Give me your best smart mutual pining, please
June 26, 2019 10:43 AM   Subscribe

I am feeling some kind of Mood right now and I only want to read novels in which the protagonists are HARDCORE PINING. Like, "Oh god I've just realised I've fallen in love with you but for some reason I can't tell you (and also can't seem to tell that YOU are in love with ME!)". Difficulty: I am so tired of outdated male/female power dynamics. Other snowflake details inside - recommend me, Metafilter!

I am so into this genre at the moment - who even knows why - but I'm finding it really hard to filter for really satisfying pining as a sub-genre of anything else and it's leading me down an endless terrible rabbit hole of pulp-fiction romance.

- I don't just want any old well-written generic romance - it has to be this specific kind of romantic encounter
- I cannot deal with any more outdated m/f power dynamics, dodgy consent, inconsistent characterisation or artificial delays to the resolution just to wring out another forty pages of content I'm looking at you, Mariana Zapata
- m/f pairings, in themselves, are totally fine: but...
- ...I would love it if I can read romances which aren't about straight white cis North Americans (though honestly, I'll take what I can get)
- I am totally genre-neutral. Whatever else is going on in the plot, as long as there's also a clear narrative of "shit I've fallen in love with you and for some reason I think I can't tell you, and maybe I'll be nice but maybe I'll be a jerk as a result, and all our friends know and the reader DEFINITELY knows but it's gonna take us four hundred pages to tell each other!" then I am going to be happy.
- I do not care at all if it involves cookie-cutter plots* and will happily read what is basically the same story with the names changed as many times as it takes
- Any level of smut is acceptable, from 'safe to give to Granny' through to 'hope no one notices me reading this on the tube'.
- Bonus for happy endings all round, obviously, but not required.

I'm aware of fanfic but have probably exhausted that particular well for now; and I'm finding the reviews on GoodReads to be frankly inaccurate when it comes to the quality of this particular genre.

There must be good - great! - books out there that are not just well-constructed works of art in themselves but are also shamelessly emotionally cathartic, while not requiring me to carefully ignore pages and pages of fatphobic misogyny. Please recommend me your favourites!

*quite the opposite - I will never get tired of the "fake partner/fake marriage/arbitrary time limit on relationship but whoops we've fallen in love" trope specifically
posted by citands to Media & Arts (39 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Doesn't quiiiite have the pining at your described level, but Tehlor Kay Mejia's We Set The Dark On Fire hits more or less all your other notes, I'd recommend checking it out.
posted by VeritableSaintOfBrevity at 10:50 AM on June 26, 2019

Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda maybe?
posted by phunniemee at 11:07 AM on June 26, 2019

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice & Virtue has this, plus historical fiction, plus magic, plus boyhood friends turned mutual pining. The sequel is OK but not as relationship-forward.
posted by assenav at 11:17 AM on June 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

Try Cal by the Irish author Bernard MacLaverty. Technically it's not a romance, but BOY HOWDY is there pining:

It's set in Northern Ireland during the 1980s, in the depth of The Troubles, and Cal is a 19-year-old Catholic boy in a small town. One year before the events of the book he drove the getaway car when his IRA buddy assassinated the (Protestant) chief of police. The book starts when a new woman starts working at the library where Cal spends most of his time, and they start getting acquainted and Cal starts to develop a crush - and then he discovers she's the widow of that police chief. By this time he's started doing odd jobs on the farm where she's still living with her in-laws, and he keeps the job to punish/torture himself. Which makes things more complicated for Cal when she starts to show signs of reciprocation (she still doesn't know his involvement with the IRA).

It's not got a happy ending, and the plot isn't quite "I've fallen in love with you but I've convinced myself I shouldn't tell you for some stupid reason" and is instead "I've fallen in love with you but I also basically ruined your life and I'm terrified you'll find out and hate me so I need to not get too close". But it's beautifully written, and you also don't need to have a Ph.D. in Irish history and politics to follow the Troubles-related elements.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:18 AM on June 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this falls under the outdated m/f power dynamics category, but Jane Austen's Persuasion is a classic story of pining IMO.
posted by jraz at 11:31 AM on June 26, 2019 [8 favorites]

I think Sally Thorne's 99 Percent Mine fits your requirements.

I know you said you've exhausted fan fiction, but if you're not opposed to reading RP fanfic, I have a recommendation for you that I will happily provide via MeMail.
posted by timestep at 11:53 AM on June 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Call Me By Your Name seems like an obvious choice unless cis gay white men of the academic variety of middle class are problematic for you.
posted by Smearcase at 11:55 AM on June 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'd actually recommend the Radch trilogy (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy) - sf, poly, very interesting things done with gender and AI. Breq is so very completely in denial about multiple people at once and it takes three bloody books for the other people involved to finally get it through her head that they care.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:00 PM on June 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

For your consideration, but I'm not sure any of these are your exact sweet spot. They almost all have the standard Western m/f romance dynamic (that's what I read a lot of).

Stirred by Tracy Ewens. The pining leans more heavily on the female's side (you don't see the male's perspective if I remember correctly), but there is the "can't tell that you're in love with me" element to some degree.

The Hating Game & 99 Percent Mine, both by Sally Thorne. They were good at sexual tension, but neither were spot on for me. The Hating Game was self-denial pining (I hate you, I hate you, oh actually I love you?) 99 Percent Mine had some degree of mutual pining and lots of sexual tension but some of it was undercooked/not really believable to me. Good not great. They're both fast reads and not depressing, which I like personally.

Do the characters have to be aware that they're pining for each other the whole time? Jane Austen is good for various types of pining. Pride and Prejudice (Darcy's pining, but the reader doesn't necessarily know)...Elizabeth starts to pine. Jane and Bingley are pining. If you like the story, I liked Curtis Sittenfeld's P&P re-tell called Eligible (part of the Austen project where popular writers give Austen's work a modern retelling, which could potentially double your pine stores if this type scratches the itch).Persuasion is full of pining. Maybe even Sense and Sensibility, but it's not the whole/central story and it's British stuffy hidden pining.

Several other widely read period British pieces including pining: North and South by Gaskell and Jane Eyre by Bronte. The m/f power dynamics don't offend me in these as much since they are artifacts of the time the story was written, but YMMV.

I will be following this thread. It's hard for me to think of a story where you get to see both characters' pining; most focus on the woman's pining. I need to diversify my reading too.
posted by kochenta at 12:03 PM on June 26, 2019

I'll put you on the list for when my novel is finished if you like. You've basically described it.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 12:03 PM on June 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

The Fool’s Tale by Nicole Galland.
posted by sallybrown at 12:07 PM on June 26, 2019

I just read Me Before You and its two sequels and think that particularly the first one fits this bill, but also the second in the trilogy (After You). And the third is just good so you should read that too. That is totally not a genre of books that I normally read but I thought that these were smart, engaging books.
posted by urbanlenny at 12:13 PM on June 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ye olde The Sorrows of Young Werther? I haven't read it in ages, so I don't recall if there are dodgy m/f power dynamics, but there is a reason I use the phrase "Werthering around" when I am pining for someone.

Also you can just ask me to recount my relationship with my artistic muse hahaha.
posted by Young Kullervo at 12:33 PM on June 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

NB Werther super does not have a happy ending!
posted by Smearcase at 12:36 PM on June 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

I mean...he DOES eventually resolve his pining hahaha.

I'll show myself out.
posted by Young Kullervo at 12:38 PM on June 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am really enjoying the Veronica Speedwell books, where the protagonists are engaged in just this dance. Avoids much of the typical m/f power crap of Victorian England with the Plucky Orphan trope (you find this out on like, page 2 of book 1), so.

Since you bring it up (mild spoiler), I feel like she's dragging out the "will they or won't they" a book or so longer than she needs to, but they're still really good.
posted by joycehealy at 12:50 PM on June 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Having literally just sped through the four available Veronica Speedwell books, I will second the recommendation, with the caveat that I feel like the first two-thirds of the first book occasionally skates too close to tired m/f power dynamics. So just as a note, their dynamic gets way better after that, when they become very firmly equal partners.
posted by yasaman at 12:53 PM on June 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

Upon reflection, I will cosign yasaman's comment; book 1 does have issues. Payoff is worth it. :)
posted by joycehealy at 1:01 PM on June 26, 2019

I love Julia Spencer-Fleming’s series of mysteries featuring Sheriff Russ Van Alstyne/Episcopal priest Clare Ferguson mysteries. They pine for book after book after book while solving mysteries in a small upstate NY town. Mysteries are not really my thing; angsty love stories totally are.

KJ Charjes’ A Gentleman’s Position has lovely heartaching pining: valet and his boss in mutual love they think they can’t act on. Her other books in the series are good, too, but this one has the pining in spades.
posted by Orlop at 1:04 PM on June 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

Charles’ Think of England might fit the bill as well.
posted by Orlop at 1:06 PM on June 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Okay, it's not a novel, it's a piano quartet. But it's the apotheosis of mutual pining and it's a great story, so here goes.

Brahms was helped in his career by Robert Schumann and his wife Clara. Clara was a leading pianist of the time, and performed many of Brahms' works. When Robert Schumann was confined to a sanatorium after a suicide attempt, Brahms acted as go-between for Robert and Clara. Clara, for reasons I don't know, wasn't able to visit her husband.

During this time, Brahms started to develop "feelings" for Clara. Given the complexity of the situation -- his mentor confined to an asylum -- Brahms couldn't act on his feelings. So instead, he wrote his third Piano Quartet, in C Minor, Opus 60 and poured his love, passion and the impossibility of the situation into the music. He even coded Clara's name into the notes. As the story goes, he showed the piece to Clara, she played it, and she understood.

Well, it would be a good story by itself, but the music is magnificent. You can hear the two lovers calling back and forth to each other. It's beautiful, and romantic, and sad.

If that fits your mood, you can listen to Brahms' Piano Quartet in C minor here.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 1:18 PM on June 26, 2019 [13 favorites]

Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 1:36 PM on June 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Robin McKinley's the Outlaws of Sherwood definitely has this dynamic between Robin and Marian. They're all white (this is before the Moor got added to the mythos by the mid-80s ITV Robin Hood series) but the story definitely centers on both characters, not just Robin.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 2:50 PM on June 26, 2019

Amberlough trilogy. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I can definitely tell you that pining is a central plot point.

Some really well-written m/m sex scenes that helped me realize I was pan, too, so it’s got that going for it.
posted by curious nu at 3:01 PM on June 26, 2019

It's not directly central to the plot buuuuut ... Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You?

That bit of it hit me pretty hard, but it was also part of the overall cumulative effect of that book. I was like, gulping-sobbing after the last pages.
posted by phonebia at 4:23 PM on June 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

I just finished reading The One by John Marrs, which has what you’re looking for, but if I describe it I’ll blow the plot twist for you. The book is, over all, a little silly but totally gripping.
posted by amro at 6:46 PM on June 26, 2019

It hasn’t come out quite yet but This is how You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone may fit what you’re looking for. It comes out this summer.
posted by azalea_chant at 8:13 PM on June 26, 2019

I liked Heather Rose Jones’ Daughter of Mystery; it looks like there are two more Alpennia novels now but I haven’t read them so can’t say if there is further pining.
posted by nat at 9:43 PM on June 26, 2019

I think you will really enjoy The Kiss Quotient!

It's sort of Pretty Woman with the genders flipped; the main character is a woman with autism and so is the author. The characters are Vietnamese-American I believe. Non-cliche fake relationship and pining ahoy!
posted by Threeve at 10:30 PM on June 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Peter Darling (Austin Chant) was pretty hardcore pining at parts, bonus for #OwnVoices and enemies to lovers with a happy ending. (CW: some transphobia, misgendering)

My only complaint was that the ebook was 164 pages, so I literally re-read it the very next day. A sequel is planned and I'm so ready for it.
posted by lesser weasel at 11:30 PM on June 26, 2019

Villette by C Bronte has an awful lot of this (and subverts m/f power dynamics?? maybe)

We Capture the Castle

The Rectors Daughter
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 3:54 AM on June 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I Capture the Castle
The Thorn Birds

Possibly problematic as both feature a younger woman/girl pining after an slightly older man (with some reciprocal pining), but I really enjoyed both!
posted by emd3737 at 4:57 AM on June 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Does the primary protagonist/POV character have to be the one who’s pining? If not, I strongly recommend In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan. Queer & hilarious & delightful. It has been passed aggressively around my circle of friends to universal delight.
posted by athenasbanquet at 5:29 AM on June 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh oh oh oh oh! I know I know I know! Call on me!

As your librarian, I think that you should know about the T. Kingfisher books. T. Kingfisher is Ursula Vernon's pen name for adult fiction. (No, not that kind of adult fiction, god damn it; she writes children's stories too.) Vernon is the artist who drew the Hugo-winning webcomic Digger, which tells of the adventures of a heroic wombat. She paints, too.

I have read four of these: Bryony and Roses, The Clockwork Boys, The Wonder Engine, and Swordheart. All have heroes of middle years with physical attractions apparent only to discerning viewers, stoic good sense, and unorthodox heroic virtues: heroic gardening, heroic middle management skills, heroic chattering. One starts out as a gardener, one as a forger and crooked accountant, and one as a housewife.

They fall in with immensely powerful badasses who are bound to them by sorcery, honor, or some combination of the two: a Beast, a cursed paladin, an undead mercenary captain bound to an enchanted sword. Adventures ensue. Love grows. Always and invariably, the badasses are perfectly certain that the hero couldn't possibly love them. They pine, they mourn, they tear their hair. The heroes pine a little too, but are generally a little too sensible to get as wild-eyed as the badasses.

She tells this story well. Her heroes' sensible, earthy practical courage is more attractive than most heroism. She lets her badasses be serious badasses, rather than just standing around studly, sighing, and and smitten. In particular, her cursed paladin, when he finally gets around to standing his full height, is everything a paladin should be. Her badasses are plausibly lovable, if you are that way inclined. Her heroes are very lovable indeed. She writes deadpan humor without breaking the flow of adventure. Every so often she writes a sentence that rings like a bell.

The fifth or sixth temple was a tiny hole in the wall and he’d have walked right by it, except that the priestess there wolf-whistled at him.

“Look at you!” she said cheerfully. She was even shorter than Slate, very round, with a shaved head and enormous silver earrings. “Dreaming God always did know how to pick ’em. We don’t see too many of your kind out here, paladin.”

He bowed to her, very deeply indeed. “Our loss, clearly, Sister.”

“Ha! Sit down a spell, or are you off to smite something?” She patted the rug next to her.

“I fear I am at a loss for things to smite,” he said, taking the opening, and sat down opposite her. “In fact, it seems that there are no demons anywhere in Anuket City to be found.”

She had heavy eyelids, but the eyes under them were sharp as adder’s tongues. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”

“Seems like it should be, doesn’t it?”

“You tell me.”

She grinned. She had a gold tooth on the right side. Caliban could smell divinity clinging to her like expensive tobacco or cheap wine.

-- T. Kingfisher, The Wonder Engine

Her stories are in part comprised of bits of other, older stories, and as well as standing on their own, comment on earlier tellings: this is what the Beast is really like; this is what a paladin is really like; this is what Stormbringer's life is like. Wilde writes about the critic as artist. This is the reverse of the coin, the artist as critic, but no less an artist. But I digress.
posted by ckridge at 7:30 AM on June 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

So I'm not sure if this ticks all your boxes since the angsty pining gets resolved probably toward the middle of the book, but I really liked Sarina Bowen's m/m romance, The Understatement of the Year. Her other m/m titles are good as well.
posted by megancita at 11:57 AM on June 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

The long love affair between Diana Villiers and Stephen Maturin in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series of sea stories is mostly pining because both of them are as cold, suspicious, and proud as Lucifer. She is basically Scott's Diana Vernon given more, but not enough, freedom; he, Joyce's Stephen Daedalus run off to sea. He feels, quite rightly, that he is too ugly, poor, and socially inconsequential to have any rationally justifiable hope of her. She will not make an avowal without being courted. This goes on for several novels, much intrigue on his part, many love affairs on hers, and a great many sea battles. You are warned: these novels are primarily about sea battles, secondarily about an imaginary ideal friendship, and only tertiarily love stories. Villiers and Maturin are very satisfactory characters, though.
posted by ckridge at 9:10 AM on June 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

You might like The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, about two teenagers (both POC) who meet and develop hardcore feelings on the day before one of them is about to be deported*. The pining is more “we’re in love but about to hit insurmountable obstacles” than “we’re in love but can’t tell each other,” but oh my god the pining. I didn’t love this book as much as I expected because of the intensity of the romance element, so maybe it will be right up your alley.

*There is nothing in the book about the physical abuse/torture aspects of ICE, just the soul-sucking bureaucratic challenges. Also, there is a (somewhat improbable) happy epilogue.
posted by ActionPopulated at 2:06 AM on June 29, 2019

Response by poster: Thank you so much for all of these - I have literally had my head in one or other of these recommendations since I posted this question, including occasionally staying up too late or sneaking off at work to continue reading when the tension is just too good to put down.

I am eagerly looking forward to happily rushing all fences and reading all of these much too fast this summer instead of pacing myself like a rational person, thereby falling off the social radar entirely and then being back in early August to re-post this question.
posted by citands at 5:49 AM on July 8, 2019


The Remains Of The Day. English butler in a Lord's house in the 1920s and 30s is so fervently devoted to his job that he fails to acknowledge - either on purpose or because he's oblivious - the fact that one of the housekeepers on staff is in love with him. She eventually leaves, and 20 years later the pair eventually meet again and there is a sort of "what might have been" tone to things.

This was made into a movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:00 AM on July 8, 2019

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