Happy relationships don’t make for good fiction. Shakespeare knew this. Tolstoy knew this. In fact, other than a few Romantics between 1800 and 1850, writers are particularly well-versed in how quickly romantic love can turn to mutual assured destruction.
But on Valentine’s Day—a holiday named after a guy who was stoned to death before Roman soldiers cut off his head—we’re supposed to celebrate love. If that’s your plan, stay far away from these five (great) books featuring the most dysfunctional couples in literature.
The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
“I knew you were silly and frivolous and empty-headed. But I loved you. I knew that your aims and ideals were vulgar and commonplace. But I loved you. I knew that you were second-rate. But I loved you.”
In The Dead Ladies Project, Jessa Crispin calls Maugham “the bard of the toxic relationship,” noting how the British novelist’s real-life struggles directly inspired his fiction. Specifically, a “yeller and a thrower” of a wife who “did not actually love her husband, unless it is possible to love someone without respecting their work, their interests, their needs, their emotional integrity.”
Nowhere in Maugham’s work is this more obvious than The Painted Veil, where a cuckholded doctor will only grant his resentful wife a divorce if she accompanies him to China. Why grant her freedom when he can let a Cholera epidemic take her out?
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
“May she wake in torment!” he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. “Why, she’s a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there—not in heaven—not perished—where? Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer—I repeat it till my tongue stiffens—Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living.”
The middle Brontë sister’s only novel is a Gothic nightmare that deeply divided contemporary critics, one of whom called it “a fiend of a book” and “an incredible monster.” Catherine and Heathcliff spend the entire 300-odd pages scheming up new ways to mentally and physically torture one another.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Affectionate violence. For when a hug just won’t do. That’s a Hallmark card for you.
Chicago ladies, ever taken an instant liking to a mysterious dude who seems like he’s known you forever? Could be a nice Valentine’s Day meet-cute… or a time-traveling serial killer from the 1920s.
Stephen King called Beukes’s high-concept literary thriller “the black-hole version of The Time Traveler’s Wife.” I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but both books are among the best ever set in Chicago.
Serena by Ron Rash
A kind of annihilation, was what Serena called their coupling, and though Pemberton would never have thought to describe it that way, he knew her words had named the thing exactly.
If you think Lady Macbeth’s scary, meet her Appalachian counterpart. Set in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains, Ron Rash’s landmark novel features one of the most batshit-crazy marriages in fiction. Sadly, the movie adaptation—directed by the reliable Susanne Bier, no less—was an awkward disaster, but the book is fantastic.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
“Your cowardly self-delusions about ‘love’ when you know as well as I do that there’s never been anything between us but contempt and distrust and a terrible sickly dependence on each other’s weakness—that’s why. That’s why I couldn’t stop laughing about the Inability to Love, and that’s why I can’t stand to let you touch me, and that’s why I’ll never again believe in anything you think, let alone anything you say.”
Frank and April Wheeler made postwar suburbia look like hell on earth way before Don and Betty Draper.
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.