Breaking up sucks. Getting dumped is painful. Learning your beloved loves someone else is like being stabbed in the back.There are so many ways for relationships to end badly, and each one hurts uniquely. Whether you want to really wallow in heartbreak, or get in touch with your anger, or find the strength to move on, books can help. They require more focus than movies or television, which is key when your mind is racing and your entire being only wants to stalk your ex on Instagram or passive aggressively tweet song lyrics. Here is some essential reading for when someone’s stomped on your heart and you’re looking for just the right distraction. Put on something comfy, gather your ice cream or your whiskey or your vape or any combination of the above, grab a box of tissues, and let’s go.
The ultimate novel for when you want to stare into the abyss and let your mind wander to the darkest corners, Days of Abandonment is ideal reading if you want to be dramatic about a breakup. The story of Olga, an Italian woman whose husband abandons her and their two young children, is perfect for the times when you feel like you’re on the verge of losing your shit, and any little thing could push you over the edge. The walls of their home seem to close in on Olga as she gets lost in her own horrific thoughts, and the reading experience of the book is similarly claustrophobic. Get your pain right here.
All of the darkness and chaos of Ferrante’s world is sublimated into stillness and light in this quietly devastating Japanese novel first published in the late 1970s. When her spouse leaves her, the unnamed narrator rents a new, bright and airy apartment for herself and her young daughter where she can feel liberated even if she’s not quite free. The consequences of being a single mom in a patriarchal country mean that she will never experience tranquility — so many people urge her to try to work things out with her husband so she won’t be ruined — but it’s hard not to feel a little hope as she takes a tumultuous yet decisive first step toward independence.
You can’t properly mourn a breakup without some mega-sad poetry, and Sharon Olds always delivers. Stag’s Leap takes you through every stage of heartbreak grief — it was written after her husband left her for another woman. An extra fun feature is that I’ve discovered that for each poem I can think of a corresponding song that goes with it, like it’s a breakup album in verse. The title poem, with its self-doubt and bitterness and biting vocabulary, corresponds beautifully to Fiona Apple’s “Werewolf.” “On the Hearth of a Broken Home” has the earnest misery of the most angsty Indigo Girls song — “Blood and Fire.” “Known to Be Left” is Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” but with more shame. Olds nears the end of the collection in full Ariana Grande “Thank U, Next” mode with “Poem of Thanks.”
It feels so real when you’re living it, doesn’t it? The kind of obsessive love that makes you feel horny and fierce when it’s going well and dangerously bereft when it isn’t. Susan Choi’s novel about the relationship between a grad student and a married couple details all the shit we have to learn in life that doesn’t take place in a classroom. Young love is a kind of temporary madness that we eventually outgrow: “One went from believing, when 20, that it was the one kind of love that was real, to believing, once closer to 40, that it was not only fragile but false — the inferior, infantile, doomed love of 20-year-olds.”
If you’ve been meaning to catch up on Cusk’s exquisite trilogy, post-breakup is a great time for delving in. The narrator has recently split from her husband in the first novel of the set, but rather than navel-gazing, she turns her attention outward. By listening to stories of the people she meets in her travels to Athens to teach a writing course, the narrator’s genuine curiosity about others becomes a powerful coping mechanism. Bonus: if you’re having trouble concentrating because you’re too angry or too sad to focus, Outline is great because there’s no intricate plot to keep in mind. You don’t have to stay focused on any one scene for too long. You can move on.
The most essential reading for a breakup should help you get your groove back and clearly there is a book designed exactly for such a purpose. Terry McMillan’s novel about a middle-aged woman who travels to Jamaica and falls for a sexy younger man is a delightful mode of escapism and a modern classic in breakup literature. You are too hot to be sitting around feeling sad. Go get some.