My Top 5 Anti-Valentine’s novels

Unless a miracle happens in the next few days I’m going to be single on Valentine’s Day.  Which means 24 hours of avoiding the smug Facebook posts and nauseating couples selfies on Instagram and wallowing in chocolate truffles, raspberry gin and a resolutely unromantic novel.  So if like me you’re dreading the big day, or if you simply aren’t a fan of hearts and flowers, here’s my Valentine’s gift to you: my top five anti-valentine reads.

  1. “Madame Bovary” by Gustav Flaubert – frustration, fantasy, passion, disappointment and finally despair; the miserable cycle of unrealistic romantic ideals is played out with grim clarity in this tragic tale. Emma Bovary’s painful and protracted suicide is one of the most hideous chapters in fiction, dispelling once and for all the Romeo and Juliet-style trope of the swift and somehow romantic lover’s death.
  2. 2. “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy – from one tragic heroine to another, only this time it’s a well-timed jump in front of a train that brings the suffering to an end. The stigma and social isolation that follow Anna’s separation from her husband are a telling illustration of how men and women are judged so differently when it comes to infidelity – and you have to ask yourself, in all matters relating to love, sex and sensuality, how much has really changed since Tolstoy’s time?
  3. “Thérèse Desqueyroux” by François Mauriac – if your life hasn’t turned out quite according to plan then why not set about murdering the person getting in your way? Like our first two heroines, Thérèse knows all too well the misery of a loveless marriage, but rather than turning the emotional screws on herself she decides instead to poison her husband. I’m pretty sure you’re not meant to wholeheartedly support her in her crusade, but if there’s a novel that will make you relieved to be single, it’s this one.
  4. “The Birth of Venus” by Sarah Dunant – let’s up the positivity quotient with a female character who, despite being no stranger to heartbreak and the romantic restrictions imposed by a patriarchal society, manages to maintain a dogged resolve to turn every situation to her advantage if she possibly can. In spite of the tragedy and violent death, this novel of love and passion in Renaissance Italy is strangely uplifting. I didn’t agree with the ending that the author chose to give her heroine, but up until that point this is the perfect novel for any girl trying to make her way in the world.
  5. “The Final Confession of Mabel Stark” by Robert Hough – if you’re sick of smiling benevolently through gritted teeth as yet another friend parades down the aisle or produces a perfect baby, then seek sanctuary in this wonderful novel about the ultimate defier of social convention, circus performer Mabel Stark. Hers was an eccentric and colourful life, featuring a succession of slightly bizarre relationships with men (and one very bizarre one with a tiger), during which she remained absolutely true to herself and her passions, unorthodox though many of them were. If I raise my Valentine’s glass of gin to anyone this year, it will be Mabel.

See you back on the blog when all the horror of February 14th is over!

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“Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kaur – review

Every once in a while fate has an uncanny way of delivering the right book into your hands at exactly the right moment.  I recently spent an hour reading “Milk and Honey” precisely at a point in my life when I needed to hear its words, absorb its sentiments and have someone tell me I wasn’t alone.  Honestly, it’s as if it had been written just for me.

It’s a collection of poems, but not, I think, one designed to be dipped in and out of; it lends itself to being read in one wrenching go.  It begins by chronicling the sexual and emotional abuse the author endured in her younger years, before moving on to love, loss and finally ruminations on femininity and how the poet’s relationships with men have influenced the way she views herself.  The poems are for the most part stark and sparse, and the vocabulary she chooses is often relatively simple; the cleverness lies in the way she arranges these somewhat unremarkable words into such striking, searing combinations.  Many poems are only a few words long, but these were actually some of my favourites.  There are just so many I’d like to share on here, but these are just a couple of the shorter ones that stood out for me:

the idea that we are

so capable of love

but still choose

to be toxic

and this:

we are all born

so beautiful

the greatest tragedy is

being convinced we are not

Many of the poems are written in this way, without capitalisation or punctuation, and as such they come across as spontaneous bursts of thought; authentic, heartfelt and without artifice.

I was having a conversation with someone the other day about poetry and how hard it is to get up the courage to share what you’ve written; I remarked that I feel it’s the most personal form of writing there is, hence the hesitation over making it public.  The impression I was left with at the end of “Milk and Honey” was of a poet who has been incredibly brave in committing her most personal, in many cases traumatic, experiences to paper.  I for one am so glad she did so.  Although the abusive aspect of her life is, mercifully, not something I have suffered myself, her candid meditations on love, desire and the issues that cloud loving relationships are exactly the thoughts I would have expressed if I’d had the talent to put them into words in this way.  To know that the feelings which constantly batter and torment your mind are shared by someone else is like a burden being lifted.   I only hope I can emerge into the state of positivity that seeps into some of the later poems; this courageous and insightful young woman has inspired me to try and do so.

If you’re at all interested in poetry, read this.  If you are a woman then definitely read this.  Rupi Kaur is truly the mouthpiece of millions.

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