For all that I am a person with, at times, very mushy romantic sensibilities, I was at a loss for some time as to how I would answer this question. I really like books to have a romantic element to the story, but usually, I don’t want the romance to be the main point; there should be some other adventure going on that involves both of the romantic leads. Thus, I really couldn’t think of many books in which the romance is the main draw of the story. Perhaps Pride and Prejudice might count, though I’ll be among the first to insist “Austen did not write romance novels!” (Also, I thought of Robin McKinley’s Sunshine as a favorite (anti)hero/heroine relationship, though while it almost could be a romance, it really isn’t. I’m still kind of in love with Con, though.)
And then I was reminded of a lovely book written by an author with whom I have been carrying on my own little reader romance: anybody who talks to me about books will figure out pretty quickly that I adore Patricia A. McKillip’s fantasy. One thing I love about her books is that she works with a wide cast of generally likable, sympathetic characters, all situated in varying points about the periphery of some mysterious, magical happening that is the heart of the story. Or perhaps I should say, the heart of the plot. Because the heart of McKillip’s stories is always situated squarely in her characters.
So, for best love story, I choose that of Gwyneth Blair and Judd Cauley in The Bell at Sealey Head.
The mystery at the center of their book is the unknown bell that tolls once each evening as the sun sinks beneath the sea. While Judd, an avid reader, and Gwyneth, an ardent storyteller, are both curious about the answer to the riddle of the bell, throughout the the book, each seeks the answer to a more important question: “Do you love me?” And that’s what I like about their story. The fulfillment and excitement of their lives isn’t derived from a magical adventure. Magic indeed touches and colors their lives, but ultimately, they’re much more interested in each other than in a world of fay enchantment.
The other aspect of their love story that I like is that it’s not contrived or overly melodramatic. While I will vouch for the fact that Jane Austen doesn’t lie (romance really can get crazy), there is something comfortable and reassuring about a love story in which nobody drastically misinterprets the other or spends chapters pining in agonies of love. It’s not that Judd and Gwyneth don’t have obstacles to surmount: he’s a humble innkeeper’s son and she’s the daughter of a well-to-do merchant and courted by a ridiculous, though surprisingly not-entirely-hatable, suitor named Raven (who, I might add, nicely defeats the cliche of his name). But their romance progresses in a rather steady, reasonable, and realistic fashion. It really isn’t a spoiler to tell you that they end up together; you know from the first that they belong together because they love the same things and have been friends since childhood.
“He was most reluctant to give up his beloved daughter,” Judd told her, “but could not deny her what she seemed, so peculiarly, to want.”
“Don’t be silly,” she said, taking his arm. “He’s relieved that anybody at all would want a woman with such a deranged imagination and abnormal sensibilities.”