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The Library


Searching for love stories that go beyond the romantic ideal? Pandora Sykes shares her selection - from books exploring the familial bonds that shape us to the science of love, in its many forms.


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In my early twenties, I 'celebrated' Valentine's Day with a boyfriend who had told me the day before that he wanted to break up. Despite his stated intention to break my heart, we still went out for dinner together - to a restaurant stuffed to the gills with so many red heart balloons that I became tangled in a clot of them when I tearily ricocheted my way to the loo. A strange idea, and probably mine. I expect I thought that a romantic restaurant could change his mind about the break-up. It didn’t. It also made me extremely skittish about Valentine's Day. I now approach the annual fixture like a greyhound, with a mixture of scepticism, ambiguity and dismay.

I no longer have skin in that particular game, having cohabited with my husband for almost a decade - we stay in on more Valentine's Days than we go out. Personal experience aside: to dedicate just one day to love, to focus solely on the person we fancy, feels woefully out of date. Though going out is, clearly, not an option for this year (so it appears I was accidentally ahead of that curve). With a surprise shag totally out of the equation (unless you live with them – even then, that's more of a seasonal event, like the leaves changing colour, than a surprise) why not cook a chicken kiev and settle down with a good book that celebrates love in all its forms, beyond the silken gusset. Love that falters, as much as the love that endures. Ecstatic love, but also devastating love. Here are some of my favourites, to cherish just that.

Modern Love

Edited by Daniel Jones

A selection of columns written for the iconic New York Times column, Modern Love, which has been running since 2004 and now boasts an accompanying podcast, this is an immensely moving book about love in its many, diverse forms. Octogenarian love (“when the finish line is drawing closer”), forbidden love (“I fell off cloud nine and stared into the fires of hell”), anticlimactic love (“did my parents have a wonderful marriage? Of course they didn’t”). It is about unconditional love and transient love; expected love and love that takes you by surprise. It is a beautiful anthology which I come back to time, and time again (during the writing of this piece, I again became lost for hours within its pages). If you’re going to buy anyone a book for Valentine’s Day, make it this one.


My Wild and Sleepless Nights

by Clover Stroud

“My mother love is not soft or gentle; it isn’t pastel-coloured or decorated with bunnies and chicks… it’s a wild love; it thrashes and roars”, writes Clover Stroud in her visceral memoir about motherhood - in her case, the mothering of many (she has five children). It’s a passage that I recommend to each and every friend when they have a baby. It’s what I quote when someone asks, as if it were a closed question, “but you love being a mother, right?” With poetic candour, Clover writes about the paradox of mother love. It is one of boundless, overflowing joy - but also of fear, and loss, and grief. This isn’t a self-help book. But reading it may help you find your way back to yourself and set your children, and their own wild love, free.


Everything I Know About Love

by Dolly Alderton

I couldn’t write about books that expand love beyond a romantic ideal, without mentioning my former podcast co-host Dolly’s Alderton’s memoir, Everything I Know About Love. A treatise/opus/homage to female friendship, it is funny and comforting and silly and wise, all at once. “This kind of love might not kiss you in the rain or propose marriage” she writes, “but it will listen to you, inspire and restore you.” Reading this book made me realise that my female friends, most of whom I have known since I was of single-digit age, are the loves of my life. My husband is just a bonus.



On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

by Ocean Vuong

This award-winning novel by the American-Vietnamese poet is about a lot of things: the opioid crisis, growing up in poverty and the reality of life as an immigrant in the United States. It is also a book about love. The love between a mother and son (the book is structured as a series of letters from Little Dog - a man in his twenties - to his mother, who cannot read), and transgressive love. Little Dog falls in love with a closeted man called Trevor, who treats him much like America has treated Little Dog’s mother - with violence and hostility. The book is a work of auto-fiction, inspired by a poem Vuong wrote in 2017 (“An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farm girl. Thus my mother exists. Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me. / Yikes.”) As Vuong writes, love is painful. This book explores both the devastation and beauty born from that pain.


Love Factually: The Science of Who, How and Why We Love

by Laura Mucha

Bit of a gear-change, here, with a fascinating book about the science of love. Mucha spent ten years researching love, talking to hundreds of strangers from every continent in the world about what love meant to them. She looks at how what we find attractive - and fall in love with - differs across the world, the ways in which your childhood impacts who and how you love as an adult and even the different types of lust. Reading her book and understanding things like attachment styles, love languages and approaches to commitment, will transform not just the romantic relationships in your life, but the platonic and parental, too.


Standard Deviation

by Katherine Heiny

If you haven’t read Katherine Heiny, I implore you to dive in immediately. Her fiction is just the thing to get you through this last stretch of lockdown. Her writing is charming, offbeat and utterly unique (her short story collection Single, Carefree, Mellow is one of my favourites) and she writes about love with precision and soul. How love becomes worn, or humiliated or loses its way. Standard Deviation is a funny, sweet exploration of the middle-aged Graham’s relationship with his first and second wives: two very different women, with whom he shares two very different types of love. It’s an absolute delight.


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