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What Are the Greatest Love Stories of All Time?

9 librarians, booksellers and authors dish on their picks for the most romantic novels ever published


spinner image Lord of Scoundrels, Matrix and The Notebook book covers on a background of red roses
Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: HarperCollins US; Riverhead Books; Grand Central Publishing; Getty Images)

Romeo and Juliet. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Bella and Edward. From highbrow novels to pulpy paperbacks, literary history is filled with swoon-worthy couples. As we approach Valentine’s Day, we asked folks who are intimately connected to the world of books — from librarians and novelists to bookshop owners and podcast hosts — to pick their favorite works of romantic fiction. Please offer your own love story suggestions in the chat below.

When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

spinner image When We Were Birds book cover
Anchor

Recommended by Danni Mullen, bookseller

Danni Mullen, founder and lead bookseller at Chicago’s nonprofit Semicolon Bookstore & Gallery, says her team “absolutely loves” this 2022 Trinidad-set romance. Suffused with the island’s rich traditions and rituals, the mythical tale follows two outsiders who are thrust together because of their connection to the dead: Yejide grew up in a family in which one member of each generation is responsible for helping souls pass into the afterlife; Darwin was raised Rastafarian, which comes with a commandment to not interact with the dead. When he takes a job as a gravedigger in a moment of desperation, he meets Yejide inside the city’s oldest cemetery, and their lives change forever.

“I call it an unromantic romance, because it fully builds the reader’s relationship with each character separately before it even allows the two to cross paths,” Mullen says. “The writing is beautiful and poignant, and once the characters meet, the fireworks are most assuredly felt — truly swoon-worthy!”

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Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

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Little Brown & Co.

Recommended by Andrew Limbong, podcast host

“There’s so much more to romance than a couple in love, right?” says Limbong, the host of NPR’s Book of the Day podcast. His pick is Yates’ 1961 debut novel, which was adapted into a 2008 film starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Though they live a seemingly perfect existence in suburban 1950s Connecticut, Frank and April Wheeler begin to feel the pressure of conformity and the American dream.

“There’s the reawakening romance between the main couple, April and Frank, sure,” Limbong says. “But the two get caught up in the romance of the dream — of leaving suburbia, of living a better life elsewhere, of being happy. And on some level, all true romances involve a smidge of self-delusion to think that it’s all going to work out. Now, I won’t spoil the ending, but … ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’ ” he says, quoting Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

spinner image The Notebook book cover
Grand Central Publishing

Recommended by Annabel Monaghan, novelist

“The key to a good love story is creating two characters who are clearly meant to be together and then making the reader feel their emotions as if they are their own,” says novelist Annabel Monaghan, whose sixth book, Summer Romance, will be released in June. “No one does this like Nicholas Sparks did in creating Allie and Noah in The Notebook.”

Sparks’ debut novel is set in post-World War II North Carolina, where Allie’s higher social status keeps her from being with Noah, the rural boy who stole her heart. Years after their first encounter, she reunites with Noah, who’s back in town after fighting in the war to restore an old house. But now she’s engaged to a hardworking lawyer named Lon. As her old flame with Noah is rekindled, she’s faced with a tough decision. Framing the book is a story set decades in the future, when an old man reads from a well-worn notebook to a woman in a nursing home — but who are they? 

“Their love affair feels epic from the beginning,” Monaghan says, “and the crisp, spare writing leaves me breathless every time I reread it.” She’s not alone: The book spawned a beloved 2004 film, starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, and a musical adaptation opens on Broadway in March.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

spinner image Persuasion book cover
Penguin

Recommended by: Anne Rouyer, librarian

Anne Rouyer, a supervising librarian for young adults at the New York Public Library, is smitten with Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which she calls “Austen at her most hopeful and romantic.” The book follows Anne Elliot, a 27-year-old unmarried woman who had been persuaded to reject the proposal of the charming but penniless naval officer Frederick Wentworth. When he returns years later after gaining wealth and success, Anne realizes she may have made a terrible mistake and, as Rouyer explains it, “fights not just for another shot with Wentworth but for her own self-worth, agency and happiness.”

This story of redemption and forgiveness holds a special place for Rouyer, who says, “I discovered a love of Jane Austen later in life and have always found this second chance at love much more affecting and realistic than her more infamous works. Anne spends a good portion of the book thinking she is unworthy not just of love but of her own life, and seeing her grow as a person and fall back in love brings hope to even the most cynical of hearts. There’s a second act for all of us if we just open our hearts to it and trust ourselves.” (If you need more reading suggestions, Rouyer is on the NYPL’s Best Books committee, which compiles an annual list of the best new romance novels.) 

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The Poldark series by Winston Graham

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Sourcebooks Landmark

Recommended by Robin Oliveira, novelist

If you’re the kind of person who speeds through books and is always left wanting more, dive into the 12-book Poldark series, which follows a British army officer who returns to Cornwall after fighting in the American Revolutionary War.

“These novels are a continuing saga about an impoverished mine owner in the late 18th century who marries his scullery maid to overcome a broken heart when his cousin marries the woman he believes is the love of his life,” says New York Times best-selling novelist Oliveira, whose new book, A Wild and Heavenly Place, hits shelves the day before Valentine’s Day. “What follows is a decades-long exploration through 12 engrossing novels of a marriage in all its glory and discovery, as well as its betrayals and hurdles. The characters are so finely drawn, the issues so contemporary, that it could be the story of any marriage anywhere, anytime."

When you’re finished tearing through the novels — which were published over many years, from 1945 to 2002 — you can dig into the five-season BBC/PBS Masterpiece adaptation.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

spinner image The Night Circus book cover
Anchor Books

Recommended by Leah Koch, bookseller

Leah Koch should know a thing or two about love stories: She and her sister Bea own the Ripped Bodice, a shop dedicated exclusively to romance novels, with locations in Los Angeles and Brooklyn. Leah says picking a favorite is “an almost impossible question for a person who owns a romance bookstore,” but she settled on this 2011 fantasy novel, set in Victorian London in a traveling circus, Le Cirque des Rêves, that’s only open from sunset to sunrise. Young magicians Celia and Marco have been trained in the art of illusion since childhood, and as they grow up, they learn that they’re magically bound to a deadly competition: Only one of them can survive.

“I love the way it spans decades, allowing readers to witness the characters’ growth and the deepening of their connection,” Koch says. “The big and small ways in which the characters communicate their feelings for each other (which often involve awesome magic) create an atmosphere suffused with longing and profound intimacy, leaving an indelible impression of timeless romance.”

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Matrix by Lauren Groff

Recommended by J. Vanessa Lyon, novelist

spinner image Matrix book cover
Riverhead Books

Art historian J. Vanessa Lyon began writing fiction at the start of the pandemic, partially because of a lack of the kinds of romantic stories she wanted to read. “I don’t actually have a ‘most romantic of all time’ answer here, since lesbian literary romance and especially queer love stories by and about people of color are still relatively uncommon in publishing,” explains the author of last year’s Lush Lives. “That said, I’m very fond of a sweet and perceptive tale of a young couple’s meeting called ‘Anne of Cleves’ in Brandon Taylor’s evocative book of short stories, Filthy Animals.”

Lyon also enjoyed Lauren Groff’s 2021 historical novel Matrix, which, she says, “while not a romance, or solely a romance, is full of longing and desire between its endearing French and English female characters.” A finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction and one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of the year, Matrix follows the 17-year-old Marie de France (a real medieval French poet), who is thrown out of the royal court of Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1158 and sent to England to be the prioress at a failing abbey. “Given the medieval abbey setting, Groff's richly sensorial story also has what counts to me as a happy enough ending to recommend it!”

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Recommended by Kristan Higgins, novelist

spinner image Wuthering Heights book cover
Penguin

“I’ll have to go with Wuthering Heights,” says Higgins, a big name in the world of romantic fiction whose next book, Look on the Bright Side, comes out on May 28. Bronte’s 19th century classic is a passionate love story between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff set on the windswept Yorkshire moors. It’s been adapted for film numerous times, including the 1939 version starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. “We see the power of love between soul mates, both redemptive and destructive,” Higgins notes. “Has anyone in fiction ever loved as deeply as Cathy and Heathcliff? I first read it when I was 12, and all these years later, it still squeezes my heart.”

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase

Recommended by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, romance novelist

spinner image Lord of Scoundrels book cover
HarperCollins

“I love anything where either the hero or heroine isn’t dead at the end!” says Phillips, known for her romantic comedies, whose next book, Simply the Best (from her Chicago Stars series), comes out Feb. 13. “Lord of Scoundrels is one of the very best historical romances of the 1990s, with a headstrong, bluestocking heroine and a very dangerous hero. (The heartbreaking prologue reveals why he’s so bad-tempered.)” Book three in Chase’s Scoundrels series, it features Sebastian Ballister, the marquess of Dain, a bad boy who wins the heart of the intelligent young Jessica Trent. “The book has tons of witty dialogue, great sexual tension and a perfect resolution,” Phillips notes. 

Phillips points to another favorite love story: Devil’s Club by Georgette Heyer, a classic set during the Georgian period. Heyer “invented the Regency romance,” she says, “and this is one of her best novels — a romp with a blackguard of a hero (of course) and straitlaced, pragmatic heroine (naturally). Heyer’s dialogue is masterful, and the tension between the lead characters is strong enough that readers will forget that the bedroom door stays closed, as it does in all of Heyer’s novels.

“Stop me!” Phillips urges. “I have a hundred others!”

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