Well, Valentine’s Day is upon us. I know what you’re thinking: it’s time to make a grand gesture, but how? If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that if you don’t know how to say something, you should say it in a song. John Cusack holding up the boombox! Heath Ledger’s “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” serenade! Hugh Grant singing his way back into love with Drew Barrymore!
For those less musically inclined, might I suggest saying it with a book? After all, Ryan Reynolds finding and returning Isla Fisher’s long-lost copy of Jane Eyre in Definitely Maybe is romantic as heck. But it is important to consider what the book you’re gifting your special someone is saying. (Kafka’s Metamorphosis, while romantic to some, might end up being more like gifting a Czechoslovakian football! If you understand this reference, please be my Valentine.)
To help you out, here are some book recommendations to gift your person—depending on what you’re trying to tell them.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody.
“You are really weird and I am into it.”
Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg
From the creator of Bojack Horseman, Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory is a madcap collection of short stories showcasing love in a surreal, laugh-out-loud funny way. (See for yourself.) Raphael Bob-Waksberg can dream up the most absurd situations and stick with them till the bitter end. My personal favorite story in the collection, “A Most Blessed and Auspicious Occassion,” follows a young betrothed couple planning their wedding in a world that expects goat slaughter (!!) at the ceremony and something called “the Dance of the Cuckolded Woodland Sprite” (??). Enjoy.
“I want to conduct our entire relationship over email.”
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Maybe you were hoping for a love letter today. Maybe you love You’ve Got Mail, or you hate that stamps are now 55 cents, or you wish it was still 1995, so you are pivoting strictly to love emails. Either way, nothing says “baby, let’s get this correspondence going” quite like Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, which explores the relationship between Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants in her first year at Harvard, and Ivan, a slightly older math student from Hungary. (Also acceptable: starting the digital distance early and emailing your special person a PDF of the book.)
“You, coworker, are hot. Let’s make some bad decisions in a walk-in freezer that we will certainly regret later.”
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
If you are new to New York City and waiting for your life to begin, if you are a 22-year-old having your heart and soul slowly chipped away at during the grind of your job at a restaurant, if you are ready to make some reckless decisions and you want a way to communicate that to a colleague, look no further than Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter. It’s not so much a story of love as it is one of lust. Happy Valentine’s Day to you!
“Let’s have a very complicated and intense but sometimes secret and very drawn-out relationship that will definitely damage us both.”
Normal People by Sally Rooney
I’m sorry if you’ve seen Normal People on enough lists to last you a lifetime, but it really does perfectly capture the way it feels to be a teenager and to have an intense connection with someone outside of your social circle. In stripped-bare prose that she hurls like throwing stones, Sally Rooney has crafted a gentle love story. It reminds me a bit of Middlemarch in its ability to seamlessly traverse each characters’ interior landscapes. It gets at the pain of knowing someone so intimately but continually coming up against a wall in your relationship. (Fun!)
“I’ll be a perfect partner for three months and then I’ll slowly reveal myself to be a jerk.”
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman
We all know That Guy. Yes, That Guy. Hip Brooklyn Writer Guy. Woke Lit Bro Guy. Over there, at the other end of the Prospect Heights coffee shop you’re sitting in. Surely, you’ve noticed him peering up at you when he momentarily stops writing in his brown leather notebook. Adelle Waldman is adept at capturing That Guy, sticking him between the pages of this wonderful debut and showing you the inner-workings of his mind. If you are That Guy, do us all a favor and give us this fair warning.
“You broke my heart, but also I’ll be okay.”
Something Bright, Then Holes by Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson is the god of holding the shards of heartbreak up to a new light. This collection ruminates on the polluted Gowanus Canal, sits at the edge of a friend’s hospital bed, and tries to wrap its mind around a broken relationship. It’s raw, and it toggles between total grief and okay-ness in the way that healing does. A line I’ll leave you with: “you have no idea what kind of light you’ll let in.”
“Do you want to sit in a hip coffee shop and hold hands while discussing the legacy of the Combahee River Collective?”
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
This Booker Prize-winning novel follows a large cast of characters, all in marvelously different walks of life (a 93-year-old woman living on a farm, a non-binary social media influencer, a successful investment banker, a disgruntled school teacher—we’re just getting started!). Bernardine Evaristo is not only a novelist but also a poet, a critic, and a playwright. You can see this in the pages of Girl, Woman, Other. She is a master at parsing out individual voices while also collaging them together into a beautiful chorus, exploring the ways identities and people’s lives intersect. This bold novel in verse is all-encompassing, showing love in all shades and under all shadows. Consider this incredible line, which I can’t stop thinking about: “I’ve fallen in love properly for the first time in my life with the most wonderful woman I have ever met, who desires me from a position of inner strength.”
“Friend, I know dating SUCKS but maybe take it less seriously.”
How To Date Men When You Hate Men by Blythe Roberson
For your unlucky-in-love best friend, the one with the best (worst) Tinder stories, I highly recommend How To Date Men When You Hate Men. It’s not so much a how-to guide as it is a hilarious rumination on dating today, seasoned with fun personal anecdotes from New Yorker and Onion writer Blythe Roberson (who also works on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert). She’s the comic relief you need from a disastrous love life, and she’s got some good “advice” on how establish that the casual hang you initiated with a friend you’re maybe in love with is, in fact, a date. (Point to your socks and say, “These are my first date socks.”) Fool-proof!
“Friend, he will never leave her.”
“How to Be an Other Woman” from Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
This gem of a collection will break you in the best way. The first story, “How to Be an Other Woman,” is particularly devastating. But maybe it’s the thing your friend needs to hear! Lorrie Moore always holds her pen like a scalpel to the heart. But rest assured: living inside Lorrie Moore’s beautiful and witty writing is also a curative experience. Expect tears and laughter.
“Friend, our love is the best love.”
Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper
They say friends are the family you choose for yourself. In these collected essays, Briallen Hopper shines a light on the importance of this often overlooked form of love. It is an examination of the cultural touchstones that showcase the enduring power of all kinds of kinship. It is a smart and heartfelt celebration of the platonic, the book equivalent of planning a Leslie-Knope-style brunch in which you shower your best friends with gifts and undying appreciation and support.
“Friend, what if we were secret lovers?”
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Song of Achilles is a re-imagining of Iliad. We know from Homer that Achilles and Patroclus were thick as thieves, but Madeline Miller reimagines the story with a new question in mind: What if the greatest Greek warrior and his best friend were cast as two lovers? Now, we know how this particular story ultimately ends, but sometimes we have to explore the What Ifs—what if it’s worth it?
“I know this goes against everything I was raised into, but we make the rules now!!”
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
young forbidden love. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is the brilliant first novel from Jeanette Winterson, a writer considered required reading in a lot of contemporary fiction classes and a classic voice of LGBTQ literature. The story starts with (fictional) Jeanette, adopted into a very conservative and religious English Pentecostal family. As a teenager, Jeanette falls in love with a woman and runs away. The mind-blowing thing about it, though, is that she structures the book like the Bible. (We start with Genesis. Deuteronomy proves to be a key chapter that teaches you how to read the rest of the story.) She’s her own god under this framework. There are a lot of beautiful lines about falling in love in these pages, but perhaps the most poignant one is this: “I can put these accounts together and I will not have a seamless wonder but a sandwich laced with mustard of my own.” Now who do you want to share that sandwich with?
“I know you love her, but she might murder you.”
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Korede loves her sister. This is why she’s always there to help her clean up her messes—literally. Korede’s sister, Ayoola, has a bad habit of killing off her boyfriends. But when Ayoola’s next victim is likely going to be Korede’s boss, who she’s been madly in love with for ages, that sisterly love is put to the test. This straight-faced satire is the perfect gift to give your boss to warn him that his girlfriend is a murderer. It might also double as the perfect gift for your messy-boots sister.
“I want to move to Brooklyn and have odd children and dinner parties with you.”
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
Do you have your StreetEasy notifications set to alert you when houses are for sale in hip Brooklyn just in case? Maybe check out Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers. It starts with a real estate listing in “Prime Ditmas Park.” (I’d move in in a heartbeat.) College friends Elizabeth, Andrew, and Zoe are all grown up, and now their teenage offspring are falling in love. Modern Lovers tracks the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of these families in a way that’ll warm the cockles of your cold, jaded heart. Just promise you won’t get sidetracked and join a cult somewhere in the middle.
“I actually just want to go back to grad school.”
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
It’s your classic love triangle! Meet Madeleine (who is writing her thesis on feminism and 19th century novels), Leonard (a rather charming science student), and Mitchell (Madeleine’s old pal who is very into Christian mysticism). Jeffrey Eugenides follows these college grads as they navigate “the real world” and their very tricky situation. I don’t know—maybe we should stick with George Eliot!
“Our marriage has some problems.”
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
In Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill puts a fraying marriage under the microscope. She zooms in on the very small but telling moments in a relationship (both the quietly devastating and the shockingly tender) and then she zooms out and somehow encompasses… everything else. (Have you ever seen those videos of fractals in nature? It’s like that.) This novel-in-fragments flits between thoughts of fussy newborn and dreams put on the back-burner. If this sounds familiar, maybe give this gift before things get really Offill. (Get it?)
“I am having an affair.”
The State of Affairs by Esther Perel
You might know relationship expert Esther Perel from her podcast, “Where Should We Begin?” in which she examines all the things plaguing people today when it comes to love and dating. (If not, maybe also give that a listen!) In The State of Affairs, she tackles infidelity in a hugely empathetic way, asking not only Why did this happen? and Is this salvageable? but also, surprisingly, What if this was good for the marriage? She’s not interested in pointing fingers; she wants to dig deeper and rip out the root of the problem.
“I am having an affair with someone who really understands me/is actually a sea monster.”
Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls
Rachel Ingalls was a severely under-appreciated feminist writer of the 1980s. Her stories are surreal and sinister, dark jewels glinting in the murky water. Mrs. Caliban details the intimate and passionate affair between a lonely California housewife trapped in a terrible marriage and a humanoid sea monster named Larry who broke free from a government testing facility (yes, it’s The Shape of Water before The Shape of Water). It’s brief and it’s heartbreaking, but hey, we should all be so lucky as to find our Larry.
“I know we just had a fight about the fact that other people have existed in my life romantically before you but seriously you are the one I want to be with right now.”
“The First Person” from The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith
All the stories in this collection are brilliant and will make you do a double-take. Ali Smith doesn’t shy away from the weird or the uncanny. Reading her is like opening your fridge one morning, only to find that your Tupperware is in a slightly different place than you swore you left it, and then opening that Tupperware and finding diamonds inside instead of lasagna. She is a master at leading you into off-kilter situations and attacking you with a sentiment you didn’t quite expect. The very best story, the one that made me start crying into my blueberry muffin in a college dining hall, is the last one, titled “The First Person.” A couple sits at their kitchen table, which one of them has placed on the front lawn one morning for no apparent reason. And then they have a chat about it, and this beautiful monologue comes bubbling to the surface:
“You’re not the first person I’ve ever felt new with … You’re not the first person to think he or she could save me … You’re not the first person who was ever wounded by love … You’re not the first person who ever knocked on my door. You’re not the first person I ever chanced my arm with. You’re not the first person I ever tried to impress with my brilliant performance of not really being impressed with anything. You’re not the first person to make me laugh. You’re not the first person full stop. But you’re the one right now. I’m the one right now. We’re the one right now. That’s enough, yes?”
Are you crying yet?
“I love you.”
a gift card to a local indie bookstore
This gesture says not only “I love you” but also “I trust your taste in books,” the highest compliment one could give.