I grew up in a house full of poetry and the classics. Slim, gloomy volumes filled the bookshelves and piled up on the tables. My father, Robert Bly, recited anti-war poetry at the supper table; my mother, Carol Bly, preferred lugubrious Russian novelists and would counter with ethical advice gleaned from Turgenev.
My own taste in reading was — to my parents' minds — philistine. I wanted books with love, and devoured Austen's novels and Harlequin Romances with equal joy. My only requirement was passion, and lots of it. One summer, while languishing at camp, I begged my mother for books. She sent Anna Karenina and a history of the Romanov court. I read Anna Karenina three times but never made it to the demise of the Russian royal family.
Decades later, I have never outgrown my preference for romance, no matter the genre in which a love affair might appear. The five books I'm recommending here — three novels and two memoirs — are books I would have welcomed that long-ago summer, had they existed and had my mother been more inclined to indulge my habit. Though only a couple of them fall squarely under the label "romance," all five involve passionate matters of the heart.
A Story of Love and War
Two Rings is an exquisitely told story of love in the darkest of times. Millie Werber was born in a town in Poland. At 14, she was confined to a Jewish ghetto, and the next year she became a slave laborer in an armaments factory. She was sent to Auschwitz in the summer of 1944, and then sent on to a different armaments factory. Against all odds, she survived.
These bleak facts don't sum up a memoir that reels between pain and joy. The heart of the book is the story of Millie falling in love with a young Jewish policeman, Heniek. All she has left of him now is one photo and their wedding rings. You will cry reading Two Rings, but despite its sorrow, this memoir is full of deep delight in the human condition, in our ability to love in the midst of war and in the face of death.
The Garden Intrigue
Lauren Willig was researching her dissertation at Harvard when she started writing a P.G. Wodehouse-inflected novel about a history grad student named Eloise Kelly. By the time Willig graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law (she switched from history to law at some point), she had already published two historical romantic comedies; the third came out during her first week at a large New York law firm.
The Garden Intrigue is the ninth in a series that moves back and forth in time between the antics of a group of Napoleonic-era British spies and present-day Eloise, who — unlike her author — has not yet received her degree. The spy in question here is Augustus Whittlesby, under cover at a French house party. With a nod to The Scarlet Pimpernel, Augustus is posing as an extraordinarily poor poet whose reams of love poetry disguise vital information needed by the English secret service. Augustus' task becomes more difficult when an irritating American socialite begins mocking his verse — and his person. He would like to exchange witty repartee, the subtext of which would be love, not political drama, and finds it vexing to remain foolish. The novel is very funny — perfect for reading on a lawn chair in a flowery back garden with a glass of Pimm's.
A Night Like This
Julia Quinn also has an Ivy League pedigree, though in her case her career as an author led to her abandoning Yale School of Medicine. Quinn is one of the most popular writers of historical romance (she has reached No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list), so her decision to drop out of med school seems to have been a wise one.
A Night Like This is classic Quinn. Anne Wynter is a governess to three young ladies, which brings her into contact with the Earl of Winstead, recently returned from three years in exile on the Continent as a consequence of his part in a duel. The plot involves dastardly aristocrats from several families, but at its center is Winstead, who resembles Willig's Augustus in that he is neither particularly alpha nor ferociously brilliant. But he is utterly charming, the kind of person one would like to dine with for a good 60 years. The backbone of a Quinn novel is the interior voice of her characters: Their commentary is dry, mischievous and sometimes quite loopy. Quinn's books are released in July, because her publisher knows that hers are perfect novels with which to lie around a pool, reading about people who are better dressed — and better conversationalists.
Somebody to Love
Kristan Higgins specializes in the kind of prose that makes you laugh out loud, though often with a silent wince. Somebody to Love is the story of a single mom named Parker Welles, who has grown up as a member of the 1 percent of the 1 percent. She's an author of a series of children's books that she loathes — about six little roller-skating angels — but all proceeds from the books go to charity. So, in essence, she has no money of her own.
Which means that when her father is sent to prison for insider trading, her fortune disappears right along with her son's trust fund. The only asset not confiscated by the feds is a ramshackle house in Gideon's Cove, Maine, that she has never seen. So Parker heads to Maine hoping to flip the house, trailed by one of her father's lawyers, James Cahill. Higgins' books are hilarious on the surface, but with a bittersweet subtext: Somebody to Love is about falling in love, but also about betrayal and second chances. Nobody's perfect in this novel, but they are all — even Parker's dad — lovable in one way or another. And love, generously given, turns out to be remarkably redemptive.
Paris, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down
If the previous three books feature fictional characters who are wittier than the rest of us hope to be, Rosecrans Baldwin's first memoir, Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down, dips into the reality, while staying in roughly the same territory.
A few years ago, Baldwin (whose first novel, You Lost Me There, was one of NPR's Best Books of 2010), wangled himself a job as a copywriter in an advertising agency in Paris, even though he couldn't speak more than pidgin French. He began with breast-feeding pamphlets and over a year and a half graduated to taglines about belts. But Baldwin and his wife, Rachel — as well as the Parisians he came to know — are funny and idiosyncratic, and it's a pleasure to spend time with them. Like all "innocent-abroad" memoirs, some of the most charming bits describe translation errors. I loved the moment when his wife memorized a tradesman's message and carefully repeated it when Baldwin got home: Je ne parle pas tres bien Francais, which turned out to her surprise to be a helpful message the tradesman suggested she might like to repeat frequently: to wit, "I don't speak very good French." Another great moment occurred when Baldwin accidentally dumped water on one of his colleagues and then blurted, "When I come, I guess I come hard."
I spent my own year in Paris in tune with Rachel, who walks across Pont Alexandre III moved to tears by its beauty. Baldwin is made of sterner stuff; he throws himself under the slow-moving bus of French culture that dictates everything from kissing to coffee. For all its downbeat title, this memoir is a love story about the city and its people. Saying goodbye to Paris, says Baldwin, is something a person does only when he knows that he's dying. "Until then, Paris was forever one day soon."
Eloisa James is a New York Times bestselling author of historical romance novels and a Shakespeare professor at Fordham University in New York City. Most recently, she published a memoir of the year her family moved to France, called Paris in Love. She is online at www.eloisajames.com.