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I’ll be the first to admit that while, as a reader, I’m not the most discriminating—I’ll read high- and low-brow books, fiction and non, light and serious—I do tend to favor books that focus on romantic relationships. To me, there’s nothing better than an intelligent, talented writer taking to the page to dissect the very thing we spend so much time dissecting IRL. It’s one of the same reasons SATC and “The Bachelor” reached stratospheric heights of success: A great story about relationships, dating, and sex is second to none when it comes to entertainment value.
These 15 books—new and old, fluffy and intense—encapsulate what it’s like to love, fight, and fuck today, and will keep you entertained everywhere from the subway to the beach.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
A modern-day re-interpretation of Jane Austen’s inimitable classic, Pride and Prejudice, Eligible is set in the Cincinnati suburbs, where the Bennet family—complete with meddling mother, ailing father, and five single daughters—drama unfolds. When a handsome ER doctor arrives in town after a stint on a reality dating show during which he failed to find a wife, it’s the perfect opportunity for Mrs. Bennet to try to find her daughters a match, and for Sittenfeld to unpack every interpersonal dynamic with wit, hilarity, and insight.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adele Waldman
With rave reviews from The New Yorker, NPR, Slate, and more, this novel bursts from the seams with social insight, wit, and intelligence. Cataloguing the dating life of young male writer named Nate, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.explores what it’s like to be single in Brooklyn and navigating the cutthroat, incestuous dating scene of publishing intellectuals and ambitious 20- and 30-somethings. Equal parts entertaining and accurate, it’s of my absolute favorites.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
After graduating from Brown in the 80s, dutiful English major and New Jersey WASP Madeleine follows her charismatic, mysterious boyfriend Leonard to Cape Cod, where he has a prestigious post-grad fellowship. But what she was able to ignore about Leonard’s moodiness in college becomes impossible to ignore when they’re living together—his plunging depressions and wild manic episodes inevitably start to erode their relationship. By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, you won’t be able to put this novel down.
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
It’s summer in Brooklyn, circa now, and three former college band mates, Elizabeth, Zoe, and Andrew, are living on the same block with their significant others (Elizabeth and Andrew are married; Zoe has a wife named Jane) and kids. Zoe’s daughter, Ruby—smart, flippant, and moody—starts showing a romantic interest in Elizabeth’s son, Harry (clean-cut, sweet, and naïve). Meanwhile, Andrew, Elizabeth, and Zoe may finally have to face the secrets they never acknowledged in college, but that will challenge the status quo in all of their relationships. The emotional chaos that follows is reflective of real life romances and families—but this book still feels like an escape.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
The relationship at the heart of this heartbreaking, gorgeous novel is one of the most touching ones in recent fiction. When Jude St. Francis, an orphan raised by monks in the Midwest, leaves his haunted past behind for a scholarship at Yale, he never imagines he’ll meet three lifelong friends who will become his family over the decades to follow. Along with a multitude of friendship, marriage, and family dynamics, one specific rapport comes into focus: that between Jude and his best friend, who—spoiler alert—slowly, with much foreshadowing, fall in love. A beautiful, raw, vulnerable, and devastating relationship, you won’t finish this novel without crying more than once—but it’s so worth it.
The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Set in 1930s New York City, The Rules of Civility is one of those rare, precious novels that is as intelligent and sophisticated as it is juicy and entertaining. Brooklyn-born protagonist Katey Kontent, is 25 years old, working her way up the ranks at Condé Nast by day, and having debaucherous adventures with her wild best friend Eve by night. When the two meet a blue-eyed banker named Tinker Grey at a Greenwich Village jazz club, Eve immediately calls dibs, but sparks fly between him and Katey, setting the stage for an addictive love triangle that you won’t be able to put down until the last page.
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
In this sprawling, epic New York City novel, principally set in the 1976 (with flashes of the future and past), several characters and storylines interweave and intersect, leading up to one explosive summer night. Among the compelling relationships: William, a trust-fund kid turned artist and drug addict falls for, but never commits to, a young black professor named Mercer; William’s sister, Regan, attempts to date a younger coworker after separating from her husband and the father of her two kids, Keith; Keith sleeps with—and turns his life upside down as a result—a sexy, smart, rebellious college freshman named Sam; and Sam unintentionally leads on her platonic male best friend, Charlie, who gets sucked into the downtown punk scene Sam leads him into… Those are just a peek at the many multifaceted relationships in this 911-page novel, which could take you all summer to finish, but you won’t regret it.
The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd
This novel is about losing love, the chaos and confusion that results, and the process of rediscovering identity and sexuality in order to fall in love again after heartbreak. After 30-something Brooklynite and landlady Celia loses her husband to terminal illness, all she wants is to live out her days alone and in quiet. But when a new tenant, the recently divorced Hope, moves into the apartment above hers, she finds herself being drawn back into the land of the living, when she finds herself caring more about Hope than she ever expected. Touching and tender, you’ll be riveted by this story of female friendship, camaraderie, and love.
A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams
One of the most perfect beach reads and love stories rolled up into one, A Hundred Summers sucks you in on the first page and you won’t come up for air until the last. When Lily Dane returns to the small Rhode Island town where she’s spent every summer since childhood hoping for a peaceful place to nurse her recent heartbreak, she’s appalled to find out that the very couple she was hoping to escape—her former best friend, Budgie, and former fiancé, Nick—will be summering in the same place. What follows is an enthralling series of events during which old secrets resurface, emotional wounds reopen, and Lily and Nick discover that what tore them apart in the first place isn’t everything they thought it was.
A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins
Neill is a 30-something San Franciscan attempting to navigate the dating scene after the end of his marriage. While dealing with the emotional challenges he’s facing at work (where the sentient computer his company is building is based on the diaries of his late father), Neill tries to juggle an attractive colleague who’s pursuing him, his fiery ex-wife who isn’t totally out of his life yet, and a sexy, free-spirited college student who seems in danger of being sucked into a cult. Sweet and ambivalent, funny and real, every reader can relate to Neill’s insecurities around sex, dating, and love in this super-modern tale of romantic woes.
The Folded World by Amity Gaige
A favorite novel of mine since it came out in 2007, The Folded World has stayed with me since then as a result of its gorgeous prose and delicately wrought characters and dynamics. When Alice leaves her small hometown where she lived with her mother and meets Charlie Shade, a passionate social worker, they fall in love in a whirlwind and quickly find themselves married with two infants. While Alice struggles to navigate the pleasures and miseries of new motherhood, Charlie becomes more and more deeply entangled with his mentally ill clients, blurring the line between personal and professional. The Folded World is a searing, unforgettable look at young marriage, parenthood, and trust.
Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III
So much of love is about yearning, ideals, heartbreak and disillusionment. Those are the primary themes explored in the four linked novellas of Dirty Love. Each short story focuses on a single character’s trials and tribulations with love, sex, and marriage—from infidelity to sex in the age of the internet—and explores each with unwavering clarity and perception.
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Just as addictive as her debut, Seating Arrangements, Maggie Shipstead delivers an equally riveting novel with Astonish Me, about a former professional ballerina named Joan. The story opens with Joan, her husband Jacob, and her son, Harry, living in suburban California. Joan teaches ballet and helps her son pursue his own talent in ballet, but when Harry comes into contact with Arslan Ruskov, the world-famous Russian dancer who Joan once had a complex, explosive romance with, her worlds collide in a way that threatens to reveal secrets she’s kept for years.