to realize that sex and sentiment have little to do with each other. When I came to you twice last winter and asked you to start over it was because I thought I was becoming seriously involved sentimentally and preparing situations for which I was morally and practicly unfitted. […] You didn’t care: so I went on and on—dancing alone, and, no matter what happens, I still now in my heart that it is a Godless, dirty game; that love is bitter and all there is, and that the rest is for the emotional beggars of the earth and is about the equivalent of people who stimulate themselves with dirty post-cards—
There are so many more fabulously written stories and scenes to include, but this collection shows some of the finest love writing (in my humble opinion.) Hope it was inspiring enough for your own writing. All we need is love, right?