Esther Freud’s top 10 love stories

From Boris Pasternak to Nancy Mitford, the novelist lines up the stories that have broken her heart

Dr Zhivago
Julie Christie and Omar Sharif in the film version of Dr Zhivago.

Esther Freud was named by Granta magazine as one of the 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 1993. Her books include Hideous Kinky (1992), Peerless Flats (1993) and Gaglow (1997). Her most recent novel is Love Falls (2007).

She is a judge of the 2010 Le Prince Maurice prize for literary love stories. The shortlist for this year’s prize is East of the Sun by Julia Gregson; Small Wars by Sadie Jones and Whatever Makes you Happy by William Sutcliffe. The winner will be announced in Mauritius on 5 June, 2010.

“The love stories that have stayed with me are the ones that broke my heart. Novels that managed to create the unbearable longing of two people to be together as well as the misunderstandings, disenchantment and lost hope when love slips beyond their reach.”

1. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

This was the first book I read that took me on that journey. Rhett Butler’s slow, cool devotion to Scarlett through so much of the novel, and the terrible moment when he stops loving her, and she realises she does, in fact, love him, had me feverishly begging fate, or Margaret Mitchell to intervene. My copy was battered and tear-stained by the time the book was finished.

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre was responsible for a misguided belief in the power of romance that complicated my teenage years. The idea that you could lean out of your window and whisper your lover’s name, and that he might actually hear you, appealed to me too much.

3. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Who can ever forget the moment when Tess fails to find the letter that has been pushed under her door? The scene is seared into the hearts of millions of readers across the world.

4. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Possibly the greatest novel ever written. Tolstoy captures the rollercoaster arc of Anna’s passion for Vronsky, and shows us the impossibility of her love ever being a match for what she’s lost. The scenes between her and her small son whom she must abandon, are heartbreaking in their restraint, and it is these moments you remember, when Vronsky’s ardour begins to fade.

5. Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

It’s hard to beat a Russian love story, especially this epic tale, set against the backdrop of war, but Zhivago’s love for Lara and the unexpected chance they have to re-ignite their passion when fate throws them together in exile, is hard to resist.

6. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

Like consuming the most delicious treat. An acutely funny novel, it is told from the point of view of Fanny whose mother “The Bolter”, has left her to be brought up by an aunt. She spends much of her time with her cousins, the eccentric, glamorous Radletts, and it is Linda Radlett – a composite of Mitford and her sisters – whose search for the perfect companion is at the heart of this wonderful book.

7. The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

First published in 1936, this was years ahead of its time in its description of a young woman’s affair with a married man. Lehmann takes you on her journey – the waiting, the bright moments of hope – without ever allowing you to lose sympathy for any of the characters. Passionate and brutally honest in its portrayal of how love can overwhelm your life.

8. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

In this collection of stories, Lahiri gives us three linked stories. Hema and Kaushik are two Bengali Americans whose parents were friends when they were young and who meet by chance in Rome. They are drawn to each other, irresistibly, even though Hema is about to be married. As the feelings between them intensify, you are consumed with longing for them to take courage and alter the course of their lives. But then fate – or nature – intervenes, and the pain of the ending had me gasping in physical pain.

9. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

A many stranded novel about loneliness and the chances missed in love. Alma, a 15-year-old girl attempts to make sense of her life after her father’s death by unravelling the story of the novel her mother is translating. This beautiful, funny and mysterious story draws its characters together in the most unlikely but life-affirming way.

10. One Day by David Nicholls

Following the story of Emma and Dexter through 20 years of friendship, infatuation, missed opportunities, misguided marriages and eventual coming together, this is a brilliantly structured, hysterical and ultimately heartbreaking book.


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