Greatest Love Stories of All Time?

I’ve been thinking about Valentine’s Day.

I have to tell you that I am not a fan. When a man buys me flowers for no reason or because he remembered my birthday or our anniversary, that’s romantic and makes me feel loved. When a man buys me flowers because the tv and newspaper ads have been screaming at him about it for weeks, that doesn’t move me much.

But it is February and it’s cold in the midwest and not a bad time to think about snuggling and romance. I read a piece recently over at the Writers’ Almanac about romantic literature – seems that the New York Public Library and The Guardian in the UK put together their lists of the most romantic books of all time. They both came up with the same book on the top of their list: Wuthering Heights.

Wuthering Heights? Are you kidding me?

Seriously – do people consider that book romantic? I despised it. I certainly didn’t consider it a romantic love story. Obsessive love? Yes. Love turned bitter and hateful? Sure. But definitely not romance.

To quote my friend Priya: “Here is my concise review of Wuthering Heights: Those people need to get into town more so they can meet potential love interests who are not their cousins. Also, group and individual therapy highly recommended. I think it is very sad if anyone thinks what happens in WH has anything to do with LOVE.” Entirely accurate, in my opinion.

This got me thinking about other things that are supposedly romantic. How about Romeo and Juliet? Two teenagers who fall in love, elope and then kill themselves because their inlaws can’t get along. Tragic, yes. Romantic, no.

Probably the piece that riles me the most is the poem “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. Lovely imagery – there are passages you feel compelled to read out loud because they are so beautiful. And certainly the Highwayman’s promise of I’ll come to thee by moonlight though hell should bar the way has a romantic ring to it.

But even as a teenager, reading this in high school English class, I was infuriated by the ending. Let me tell you that if I was Bess, if I had sacrificed my own life to save this ungrateful bandit from ambush and he responded by getting himself shot down like a dog in the highway? He better not be headed for the same bit of heaven I’m occupying. I’d spend the rest of eternity making his afterlife miserable.

It seems to me that literature only considers something a “romance” if people make stupid decisions that end tragically. In my experience, romance is seldom about the big, expansive gesture – it’s not Richard Gere scooping up Julia Roberts and sailing off into the sunset. It’s all the little things you do to make your partner feel special. Maybe that’s why the Valentine’s Day model of romance annoys me so much – it assumes that one day of flowers and chocolates can make up for a year of indifference.

And what about you? What are your favorite truly romantic books? And what romantic classics leave you cold?

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