Enduring Novels of Unrequited Love

By Carole Reedy

“The final test of a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, of anything else that we cannot define.” E M Forster in Aspects of the Novel

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche felt that the state of unrequited love was preferable to that of no love at all, saying “indispensable … to the lover is his unrequited love, which he would at no price relinquish for a state of indifference.”

However debatable that idea, we’ve all experienced unrequited love at one time or another, and the feelings it evokes have provided novelists fodder over the centuries, starting with Dante and Beatrice in The Divine Comedy.

Here are a few literary gems that center on unrequited love. All remain as fresh as the day they were written.

Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham (1915)
Listed first among these noted authors is Maugham’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece about the disabled Philip Carey, who falls in love with a waitress who subsequently treats him cruelly. The story follows Philip from the struggle with his disability as a teenager in an English vicarage to his studies in Heidelberg, a short stint as an artist in Paris, and then back to England where he meets Mildred, the beginning of the pain of unrequited love.

Maugham actually had more success writing for the theater, although today he is best known for his novels. Of Human Bondage was written when he was 23 and finishing medical school. When he was refused an advance on the manuscript, he put the book aside and concentrated on his successful career writing for the theater. Maugham himself didn’t think he had the technical ability to be a good writer, but he tells a good story, which is the key element of any good book. Of Human Bondage was finally published in 1915 and to this day remains one of the most popular and best-selling novels by an English author.

The Course of Love: A Novel, by Alain de Botton (2016)
This is de Botton’s second novel, following his first success, How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel (1997). As a philosopher, writer, editor, and journalist, he has been compared to Julian Barnes, Woody Allen, and Donald Barthelme, all both smart and ironic. De Botton is also a founding member of The School of Life in London and a new institution, Living Architecture.

This novel, which received rave reviews, follows the life of a married couple from first passion through the predictable challenging years that come. It is a truly Romantic novel, exploring the longevity of love over a lifetime.

According to The New York Times, “The Course of Love is a return to the form that made Mr. de Botton’s name in the mid-1990s … Love is the subject best suited to his obsessive aphorizing, and in this novel he again shows off his ability to pin our hopes, methods, and insecurities to the page.”

Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante, published in 2005
For me, this novel evoked an intensity of emotion more pronounced even than Ferrante’s famed quartet, The Neapolitan Novels. The pain and subsequent actions of the “abandoned” protagonist are impeccably portrayed. Shocking but understandable. Is she unreasonable or incredibly sane? You decide.

Ferrante remains voluntarily sequestered from publicity in the noble attempt to attract readers based on the quality of the writing rather than publicist hype. I hope her identity remains a secret, as it adds another layer of enchantment to her books.

Another of her noted books, The Lost Daughter (2008), has been made into a movie directed by and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal; it is available on Netflix.

Heartburn, by Nora Ephron (1983)
The always-entertaining Nora Ephron brought us hours of poignant laughter during her career as a writer and observer of our times. In Heartburn, a novel based on her tumultuous marriage to and break-up with political journalist Carl Bernstein, she expertly blends a range of emotions expressing her state of being with a variety of recipes.

Adam Gopnik speculated in The New Yorker on her decision to include recipes: “In Heartburn, the recipes serve both as a joke about what a food writer writing a novel would write and as a joke on novel-writing itself by someone who anticipates that she will not be treated as a ‘real’ novelist.”

Ephron has a talent for converting the apparently tragic to the absurdly comic.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver (1981)
Not a novel, but the short stories in this collection are among the classics in modern literature. The title of the collection is also the title of one of the stories. You may recognize this title from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2014 film Birdman, in which the central character is an old Hollywood actor who is mounting a Broadway play named for and based on Carver’s story.
Carver is consistently praised by critics for his succinctness and veracity and for his ability to relate a broad range of emotion in few words. These stories about love pass the test of time.

Persuasion, by Jane Austen (1818, published posthumously)
A somewhat different twist on unrequited love in this, the last of Jane Austen’s six published novels.
In this one the protagonist, Anne Elliott, discards her love interest based on some rather bad advice from a friend, an action she lives to regret. It all turns out well in the end, as do a majority of Austen’s novels, most of which include some form of love gone wrong.

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
“Singular, intelligent, and beautiful” are words that have been used to describe this Booker-Prize-winning novel by Ishiguro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. The praise is well deserved, and this book in particular is a favorite among readers.

The heartbreaking story of a butler in post-WWII Britain who receives a letter from the housekeeper of two decades past, this short book is filled with the ambience of the period, and of the war with its fascist-sympathizing aristocrats. But the story that moves the narrative is that of the relationship between butler and housekeeper, and the regret of unrequited love.

In 1993, the book was made into a popular movie starring Antony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez (1985, Spanish; 1988, English)
Another winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1982) graces this list. Márquez hails from Colombia, where he had homes in both Bogotá and Cartagena, in addition to Paris and Mexico City, where he died in 2014. During his long life, he not only wrote novels, he also studied law and was a journalist. Márquez also was a friend to many famous people and politicians, including Fidel Castro.

The love story of Florentino and Fermina in Love in the Time of Cholera spans a lifetime and is one of Marquez’s most beloved novels, demonstrating that over the years love is not fluid, but ever changing.

Magical realism (the mixture of fantasy and fact) permeates his creations. In his own words, Márquez tells us, “In Mexico, Surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.”

Márquez was influenced by many other writers, among them Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and especially William Faulkner. In the 1960s, Márquez lived in the colonia San Ángel in Mexico City, where he wrote his famed One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

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