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March 22nd- Favorite Angsty Romances
This is a great topic, but it’s a bit tricky since I don’t read the romance genre. I don’t think I ever have. Actually, that’s a lie. When I was younger, my family used to rent a cabin by a lake in upstate New York for a week every summer, and the only book in that entire cabin was some tawdry 80’s historical romance novel, which my best friend and I found absolutely hilarious for some reason, so every time we saw it we’d read random passages out loud to each other. This was the beginning and end of my career as a romance reader.
But I still wanted to see if I could come up with 5 within the genres that I do read, which it turns out I can! Because let’s be real, while I may not be much of a romantic, I love angst. So here we go…
The Secret History by Donna Tartt (Francis Abernathy & Charles Macaulay): Though far from perfect, this is probably one of my top 5 all-time favorite books. I was fascinated by the dynamics between this group of characters, but there’s one relationship in particular that stands out to me, that I couldn’t get out of my head for weeks after reading. Francis/Charles is a miserable, unrequited pairing – Francis is in love with Charles, who’s in love with someone else (spoilers!), who won’t even fully acknowledge his bisexuality, who only agrees to have sex with Francis when he’s had too much to drink. Francis is my favorite character in TSH, and I have to admit, in fiction I’m really drawn to this particular self-destructive dynamic where a character knowingly embarks on a relationship that isn’t going to end well. I feel like this relationship isn’t even examined in the novel to its full potential, and I can’t help but to try to fill in the gaps in my mind, about how they were first drawn to each other, about what they might be able to become under different circumstances. Because in so many ways, they’re what the other character needs to be – Francis with his false bravado admiring Charles for his natural charisma, and Charles admiring Francis’ openness about his sexuality. I find their dynamic far more interesting than any of the endgame pairings in this book.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: I feel sort of weird putting A Little Life on a romance list, because this book is decidedly not a romance. However, there is a relationship in this book – one that I found profoundly, devastatingly, horribly sad and beautiful, and thinking about these two haunts me still. I actually consider the relationship in question a bit of a spoiler since it doesn’t begin until half-way through the book, and until that point it’s a major uncertainty as to whether this relationship will ever happen, so, A Little Life fans, highlight the rest of the sentence to read on (I apologize if you’re viewing this in reader, where the white text doesn’t work)! Also major SPOILERS for the ending, so if you haven’t read this book yet, beware. (Jude St. Francis & Willem Ragnarsson.) The pure depth of the love between these two characters is beautiful and devastating. Their relationship – in all its manifestations, from friendship to romance and everything in between – is horribly, aggravatingly imperfect. And yet. That’s exactly what’s so resonant about this book, and this couple in particular – their love is no less important and no less strong for how difficult it is. MAJOR SPOILER: a particular kryptonite of mine is when two characters are in a relationship and one dies, and the one who’s left behind is the ‘wrong’ one, because they’re the one who’ll have the harder time living without the other. That’s exactly what Hanya did to us here, and I cried my eyes out when Willem died (me!!! I never cry!), not only because I loved him as a character, but because I felt Jude’s loss so acutely. This book destroyed me in every way possible, and the love between Willem and Jude was hugely at the center of the reason why.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Achilles & Patroclus): I mean, I loved Achilles/Patroclus long before The Song of Achilles came along, but there’s definitely a distinction between their characterization in Homer, and the characters that Miller creates. Some Iliad purists detest The Song of Achilles for exactly this reason – Miller renders Achilles far, FAR more likable than he was ever meant to be, and Patroclus far more helpless. However, if you can look past the liberties Miller takes and enjoy this book as its own separate entity, The Song of Achilles is a beautiful story, and I found myself drawn into her version of Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship so fully that I was truly devastated by the ending, even though I knew exactly what was coming. The Song of Achilles aims to fill in gaps, chronicling Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship from friends to lovers, from a childhood raised in the palace of Achilles’ father to the battlegrounds of the Trojan War. It’s an epic, timeless romance, and a tragic story of two soulmates who love each other completely. I mean, even in Homer, their ashes are mixed together so they won’t be apart even in death. How can you beat that?!
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (Jack Jackson & Aliena of Shiring): The Pillars of the Earth is such an sweepingly epic story and I can’t help but get caught up in the lives of these characters. And it’s always so devastating when you have two characters who are meant to be together, but it takes them impossibly long to get there. That’s Jack and Aliena in a nutshell, and I adore them. Early on in the book Aliena is sexually assaulted, and so much of her narrative and her relationship with Jack is about recovery, which isn’t by any means fast or simple. There’s a particular trope I hate where a woman is raped and her true love helps her heal, which is bullshit (in that it often minimizes her trauma and makes it about the male character), but that’s not the way this relationship is written at all. Aliena’s narrative is largely about personal recovery, and Jack eventually factors into her story; not the other way around. It’s extremely well written and convincing and at times horribly sad. I’m really not much of a romantic, but I’ll admit, this line really got me: “She wanted to say, I love you like a thunderstorm, like a lion, like a helpless rage; but instead she said: “I think I’m going to marry Alfred.”” Also highly recommended is the BBC miniseries, with Eddie Redmayne and Hayley Atwell in these roles.
The Iliad by Homer (Hector & Andromache): It is a truth universally acknowledged that the single most devastating scene in the Iliad is the one where Hector is saying goodbye to his wife Andromache and infant son before returning to battle. The tragedy of Hector is that his fate was entirely unavoidable, not because he was fighting for personal glory like Achilles on the other side, but because he was fighting to protect his family. Also tragic is the fact that one of the last things he says to Andromache is that he’d sooner die than see her become a war prize, which of course is eventually what happens to her (as well as the murder of their son) after his death. Things were never going to end happily for these two, so it’s that horribly sad inevitability that always gets to me when I’m reading this famous domestic scene between them. You can’t help but to get caught up in the ‘what if’s, and think about the life they might have had together.
What are some of your favorite angsty romances? Comment and let me know!