Five Favourite Love Stories and Why They Work

I love a good love story. A well-written romance has the power to snare me as a lifelong fan of the author. As a writer, I find a romance the most rewarding part of a novel to craft.

For purposes of this post, by ‘romance’ I mean a love story of some significance in a novel of any genre – women’s fiction, historical fiction, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, literary fiction … Romance Writers of Australia classifies this type of book as a ‘novel with romantic elements’ to distinguish it from the various categories of genre romance.

I have a few favourite novels that I’ve found memorably romantic. What do they have in common? What are the magic ingredients that make them so compelling? Note, this is not a list of the best romances of all time, or the most representative, or those of greatest literary merit. It’s simply a list of my personal favourites. Your list will be different. I bet I hate some romances you love.  

For instance, I’ve never enjoyed Emily Brontë’s overwrought Wuthering Heights with its cast of easy-to-dislike characters. I haven’t included Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, because while I thought it a great read, I didn’t find it especially romantic, though many readers did. I’m hoping you will post your own top romances and explain why they work so well for you. Perhaps collectively we can pick up some tips for writing love stories that engage the heart, the intellect and the senses.  

Here’s my selection, in no particular order:

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

The concept: Plain, downtrodden governess meets brooding, mercurial lord of the manor in house full of dark secrets. Circumstances tear them apart; they are reunited largely through her strength of character. Classic gothic romance.

Why the love story works: The first person narrative gives us insight into the passionate soul beneath Jane’s mousy exterior. The central pair are polar opposites. Full of drama and surprises; both protagonists make a personal journey.

The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett

The concept: Charismatic anti-hero with a massive chip on his shoulder meets stubbornly straightforward heroine in book one, when he’s 20 and she’s 10. Their stories intertwine over the course of the next ten tumultuous years, taking the reader through dramatic events in sixteenth century Europe, Russia and the Middle East and finally reaching a conclusion at the end of book six, approximately 3,000 pages later.

Why the love story works: Dunnett’s mastery of understatement; the intense, simmering emotions; the very high stakes people are playing for throughout – the lives of children, the future of nations; unforgettable characters whose fates we really care about.

Strong Poison / Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers

The concept: Nervy peer’s son and amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey meets unconventional bluestocking Harriet Vane when she’s on trial for murdering her lover. He determines to prove her innocence and falls in love while doing so. But damaged, defensive Harriet continues to refuse him. We watch the development of this relationship over a number of years, in the background of several mystery novels.

Why the love story works: The romance between these two intense, intellectual characters is played out with excruciating slowness, but is always fascinating to watch as each gradually learns when to move forward and when to give ground. The relationship is woven into the independent plot of each novel.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago

The concept: scruffy middle-aged proof reader Raimundo meets glamorous new editor Maria, and they bond over a historical text when Raimundo discovers new ways of writing both past and present.

Why the love story works: Raimundo is the opposite of a classic romantic hero, but finds romance within his work and within himself. The relationship is drawn with delicacy; it’s both realistic and surprising.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

The concept: A slow-burn romance between a disillusioned journalist and a shy Guernsey farmer is one thread in a captivating story of a community’s response to German occupation. It’s a novel about the power of books and storytelling.

Why the love story works: A pair of immensely likeable characters who initially seem quite unsuited to each other; the  clever use of the letter format to build their relationship step by gradual step. Deft interweaving of love story with several other plot threads.

This is an eclectic group of books. What do their love stories have in common?

  1. Great CHARACTERS. Real individuals we care about, who learn and grow during the story; their romantic relationship is part of this learning process
  2. A JOURNEY for the characters (see above.)
  3. The element of SURPRISE, whether it’s a madwoman in the attic or the power of a throw-away remark to change everything in a heartbeat.
  4. UNDERSTATEMENT. Wit and subtlety enhance a romance. These writers guide us through the peaks and troughs of a relationship with some delicacy. Jane Eyre is at times emotive, but how cleverly character and relationship are developed through Jane’s and Rochester’s after-supper conversations.
  5. COHESION. The love story belongs to the fabric of the book; it is cleverly interwoven with other plot elements. The various strands complement each other.
  6. The all-important ingredient, TENSION. Sparks fly between the romantic couple; it’s on again, off again; they love, they hate, they infuriate each other on the rocky road to a happy ending. Or not, as the case may be.

Which novels have you found romantic, and why? How do you approach writing a love story?

 Photo credit:

© Igor Polyansky |


About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.


  1. anne gallagher says

    My favorite all time has to be PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Austen proves all the points you’ve made above.

  2. says

    I have a rather unconventional choice. Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver. The events unfold as parallel modern-day tales that reveal the consequences of two very different choices in men the main character makes. It’s certainly not a typical romance. In fact, Ms. Shriver said in an interview something to the effect that she was a sucker for an unhappy ending. That provides a clue of how it wraps up. But I found the way she told her tale of a woman following her heart (and her lust) rather than her head, incredibly romantic.
    Densie Webb´s last blog post ..Six Words

  3. says

    I love the Lord Peter Whimsey/Harriet Vane series — Dorothy Sayers also wrote a short story that shows married lefe between the two.

    Other favorites include Possession by A.S. Byatt and Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver. (The latter isn’t strictly a romance, either, but I love the couple in it.)

  4. Vaughn Roycroft says

    A new favorite of mine, with all of the ingredients you list, and in your genre, Juliet, is Jacqueline Carey’s Naamah trilogy. Although the third is yet to arrive, the first two, Naamah’s Kiss and Naamah’s Curse, have begun a fabulous character arc for the heroine and her beloved. A nicely added twist is the heroine’s finding that she is in love (and, as with Densie’s e.g.,in lust) with multiple characters on her journey toward inner discovery and a deeper connection with her soul mate. I can’t wait for the final installment of this great romance/adventure in the making.

    BTW, I’m working my way through some of the other authors you recommended in your blog last month. Loving Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan at the moment. Truey unique prose. So thanks!

  5. says

    What a lovely post! I utterly agree about Jane Eyre and the Peter Whimsey/Harriet Vane romance. I’m just reading Busman’s Honeymoon (for the billionth time) now, as a matter of fact!

    And Juliet, truly, your own books have some of my absolute favorite love stories. I love them all, but if I were forced to pick two favorites they would be Eile and Faolan and Bran and Liadan. Though of course I just read and was utterly captivated by Sibeal and Felix’s story!

    I think what I love most in a love story (yours included) is that they so much affirm the power of love as a transformative force. Not just gooey infatuation or attraction, but love as the highest triumph of the human spirit.

  6. says

    For me, Jane Eyre is the titan to which all others aspire. But Austen’s P&P ranks a close second. Both are ripped off repeatedly, which is a testament to their power. I’d add Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities in there, Sidney Carton’s ultimate sacrifice for the women he loves always breaks me apart.

    Adding the Shaffer book to my growing list; I’m intrigued by the concept. Thanks, Juliet, for another thought provoking post.

  7. Vaughn Roycroft says

    Oh yeah, and Anna (above) is no slouch. I just finished the first book of her Avalon series, and am loving Isolde’s arc too. Can’t wait to dig into Dark Moon of Avalon.
    I admit to never having read your work, Juliet. But you are on my 2011 list of things to read. Any suggestions on where I should start? Anna?

  8. says

    One of my ultimate favorites is “Daughter of the Forest” (and I’m not just being a kiss-up, it really was one of my favorites).

    I also love Phantom of the Opera (sooo much better than the movie) and Garden Spells.

  9. says

    My first two choices would be the same–the Lymond Chronicles and the Wimsey/Vane books. I’ve also been enjoying the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall Smith; philosophy, mystery atnd romance make a vibrant combination. Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense always pleases me. And for pure romance, I return to Venetia by Georgette Heyer. Or Devil’s Cub or These Old Shades, or The Masqueraders…


  10. says

    I just read Guernsey for the first time about a month ago and absolutely adored it — it’s beautifully integrated on every front (romance, growth, tragedy, threat, joy) so it wouldn’t have sprung to mind for this list, but yes, now I see what a classic love story it is.

    Aw. This post makes me want to go off and read for the rest of the day.
    Jael McHenry´s last blog post ..11 ideas for 2011 on Intrepid Media

  11. says

    What a great post! I love your description of love stories that “engage the heart, the intellect and the senses”.

    That is really what makes a romance/love story so memorable for me, whether I read it in a book, or hear about it from the people themselves. Falling in love is a universal aspiration, and it has endless varieties available for storytelling purposes. :)
    Donna Cummings´s last blog post ..High Hopes for the Future

  12. says

    Of the listed books Juliet, I have read three and would agree they are stellar romances. Especially Lymond. I would also add Dunnett’s Niccolo series to the list. More for his doomed love of Katerina than for the long-lasting battle of love with Gelis.

    There are dozens of books I’ve read that I could add to the list where love is just a finely stitched thread running through the novel and giving it an added emotional dimension. Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice for example.

    Most recently I have read The Testament of Mariam by Random House author, Ann Swinfen. Mariam’s love for Judas (Yehuda) is heartbreaking and so beautifully illustrated beneath the story of Mariam and Jesus.

    In addition, I agree with the suggestion of Bran and Liadan and although I haven’t quite finished Seer, I would say the subtleties of the Felix/Sibheal relationship are as meritorious.

  13. says

    Vaughn, thank you so much for the lovely compliment! Definitely I would start with Juliet’s Daughter of the Forest, then read the rest of the Sevenwaters series, up through the newest, The Seer of Sevenwaters. They are all such different stories and yet all breathtaking! Then read her Bridei trilogy: The Dark Mirror, Blade of Fortriu, and Well of Shades. More historically based, but equally breathtaking! Though actually I highly recommend any of Juliet’s books, I’m a total Juliet Marillier fangirl! :-)

  14. says

    The History of the Siege of Lisbon sounds like my cup of tea completely. I’m going to look for it right now.

    Love stories are the central draw for me in every story; honestly, if there is not at least some hint of love, I’m not as satisfied.

  15. says

    I’m happy my post sparked off these great comments!

    Vaughn, I am also a big Jacqueline Carey fan. I loved the gradual development (against all odds) of a certain relationship in Kushiel’s Dart. Carey’s love stories are subtly drawn, grown-up and deeply romantic. And sexy!

    To those who said such nice things about the love stories in my books, thank you, I’m humbled! I strive to write as well as these authors whose work I admire so much. And Anna’s right, the best one to start with is Daughter of the Forest.

  16. says

    Hello Juliet!

    I found the love story in your book “The Blade of Fortriu” intriguing and confounding, because I couldn’t give up seeing Faolan as the real romantic hero of the book. It absolutely paid off for me in the third book that you did this, but confused my “hero/heroine” loyalties.

    (I wrote a post about it

    Eile was an amazing romantic heroine.

    x Anna
    Anna Cowan´s last blog post ..the adjective chestnut

  17. says

    I’ve been thinking about this post for the last two days! I agree with everyone that your Daughter of the Forest is a gorgeous example of a love story. It’s one of my favorite novels. And of course I love Pride & Prejudice and Jane Austen, too. I haven’t read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but it’s on my list.

    I have to give it up to the romance industry for creating some memorable love stories. My favorite is probably Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale. It’s the tale of an extravagant duke (hey, it’s historical romance, of course he’s a duke!) who suffers a stroke, and is brought back to himself because of insights into his condition by a woman who is very much his opposite–a Quaker. My description is so inadequate to describe this book. The writing is detailed and elegant. The characterizations are masterful. The angst a stroke victim feels when he’s trapped within a body and mind that no longer work as he means them to is pitch-perfect. The coming together of these two people is handled authentically. There are plenty of surprises. It’s just divine.

  18. Vaughn Roycroft says

    Just in case you check this again, Juliet, I am downloading and starting Daughter of the Forest tonight. I just finished Tender Morsels this morning. What a heartbreaker, but what an uniquely talented author Lanagan is.
    Can’t wait to get started on your catalog. Thanks for steering me!

  19. S. Parsley says

    Just found this site while googling around looking for info on Juliet’s latest project, and while I usually don’t post online, and definitely not about favorite books (mostly because I tend to be crushed when others tell me they think one of my favorites is a waste of paper), I cannot resist this topic. I will have to throw in yet another vote for P&P, and I do love Daughter of the Forest, although Son of the Shadows vies with it for the top of my list. One author that I love that hasn’t been mentioned is Sharon Shinn. My very favorite is Archangel, and I love the development of the world over the course of that original Samaria trilogy. I also love Summers at Castle Auburn, even though it may not be a masterpiece, I find it sweet. I could also make an argument for the romance elements in Tamora Pierce’s young adult Alanna quartet, one that I’ve loved since childhood, although it’s somewhat more adult in some ways than her later works, in my opinion. But now I really am getting self conscious, despite internet anonymity.