Romance, Mariella Frostrup admits, can be a dirty word. As host of Open Book (Sunday, 4pm, Radio 4) she has to tread carefully when talking about the subject.
“You tell writers you think their books are romantic, and a lot of them see it as a mark of dishonour. They think there’s something superficial or fluffy about romance,” she says. “But all our lives are driven by romantic love, one way or another. When it comes to epic emotion or the pull and tug of our inner lives, how rarely we get it right and how often we get it wrong, there’s nothing better to read. I’m an absolute glutton for romance.”
Books are, she argues, the ideal place to revel in more tender feelings. “There’s an intensity when you read that lends itself to human relationships. Literature can examine the small but all-important nuance that romance depends upon.
“In cinema, romance can be clunky. In music, it can be saccharine. But there’s something about the intimate relationship of the reader to the book that allows you to go much deeper into human foibles.”
Frostrup’s tastes in romantic novels are largely contemporary. “Nineteenth-century novels are often wonderful, epic stories, brilliantly told, but in too many of those narratives women have to pay a high price for following their hearts.
1. One Day, by David Nicholls
Nicholls’s premise – how events change our lives at different points and how narrowly we miss colliding with each other – is nearly too trite but he does it brilliantly. It’s funny, well observed and the kind of novel anybody can enjoy.
2. Four Letters of Love, by Niall Williams
This lesser-known Irish novelist from County Clare wrote the last romantic novel that made me weep with relief and joy. It’s a wonderful story that brings together two people who, on first introduction, don’t realise what an important role they’ll have to play in one another’s lives. It has you on the edge of your seat, hoping that fate will intervene.
3. The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro rightly won the Booker Prize for this story about a lifetime of longing. The idea of holding your emotions within yourself, nurturing and disguising them and presenting a different veneer to the world, is both tragic and romantic.
4. Dirt Music, by Tim Winton
This Australian novelist is my favourite contemporary writer. Dirt Music is about a woman who is unhappily married in a small town in Western Australia. She meets a taciturn man with a dark secret, but the person he appears to be at the beginning is not who he turns out to be. It’s an adult coming-of-age story, ultimately about finding somebody who helps you be you, rather than someone who makes you feel unhappy.
5. The Forty Rules of Love, by Elif Shafak
Shafak is a fantastic French-born Turkish writer. This book is again about thwarted love, but it weaves in another story about ancient mystic Sufis and, in doing so, brings in philosophy, the search for meaning in our lives and whether we can find it in religion or other human beings. It is very mystical and exotic, and you feel moved from your own life and taken into a very gentle, questing world.
6. Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters
This is the sexiest book on my list. It’s a wonderful historical thriller focused on an affair between a well-to-do woman and her maid. It’s groundbreaking because it depicts and celebrates their relationship as you would a heterosexual one. It’s racy but also wonderfully evocative of the Victorian period, and Sarah Waters really gets the female psyche.
7. Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding
There is not a woman of my generation who hasn’t read Bridget Jones. She was very much a product of the 90s – the world has changed a lot, but back then she spoke for all of our singleton experience. She wanted to have a decent relationship and often thought her failure was down to difficult men, but she realises it’s down to her. It isn’t the most complex of romantic stories but what it has to offer is humour. Humour is not the enemy of romance or desire.
8. Pride And Prejudice, by Jane Austen
The blueprint for all romance. I read it when I was at school and hated it – I thought it was one of the most boring books ever. I don’t know why it’s foisted on teenagers; you’re way too young to understand the social satire. I think you have to be in your 20s before you can begin to understand what Austen is dissecting.
9. Love In The Time Of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I know Márquez frightens the living daylights out of some people, but he is really not a difficult read. This is about a love that burns for a whole lifetime and it only receives confirmation so late on that you think it’s never going to happen. It’s funny, observant, exotic and very South American with that passionate magic realism.
10. The Kindness Of Enemies, by Leila Aboulela
This is not a traditional romance, but more about how love arrives in unlikely places and is not always something that you can embrace. There are interwoven stories, one of which is about a 19th-century Muslim rebel leader fighting the Russians in Georgia. He kidnaps their princess and, for a few years, she lives as his prisoner. It’s about the feelings that grow between the two of them of mutual respect and underlying love. Riveting.