THE 10 GREATEST UNREQUITED LOVE STORIES EVER
LISA A. PHILLIPS
10. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
Chris Kraus, a struggling filmmaker/academic wife, falls in love with the eponymous Dick, a British cultural critic teaching at a university in California. She writes him lots of letters, occasionally with contributions by her husband, who’s intrigued, in a postmodern spouse kind of way, by the whole thing. Dick responds to these outpourings with mainly evasion and silence, though he does consent to her request for sex with the distinctly dickish line: “I’m not uncomfortable with the idea.” I Love Dick is an in-your-face extravaganza of abjection and literary revenge. Kraus is Alex Forrest, Glenn Close’s vengeful Fatal Attraction villainess, with a pen instead of a pot of boiling water.
Best line: “So in a sense love is just like writing: living in such a heightened state that accuracy and awareness are vital.”
9. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
Crushes often have an element of Jungian aspiration. You want someone because you want to be like him – a phenomenon that psychologists call an identity crush. Prep is a novel that underscores how class can intersect with unreciprocated adolescent desire. Lee, the daughter of an Indiana mattress salesman, gets a scholarship to a prestigious Massachusetts boarding school. Her obsessive entanglement with a confident, entitled, and sexually attentive hyper-achiever exposes the frustrations of no-strings-attached hookups – and of social striving.
Best line: “The wrongness of what had happened between Cross and me – I could feel it now. Not a moral wrongness, but a screwup, a thing that needed explanation: a bird in the grocery store, a toilet that won’t stop running, that moment when your friend has come to pick you up and you open the door and realize it’s not your friend’s car at all; the person driving is a stranger, and now you must apologize.”
8. Enduring Love by Ian McEwen
Science writer and devoted husband Joe Rose and Jed Parry, a stranger, survive an attempt to rescue a boy caught in a renegade hot air balloon. The boy lives, but another would-be rescuer is killed. Rose tries to move on. But he can’t, because Parry becomes completely emotionally, erotically, and spiritually obsessed with him. The obsession, which is Single White Female-level wack, scalps Rose of his ultra-rational worldview and threatens his marriage. Erotomania as page-turner.
Best line: “See? Reading you all night has strengthened me. That’s what God’s love does. If you’re beginning to feel uncomfortable now, it’s because the changes in you are already beginning to happen and one day you’ll be glad to say, Deliver me from meaninglessness.”
7. Clearcut by Nina Shengold
Romantic obsession à trois, in the wild forests of the Pacific Northwest: a guy, a guy, and a girl. Sexual orientation and monogamy are notions that scatter away like wood chips out of a particularly voracious mill.
Best line: “If he’d fallen in love with a whole pack of lies, were his feelings lies too? No, he thought. They were as real as it gets.”
6. La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri
Dante spotted Beatrice Portinari at a flower festival in Florence. She was eight. He was nine. But he was smitten. He liked to look at her from afar. When he was 18, he had a psychedelic dream about her eating his flaming heart. La Vita Nuova is a testament to the fact that he was much more comfortable writing about her than seeing her, because he was a total mess in her presence. He plays the submissive courtly lover, looking up at his medieval gal on a pedestal, but the book comes across as totally egocentric – all about exalting himself through his feelings for a woman he barely knew.
Best line: “Thus pallid and void of all power, I come to behold you, thinking to be made whole.”
5. The Song is You by Arthur Phillips (no relation, though this is also my dad’s name)
On the surface, the plot is like a particularly overwrought episode of MTV’s Catfish: Instead of boy meets girl, boy, an advertising director, watches girl, an up-and-coming St. Vincent-esque singer, enthrall a tiny Brooklyn bar. Boy leaves behind career advice for the girl, cartooned on the back of eleven cardboard bar coasters. Then, as her career blooms, they exchange cryptic emails, texts, and videos. Boy, maddeningly, still does not meet girl. But what Phillips gets right is how unrequited obsession is often a way of confronting other, far more important yearnings. Julian, the protagonist, isn’t just a restless soon-to-be divorced man on the make. He’s a father trying to figure out how to move forward in the wake of unfathomable grief.
4. My Education by Susan Choi
Regina Gottlieb has an affair with her professor’s wife, the sex so steamy it strained the limits of prose (one passage made Slate’s Worst Sex Writing of the Year list). When her lover betrays her by sleeping with her best (male) friend, Regina is so epically sad she moves out of town. She eventually undergoes the typical pseudo-redemptive (and heteronormative) rites of finding a husband and starting a family. But there’s second, perhaps truer redemption when she re-encounters her ex-lover and plays matchmaker/muse of fate.
Best line: “I didn’t grasp that desire and duty could rival each other, least of all that they most often did.”
3. The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Haveren
An Israeli attorney turned detective novelist finds refuge from the “ancient human landscape” of her conflicted country in her obsession with a Russian immigrant wanderer. He is her dybbuk (evil spirit), yet her love for him arguably inspires everything she does, including the creation of the wildly popular feminist heroine of her books. So goes the warped privilege of unrequited love: the assertion of the self through the idea of the beloved.
Best line: “Much of what I am today stems in a crooked way from this wish to be worthy in his eyes, equal in power to his imaginary power.”
2. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
I forced myself to pick just one Edith Wharton novel, and it was difficult. Much of Wharton’s work — and a good part of her life — was preoccupied with unrequited love. Lily Bart is an orphan without money of her own. She is supposed to marry well, and not be picky about little things like whether she loves the guy. Yet, again and again, she is too choosy for her own good. The deeper problem is that she can’t even acknowledge that her true love, however economically inappropriate, is right in front of her – until it’s Too Late. One reader got so upset by the lack of a happily ever after ending that she stopped Wharton on the street to reprimand her.
Best line: “As the pain that can be told is but half a pain, so the pity that questions has little healing in its touch. What Lily craved was the darkness made by enfolding arms, the silence which is not solitude, but compassion holding its breath.”
1. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Nora is 42 and single, a devoted elementary school teacher and sometimes artist whose life is upended when she begins to share studio space with the mother of one of her students. This is a novel of unrequited love for a family. She feels an erotic/intellectual/creative pull toward mother and father and maternal yearnings for their son. The feelings thrill her, exhaust her, inspire her — until she’s victim to one of the most brutal emotional betrayals in the already business of unrequited love. A barn-burning portrayal of spinsterhood.
Best line: “In our lives of quiet desperation, the woman upstairs is who we are, with or without a goddamn tabby or a pesky lolloping Labrador, and not a soul registers that we are furious. We’re completely invisible. I thought it wasn’t true, or not true of me, but I’ve learned I am no different at all. The question now is how to work it, how to use that invisibility, to make it burn.”