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Choices for Valentine’s Day

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, it seems fitting to focus on matters of the heart.

Many South Shore women have told me that romance novels are not always their first choice for reading material. Yet, they readily acknowledge that they are not immune to the pull of a good love story where the main characters are swept up in the tides of fate, and manage to not only discover themselves, but find a soul mate in the process.

Braintree resident Barbara Hammond said that over the years, she has read quite a few love stories, and believes that Nicholas Sparks’ are among the best.

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“I think Sparks creates stories where inevitably you find yourself rooting for a happy ending for that special couple who find each other because they happen to be in the right place at the right time,” said Hammond, a retired social worker.

Hammond recently read his latest novel, “The Best of Me,” which she described as a good love story, but not as emotional or inspirational as some of his earlier works. Instead, she recommends “Message in a Bottle,” a 1998 book that was made into a movie with Kevin Costner.

In the book, Theresa Osbourne, a Boston newspaper columnist and single mother, discovers a bottle that has washed ashore on Cape Cod. The bottle holds a letter from a man named Garrett Blake, which stirs her heart. Trying to cope with loss, Garrett has penned a love letter to his deceased wife, Catherine, declaring his unending love for her.

Theresa manages to find Garrett, and she discovers that he still holds an undying passion for Catherine. But eventually, an affair develops between Garrett and Theresa that is as passionate as any that came before it.

“Garrett must struggle within himself to move forward from the love of his life, in order to make room in his heart for new love,’’ said Hammond. “But Sparks makes these characters ones that anyone can relate to, and the love Theresa and Garrett come to feel is the kind that every reader wants and hopes for in their lifetime.”

I remember that Kahlil Gibran once wrote, “Only at the hour of separation do we know our deepest love.” And clearly Sparks’ novel seems to capture those feelings. But some readers say they find less appeal in this kind of love story, because in real life, love and marriage is never so simple, so perfect, or so stable over time.

As a psychologist, I have observed that after a loved one’s death, there is often a tendency to idealize both the person who is lost and the relationship with that person. It is a defensive maneuver that is common in grief, as it wards off the painful feelings of ambivalence, disappointment, and anger that we fear will overwhelm us or diminish our sense of what we have lost.

Readers who recognize this may prefer a love story with less deliberate sentimentality, one less contrived to render the image of a “perfect’’ relationship that is lost.

In this vein, Meaghan Barrett of Milton, a former attorney and a mother of three, recommends a love story that is honest, and sometimes blunt, about the compromises involved in creating an enduring relationship.

“One of the best books that I have recently read is called ‘A Happy Marriage,’ by Rafael Yglesias,” she said.

The novel tells the story of Enrique Sabas and his wife, Margaret, who is dying of cancer. It alternates between flashbacks of the charming misadventures of the first weeks of their courtship and the final months of Margaret’s life. In covering the couple’s 30 years together, the book describes a relationship that has had more than its share of laughter and tears, tedium and celebration, triumphant highs and terrible lows.

Barrett noted that the novel was based on Yglesias’ own marriage, “which was beautiful, loving, and flawed, and I think this is what makes the characters so real and alive.”

For example, Barrett said: “The reader can see how Enrique genuinely adores his wife in some moments and yet in others, wants to divorce her. As a husband, he admits he is frequently angry at her lack of expressiveness, yet at the same time sees her capacity for self-containment as a strength that fills him with awe.”

She added: “I think readers will be able to relate more to this particular kind of love story because it portrays a real marriage and real intimacy. It shows the kind of respect and love that is hard-fought-for and hard-earned.”

A third story recommended this Valentine’s Day by Hingham’s Laura Hornbeck, homemaker and mother of two, focuses on an altogether different kind of loss.

“Me Before You,” by British author Jojo Moyes, tells the story of Will Traynor, a handsome, successful young man who seeks to live life to its fullest. Suddenly, an accident leaves him a quadriplegic requiring round-the-clock care. Even more worrisome is that Will has completely lost his desire to live and has arranged for an assisted suicide in Switzerland.

But a young local woman is hired to be Will’s companion for his final months, and despite their vast differences in personality and life experience, she takes on the challenge of trying to show Will that even life in a wheelchair is worth living.

“This is not just a typical romance, but rather it is a tale of true love that confronts head-on the issue of whose right it is to determine the quality of another’s life,” Hornbeck said.

She concluded: “It seems that from birth onward, we are hard-wired to seek connection and love. I think every really good love story renders hope that it can be found.”

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