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Around the World with Star-Crossed Lovers

With Valentine's Day here once again it's easy, for many reasons, to turn one's nose up at it. But however you feel about the day itself, why not take the opportunity to discover some great world literature about star-crossed lovers? 

Love certainly doesn't stop at borders and it hasn't ever been discriminatory when it comes to impossible love. Besides the classics, such as Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Manon Lescaut, or Tristan & Isolde, you can dig up treasures as far as centuries-old literature is concerned. There's Celestina, published in 1499, a Spanish Romeo and Juliet, which was a bestseller at the time. Then there's the 19th century The Crime of Father Amaro which takes place in Portugal and describes the growing passion and affair between a priest and and a young woman called Amelia. Phew! Below is a more contemporary selection of great books about impossible love from countries around the world from Indonesia to Turkey, Shanghai and beyond. As Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer's Night Dream, "the course of true love never did run smooth." 

Banner image courtesy 20th Century Fox

Giovanni's Room

Set in the 1950s Paris of American expatriates, David meets the Italian bartender, Giovanni, and is swept into a passionate love affair. But his girlfriend's return to Paris destroys everything. Unable to admit to the truth, David pretends the liaison never happened - while Giovanni's life descends into tragedy. 

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All the Rivers

This novel was famously banned in Israeli schools for its frank and tender depiction of a taboo relationship: A chance encounter in New York brings two strangers together: Liat is an idealistic translation student, Hilmi a talented young painter. Together they explore the city, share fantasies, jokes and homemade meals, and fall in love. The problem is that Liat is from Israel, Hilmi from Palestine. Keeping their deepening relationship secret, the two lovers build an intimate universe for two in this city far from home. But outside reality can only be kept at bay for so long. After a tempestuous visit from Hilmi's brother, cracks begin to form in the relationship, and their points of difference - Liat's military service, Hilmi's hopes for Palestine's future - threaten to overwhelm their shared present. When they return separately to their divided countries, Liat and Hilmi must decide whether to keep going, or let go. 

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Moth Smoke

In Lahore, Daru Shezad is a junior banker with a hashish habit. When his old friend Ozi moves back to Pakistan, Daru wants to be happy for him. Ozi has everything: a beautiful wife and child, an expensive foreign education - and a corrupt father who bankrolls his lavish lifestyle. As jealousy sets in, Daru's life slowly unravels. He loses his job,  starts lacing his joints with heroin and becomes involved with a criminally-minded rickshaw driver. He also falls in love with Ozi's lonely wife.But how low can Daru sink? Is he guilty of the crime he finds himself on trial for?

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Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

This is the story of Jeanette, adopted and brought up by her mother as one of God's elect. Zealous and passionate, she seems seems destined for life as a missionary, but then she falls for one of her converts. At sixteen, Jeanette decides to leave the church, her home and her family, for the young woman she loves. Innovative, punchy and tender, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit  is a ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess and human obsession. 

A Book Of Memories

A Book of Memories is made up of three first-person narratives: The first, that of a young Hungarian writer and his fated love for a German poet; we also learn of the narrator's adolescence in Budapest, when he experiences the downfall of his once upper-class but now pro-Communist family. A second memoir, alternating with the first, is a novel the narrator is composing about a refined Belle Epoque aesthete, whose anti-bourgeois transgressions seem like emotionally overcharged versions of the narrator's own experiences. A third voice is that of a childhood friend who, after the narrator's return to his homeland, offers an apparently more objective account of their friendship. Together these brilliantly coloured lives are integrated into a powerful work of tragic intensity.

This Earth of Mankind (Buru Quartet)

Set at the turn of the century in the waning days of Dutch colonial rule, This Earth of Mankind is the first of the four books that comprise Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet. A powerful story of oppression, injustice, and one young man’s political, emotional, and intellectual awakening. Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote This Earth of Mankind while confined on the prison island of Buru, where prisoners did hard labor, clearing jungle with the crudest tools, and suffered starvation diets, beatings, and torture. The narrator of This Earth of Mankind is Minke, the first native Javanese boy to attend an elite Dutch colonial high school. A brilliant student, descendant of Javanese royalty, and an acutely sensitive observer of the complex and dangerous world around him, Minke’s life is disrupted when he is invited to live with a highly unconventional family. Here Minke meets an extraordinary cast of characters who will force him to confront the entrenched antagonisms of a society built upon racial and gender oppression. The household is headed by Nyai Ontosoroh, a native concubine who runs the family’s dairy business, and her half-European children, the beautiful Annalies and the treacherous Robert. Minke falls in love with Annalies, arouses the murderous hatred of Robert, and through his relationship with Nyai takes his first steps on the path that will lead him to become an outspoken opponent of Dutch colonial rule. Minke and Nyai are both proud, highly educated, strong-willed individuals, who refuse to accept the hierarchy that parcels out freedom and power according to the amount of European blood running through one’s veins. In developing the novel primarily through the consciousness of these two characters and their confrontations with injustice, Pramoedya casts a stark light on the hypocrisy of European civilization. Nyai, though a concubine with no legal rights over her children or the business she has made successful, emanates a moral authority unmatched in the novel. And Minke, though his native limitations are regarded as self-evident to many Europeans, proves through his writings and his behavior that he is the equal of anyone. When Nyai discovers that Minke wants to be a writer, she tells him to “Write always about humanity, humanity’s life, not humanity’s death. Yes, whether it’s animals, ogres, gods, or ghosts that you present, there’s nothing more difficult to understand than humanity."

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Last Train to Istanbul

As the daughter of one of Turkey’s last Ottoman pashas, Selva could win the heart of any man in Ankara. Yet the spirited young beauty only has eyes for Rafael Alfandari, the handsome Jewish son of an esteemed court physician. In defiance of their families, they marry, fleeing to Paris to build a new life. But when the Nazis invade France, the exiled lovers will learn that nothing—not war, not politics, not even religion—can break the bonds of family. For after they learn that Selva is but one of their fellow citizens trapped in France, a handful of brave Turkish diplomats hatch a plan to spirit the Alfandaris and hundreds of innocents, many of whom are Jewish, to safety. Together, they must traverse a war-torn continent, crossing enemy lines and risking everything in a desperate bid for freedom.

What We Become

En route from Lisbon to Buenos Aires in 1928, Max and Mecha meet aboard a luxurious transatlantic cruise ship. There Max teaches the stunning stranger and her erudite husband to dance the tango. A steamy affair ignites at sea and continues as the seedy decadence of Buenos Aires envelops the secret lovers. Nice, 1937: Still drawn to one another a decade later, Max and Mecha rekindle their dalliance. In the wake of a perilous mission gone awry, Mecha looks after her charming paramour until a deadly encounter with a Spanish spy forces him to flee. Sorrento, 1966: Max once again runs into trouble—and Mecha. She offers him temporary shelter from the KGB agents on his trail, but their undeniable attraction offers only a small glimmer of hope that their paths will ever cross again.

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All Our Worldly Goods

Pierre and Agnes marry for love against the wishes of his parents and the family patriarch, the tyrannical industrialist Julien Hardelot, provoking a family feud which cascades down the generations. Even when war is imminent and Pierre is called up, the old man is unforgiving. Taut, evocative and beautifully paced, All Our Worldly Goods points up with heartbreaking detail and clarity how close were those two wars, how history repeated itself, tragically, shockingly.

A True Novel

A True Novel begins in New York in the 1960s, where Taro, a relentlessly ambitious Japanese immigrant is trying to make his fortune. Flashbacks and multilayered stories reveal his life: an impoverished upbringing as an orphan, his eventual rise to wealth and success—despite racial and class prejudice—and an obsession with a girl from an affluent family that has haunted him all his life. 

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Jacqueline is a journalist primarily, but not only, interested in fiction and non-fiction with equal passion.