"Beset by an aching but chaotic love that refused to focus in the conventional way."
April 17, 2012 12:28 AM   Subscribe

Book recommendations please! I need fiction about difficult or complicated relationships.

I am in the midst of a strange situation relationship-wise and I need some good reading material. I'm looking for suggestions for novels about complicated relationships - you know, where circumstances are really tough and complex, or things are just really messy, but stories where no one is necessarily at fault. (Note: when I say "difficult", I do not mean abusive or scary or harmful. Think more along the lines of circumstances keeping people apart, or a tense love triangle.)

A great example would be "A Home at the End of the World" by Michael Cunningham. That novel is about a complicated three-way relationship, with no one to blame for how tricky things get/can be. The book does a good job of exploring complicated emotions.

Bonus if the book is fairly positive, but without being sugary/sweet. I like to think of complicated things as an opportunity for growth, so anything with that kind of underlying theme would be helpful. Realistic but positive is my aim. (Extra bonus for books that are damn good at making you just ache.)

Thanks so much.
posted by gursky to Media & Arts (38 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Love in the Time of Cholera.

Possibly one of the best books I have ever read.

(Do not see the movie. I have not seen it, don't want to. The book is so lovely, don't ruin it. Just enjoy.)

Two honorable mentions....

A Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin


The Great Gatsby, By F. Scott Fitzgerald (this is my favorite novel of all time, no link necessary;)
posted by jbenben at 12:46 AM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Object of My Affection by Stephen McCauley, which for some reason I always confuse with A Home at the End of the World.
posted by londonmark at 12:56 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and also, I'm not sure if this is quite what you're after, but the Katniss/Peeta/Gale thing in Hunger Games could fit the bill. Things don't get much more complicated, emotionally, than that.
posted by londonmark at 12:58 AM on April 17, 2012

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright is about multiple complex relationships (lovers at its heart but also parents, siblings, childen) - I'm not sure how positive it is but I felt it resonated very strongly with me somehow.
posted by smudge at 1:03 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

A little quick commentary, if I may?

My intuition tells me you are looking for Love in the Time of Cholera.

That said, uh, these things never turn out the way the do in books, unless you are a fan of what happens at the end of The Great Gatsby.

Love in the Time of Cholera is THE BEST READ.

Don't base your life on it, however. There's a better ending for you out there, if you ever decide to eschew whatever emotional tumult you are currently exploring.

Annnnd, that's why The Great Gatsby made my list!

(Incidentally, Fitzgerald was working on what I believe would have been his best novel, The love of the Last Tycoon, when he died in 1940. If you can get a hold of this edition by Matthew J. Bruccoli, you'll be sweet. I'm sure it is online for free - google. It is a fictional account of a triangle romance between a character resembling the great Hollywood studio head Irving Thalberg (who also died too young) an unknown ingenue, and the young daughter of a studio big wig (based on William B. Mayer.) The daughter of the big wig narrates the story, and has been crushing on the Thalberg-type character since she was in college. I'm not erudite enough to tell you exactly why this completely bare-bones of an unfinished novel is slightly more compelling than Gatsby on many levels - but there you have it. I'm a big fan of Fitzgerald's short stories, but NOT of his other novels. Tycoon and Gatsby are "it" for me. I'm a little picky.)

So, I managed a fourth novel recommendation and some real-life insight in this comment. Hope I helped!

(There is an adaptation of The Last Tycoon from the 70's or 80's starring Robert Deniro - skip it! Yet another example of where the movie does not do the words on the page any justice, as sparse as those words were in this particular case.)
posted by jbenben at 2:23 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

My understanding from my subscription to Entertainment Weekly is that there is a movie version of A Winter's Tale underway...

That particular novel is so dense and lyrical, the attempt at adapting it is a crime.

I do like some movie versions of books better or as well as the novel, for example, The Shining.

Unless the producers go even further than the iconic Lawrence of Arabia, with a running time of 216 minutes (plus an intermission) I don't know HOW anyone could cram the beauty of a 672 page epic into 120 minutes. Really.

Good on you for being a reader-type.

I'm done! Thanks for touching upon a bunch of topics I'm passionate about.
posted by jbenben at 2:42 AM on April 17, 2012

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing is quite striking.
posted by saucysault at 2:51 AM on April 17, 2012

I read the Dragon Tattoo series recently - the main male character is in a long-term relationship/friendship with a married woman, but also sees other people. Lisbeth Salander also has a few casual relationships with people of both genders, where they seem to be friends who sleep together. Of course, it isn't the main focus of the story, but I was struck by how few books I seem to have read that have essentially polyamorous characters.

Linda Grant's The Clothes On Their Backs is one of the best novels I've read for a few years, and touches on this theme in several ways. I'll spoiler you if I say too much about it, but the main character ends the story a stronger person for it.
posted by mippy at 2:51 AM on April 17, 2012

My favorite complicated relationship novel is the Charterhouse of Parma. It doesn't get much more complicated than falling in love with your nephew, who is also a priest and who loves someone else. Somehow it manages to work through that premise without blaming anyone. There are also court politics, intrigue, and Napoleon. (It is 19th century, though, so you may not like the style or approach).
posted by lesbiassparrow at 4:01 AM on April 17, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen both qualify!

Also, it's a stretch to your criteria, but I just finished it and can't help recommending: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Riveting!
posted by thinkpiece at 4:07 AM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ha Jin's books do this really well, especially Waiting
posted by Mchelly at 4:12 AM on April 17, 2012

All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well by Tod Wodicka

The main character's unconventional marriage is complicated towards the end of his wife's life by family members who think he is irresponsible, a drunkard and incompetent to care for her. It's a good story with colorful, quirky characters and the story of his marriage is quite touching even though no one around him seems to understand it for what it was.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 4:14 AM on April 17, 2012

Talking it Over. Amazing book about a love triangle, very funny and moving and also disturbing. I read it when very young and it's still one of my all time faves.
posted by sweetkid at 4:14 AM on April 17, 2012

Or there's Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies, A Love Story, about a Holocaust survivor, the Polish woman who saves his life and marries him, the other woman who he can't stop thinking about, and his dead wife, who comes back from the camps not so dead after all.
posted by Mchelly at 4:33 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can't believe no one has mentioned The Time Traveler's Wife yet!
posted by telegraph at 5:30 AM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Bel Canto would be a great read for ya.
posted by emilynoa at 5:32 AM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I fInd Douglas Kennedy's novels to be exactly what you're looking for. Things are complicated and frequently no one is WRONG, but everyone is affected. Leaving the World in particular, or The Pursuit of Happiness.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:03 AM on April 17, 2012

I think of A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel.
posted by mibo at 6:15 AM on April 17, 2012

Gone with the Wind!
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 6:15 AM on April 17, 2012

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
posted by something something at 6:23 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Go-Between by LP Hartley.
posted by OmieWise at 6:40 AM on April 17, 2012

Not a novel, but a comic series: Strangers In Paradise. I've been rereading the collected trades, and the stuff about love in book 11 is fantastic.
posted by ansate at 7:01 AM on April 17, 2012

Another Country, by James Baldwin
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
posted by entropone at 7:01 AM on April 17, 2012

Pretty much anything by A. B. Yehoshua, but especially The Liberated Bride.
posted by cushie at 7:09 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard.

Also, though it's a children's book, the part of the Once and Future King about Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur always broke my heart.
posted by ke rose ne at 7:20 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh shit, forgot Milan Kundera. The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
posted by ke rose ne at 7:30 AM on April 17, 2012

Cal by Bernard McLaverty is about a tough, complex, messy situation. (Think Northern Ireland in the 1970's). The writing is realistic, but I'm not sure how positive the outcome is. It was later made into a film with John Lynch, Helen Mirren, and a heart-aching score by Mark Knopfler.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 7:43 AM on April 17, 2012

Definitely The Time Traveller's Wife!

However, while I originally thought about The Marriage Plot, I think it does have quite a bit of "fault" in it, and I would not say the book is positive about love. I wouldn't put it high on your list. (I read it recently, and it made me feel worse about my own complicated love situation, not better. YMMV.)
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:11 AM on April 17, 2012

Maybe The Thorn Birds?

I wouldn't call it positive exactly, but I wouldn't say it's too negative either. Just complicated.
posted by randomnity at 9:13 AM on April 17, 2012

Nearly anything by John Irving -- particularly The Hotel New Hampshire.
posted by Occula at 9:22 AM on April 17, 2012

Wha, no Nabokov? Anything! But the ones that came to my mind were "Ada" and "Pale Fire."
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 9:39 AM on April 17, 2012

April and Oliver by Tess Callahan
posted by book 'em dano at 3:24 PM on April 17, 2012

The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch.
posted by HandfulOfDust at 3:37 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I Know This Much Is True -- a gold mine of difficult relationships

Confessions of a Crap Artist -- mainstream novel by Philip K Dick (not SF) --centers on a dysfunctional family in 1950s California

Also recommend Winter's Tale -- one of the most beautiful books I've ever read
posted by I'm Brian and so's my wife! at 7:25 PM on April 17, 2012

The Fountainhead is my favorite book of all time. The main character, Roark, lives his life by a simple but fundamental principle. His lover, Dominique, tries to destroy him. Their relationship is complex, twisted, beautiful.
posted by Terheyden at 12:17 AM on April 18, 2012

Seconding Milan Kundera.
posted by ejaned8 at 7:30 AM on April 18, 2012

thanks, everyone. this list is exactly what I need(ed).
posted by gursky at 3:59 PM on May 17, 2012

So I know this thread is WAY old but I couldn't resist chiming in for future reference: anything by Thomas Hardy, especially Jude the Obscure.
posted by désoeuvrée at 11:39 PM on June 25, 2012

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