Kinds of Love: Three Books for Valentine’s Day

At about this time of year I try to read a handful of books with “love” in the title. I’m currently reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sacred and Profane Love Machine for the #IMReadalong, and I have one more “love” title towards the end of this post, but it turns out that my focus this year has been more on the kinds of love that tend to get ignored around Valentine’s Day – familial love for one’s ageing parents and grandparents.


Be With: Letters to a Carer by Mike Barnes (2018)

Mike Barnes, a Toronto poet and novelist, has been a primary caregiver for his mother, Mary, in the nine years since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis disease. She grew up on a Saskatchewan farm and is now in her nineties; he’s in his sixties. A bipolar sufferer, Barnes has spent his own fair share of time in hospitals and on disability. He’s moved Mary between care homes four times as her condition has deteriorated. Though he laments her gradual loss of words and awareness of her family, he can still discern instances of her bravery and the beauty of life.

This book of fragments – memories and advice delivered via short letters – was written in between demanding caregiving tasks and is meant to be read in those same gaps. Dementia is one situation in which you should definitely throw money at a problem, Barnes counsels, to secure the best care you can, even round-the-clock nursing help. However, as the title suggests, nothing outweighs simply being there. Your presence, not chiefly to make decisions, but just to sit, listen and place a soothing hand on a forehead, is the greatest gift.

There are many excellent, pithy quotations in this book. Here are a few of my favorites:

Dementia is…

“a retreat under fire”

“a passage of exquisite vulnerability”

By your loved one’s side is “Not where things are easy, or satisfactorily achieved, or achievable, or even necessarily pleasant. But where you ought to be, have to be, and are. It brings a peace.”

The goal is “Erring humanely”.

I can imagine this being an invaluable companion for caregivers, to be tucked into a pocket or purse and pulled out for a few moments of relief. On the theme of a parent’s dementia, I’d also recommend Paulette Bates Alden’s book of linked short stories, Unforgettable.

My rating:

Out now from Myriad Editions. My thanks for the free copy for review.


The Smallest Things: On the enduring power of family: A memoir of tiny dramas by Nick Duerden (2019)

Journalist Nick Duerden always appreciated how his maternal grandparents, Nonna and Nonno, seemed so ordinary and unchanging. Every trip to see them in the Milan suburbs was, comfortingly, the same. He’d muddle along with his meager Italian, and they’d look after him in their usual clucking way. It was only as he reached middle age and realized that his grandparents were undeniably very old – his grandmother is 99 and in a care home at the time of writing – that he realized how lucky he was to still have them in his life and how unlikely it was that they’d be around for much longer.

Duerden compares his small immediate family with his Spanish wife’s large extended one, and his uptight paternal grandparents with the more effusive set. There are also some family secrets still to uncover. I made the mistake of reading a previous nonfiction book of Duerden’s just the week before this one: Get Well Soon (2018), which has a long chapter about his grandparents that told me all I needed to know about them. That’s probably the main reason why this short book struck me as lightweight, though I did ultimately find it a touching tribute, especially to his grandmother. It could make a good Mother’s Day present.

My rating:

Out today from Elliott & Thompson. My thanks for a proof copy for review.


Love Story by Erich Segal (1970)

This offbeat novella was a bestseller and a successful film. You surely know its most famous line: “Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry.” Oliver Barrett IV is a golden boy: his banker father and previous generations of the eminent Barrett family funded various buildings at Harvard, where Oliver is a hockey player in the late 1960s. Jenny Cavilleri, on the other hand, comes from a single-parent Italian-American family in New Jersey. She’s made it to Radcliffe as a harpsichordist, but her father is just a baker; she’d never be considered good enough for the likes of Oliver. But they meet at the Radcliffe library and, sure enough, fall for each other. She calls him “Preppie”; he calls her a bitch. They’re only partially joking. It may be true love against the odds, but it has an expiration date, as we know from the first line: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year old girl who died?”

I wanted to like this more. There’s a pleasing lightness to the style, but because the whole book is from Oliver’s perspective, I felt like Jenny got short shrift: she’s the wise-cracking gal from the block, and then she’s the innocent victim in the hospital bed. Because this is only about 120 pages, there’s not much space in between for her character to be developed. I was somewhat appalled to learn about a 1977 sequel in which Oliver finds a new love.

(Segal’s daughter Francesca is also a novelist (The Innocents).)

My rating:



Have you read any “love” books, or books about love of any kind, lately?

16 responses

  1. You could try Tracy Farr’s ‘The Hope Fault’, which deals with a family brought together for one last weekend in the holiday home. Last night’s discussion at Book Group revealed what a complex, multi-layered story this is. Though generally well-received , we all had a different take on it. Recommended.


    1. Alas, I gave up on that one earlier this week! I got to page 45 (which took me weeks of off and on reading). I wanted to like it more, having loved her first novel. What I did manage to read reminded me a lot of The Past by Tessa Hadley.


      1. That’s interesting. I really struggled with the early part too, but it really took off for me when it got to the part about Iris’ mum. Then I couldn’t put it down. Others last night felt exactly the opposite!


  2. How lovely to highlight a different sort of love on Valentine’s Day. I’m afraid that frequently quoted line from Love Story has always irritated the hell out of me!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love these three interesting books and a great theme. I’ve finished The Sacred and Profane Love Machine and of course it’s full of different kinds of love: for family, for animals, for friends, for solitude and your own arrangements …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m approaching halfway in Sacred and Profane. Really enjoying this one!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Great news! I got loads more out of it than I remember doing other reads (this was my fourth time, I think). I look forward to hearing what you thought of it.


  4. I like the sound of the first two books. Nine years caring for a parent with dementia – that’s a long time! And Duerden is so lucky to have had his grandparents for so long. I’d like to read about them!

    Your review of Love Story kind of makes me want to read it again. I think I read it in high school, and I can’t remember anything except that I didn’t care for it.

    One of the reasons I love reading your blog is all the tidbits of information I get from it… like Francesca being Segal’s daughter. I would never have known that otherwise! (Not that it even matters, but I still like to know it. :))

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do think you’d enjoy the first two books. I wondered if Barnes’s name would be familiar to you.

      I assumed that Segal was a one-hit wonder with Love Story but then discovered he actually wrote a lot more, though nothing I’d heard of. I don’t think I’d read any more of his books. The voice in this one was pretty enjoyable, a little like Holden Caulfield’s in The Catcher in the Rye, but the book as a whole felt dated.


      1. I recognized the Barnes’ book, but hadn’t heard of him before.


  5. […] this is very similar to another book I’ve reviewed this year, Be With by Mike Barnes, a series of short letters written during his time as a caregiver to his mother, who […]


  6. […] in the title or that consider romantic or familial love in some way. (Here are my 2017, 2018 and 2019 posts.) These seven selections, all of them fiction, sometimes end up being more bittersweet or […]


  7. […] “Love” or a similar word in the title in the run-up to mid-February. (Here are the 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 posts. I’m also at work on a set of three “Heart” titles to post about on the 14th.) […]


  8. […] that have “Love” or a similar word in the title in the run-up to mid-February (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and […]


  9. […] that have “Love” or a similar word in the title in the run-up to mid-February (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and […]


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