The star-crossed lovers, Kiyoaki Matsugae and Satoko Ayakura, are unable to marry due to class tensions and Kiyoaki’s provincial thick-headedness, which makes him both love and despise the beautiful, aristocratic Satoko. Like all good Mishima novels, it can only end in tragedy.
Rabbit, Run by Updike – class mixing + extramarital affair
Harry Angstrom, a.k.a. Rabbit, a is a 26-year-old married man who meets Ruth Leonard, a part-time prostitute, one night and they begin to have an affair. Harry is a wayward soul and a dunderhead, so the five months we spend with him as he escapes his pregnant wife and then pregnant prostitute girlfriend are, in a nutshell, difficult ones. Keep running, Rabbit! We’re sure you’ll figure it out eventually.
Waiting by Ha Jin – extra-marital affair
Lin Kong has been trying to divorce his country-dwelling wife for years in order to be able to consummate his relationship with Manna, a nurse at the hospital where he works. The ever-faithful Manna waits for nearly two decades, biding the time until she can be with the man she loves. But everyone at the hospital looks down on her for being a spinster since their relationship is a secret, and his extended family hate him for wanting a divorce… Really, there’s no easy way out here.
Franny and Zooey – intense love for a deity
Franny’s relationship with the Big J is one of absolute devotion; she is no longer interested in Lane Coutell, her college boyfriend who wears stupid sweaters and takes her out to lunch at fashionable restaurants. It’s all too much for her weak heart. But her enthusiasm for The Way of the Pilgrim is alarming her family. An intervention is taken, and Franny ultimately realizes she needs to find a different boyfriend. Or a fat lady. Or something.
The God of Small Things – sibling incest
This is no Flowers in the Attic. Roy details the lives and loves of Rahel and Estha, fraternal twins growing up in southern India in the late ’60s. The duo unite as adults back in India and realize they are the only ones who truly understand each other. Insert incest scene. Fin!
“Ballad of the Sad Café” by Carson McCullers – cousin love
Miss Amelia is a hearty southern woman whose café is the place where everyone gathers in this short story. When Cousin Lymon, a small, hunchbacked man, arrives, the two hit it off, until an old flame gets in the way. This is one of the greatest short stories ever written, and the ending always breaks our hearts.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – age difference/pedophilia
You knew this one was coming. Humbert Humbert and 12-year-old Dolores Haze find love in this incredibly controversial novel by one of our favorite Russian troublemakers. If you’re looking for newer examples of pedophilia (and why wouldn’t you be?), One Pill Makes You Smaller is a trippy account of a relationship between a pill-popping adult gentleman and a weird, precocious girl.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence – cross-class love
Constance (aka Lady Chatterley) is bored with her impotent, aristocratic husband, so she begins a torrid affair with the foul-mouthed gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. The book was released in 1928 and people are still wagging fingers today. If you haven’t read this yet, summer is the perfect time to lounge on the beach and fake like a privileged white lady for an afternoon.
The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee
In the early 1940s, an Englishman arrives in Hong Kong and falls for Trudy Liang, a gorgeous socialite of Portuguese-Chinese descent. The New Yorker writes, “[Janice] Lee unfolds each story, and flits between them, with the brisk grace and discretion of the society she describes — a world in which horrors are adumbrated but seldom told.”
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek
In this story about a very different piano teacher named Erika Kohut, an unforgiving woman who demands that her adoring student, Walter Klemmer, beat her up a bit before she will consent to have sex with him. Isn’t violence cleansing, kids? This was made into a terrifically disturbing movie as well, so if you don’t have the attention span to delve into a novel by a serious Austrian, then just go out and rent the damn thing, you rube.
Maurice by E.M. Forster – homosexuality + class difference
This book was published after Forster’s death in 1971, but was written in the early to mid-1900s. In the novel, Maurice Hall is diagnosed with “congenital homosexuality” after falling for a friend in college. He eventually meets Alec Scudder, a gamekeeper, and they reveal their forbidden love to each other at the British museum. There’s even a midnight rendez-vous! Swoon.
Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill – S&M + class difference
The seventh story in Gaitskill’s collection above is titled, “Secretary.” You’ve probably seen the movie starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, but just in case you didn’t, this is a story about a troubled young typist who cuts herself and eventually finds happiness in a sadomasochistic relationship with her domineering boss, who is a lawyer with political aspirations.