"My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, From Chekhov to Munro" (HarperCollins Publishers, 587 pages, $24.95), edited by Jeffrey Eugenides: In the introduction to this remarkable collection, Jeffrey Eugenides warns readers that good love stories aren't fluffy, happy-go-lucky affairs. Instead, they "depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart."
"Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name," writes Eugenides, the best-selling author of "Middlesex" and "The Virgin Suicides."
The 27 short stories in this collection provide healthy doses of longing and disappointment, but reading them is thoroughly enjoyable, like diving into a box of fine chocolates and savoring the bitter along with the sweet.
The stories range from classics, such as James Joyce's "The Dead," Anton Chekhov's "The Lady With the Little Dog" and William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" to exquisite modern fare, mostly from U.S. and Canadian authors.
In David Bezmozgis' "Natasha," a Toronto teenager spends his summer break making pot deliveries, reading philosophy and falling for his uncle's Russian stepdaughter. It's a good time, until family drama smashes everything to pieces.
Deborah Eisenberg's "Some Other, Better Otto" tells the story of a gay New Yorker who finds himself in the midst of an existential crisis after an upsetting Thanksgiving dinner with his siblings.
Tensions mount in David Gates' "The Bad Thing," when a pregnant woman and her older, controlling husband leave the city for a quieter life.
The collection also features heartwrenchingly beautiful stories from Harold Brodkey, Gilbert Sorrentino, Raymond Carver and Alice Munro, as well as some darker takes on love by Vladimir Nabokov and Milan Kundera.
"It is perhaps only in reading a love story (or in writing one) that we can simultaneously partake of the ecstasy and agony of being in love without paying the crippling emotional price," Eugenides writes. "I offer this book, then, as a cure for lovesickness and an antidote to adultery."
That's no small claim, but this book shows that when it comes to heartache, great writers may just have the right diagnosis, if not the remedy. In either case, the book makes a great Valentine's Day gift for spouses, friends or lovers — and you can feel good about buying it: Eugenides is donating his proceeds to 826 Chicago, a nonprofit that tutors children in creative and expository writing.