Wonderful Books About Unhappy Marriages


Sometimes the best and most engrossing stories are those about the most terrible and heartbreaking events. Inspired by the Guardian’s article on the joys of unhappy marriage literature, we thought we’d catalog a few of our own favorites (a few of which, we admit, overlap with the Guardian’s choices). These novels, sad as they are, are completely beautiful. It’s like not being able to look away from a car accident, hard as you try — intense grief is an incredibly captivating emotion, and as humans, empathy is rewarding and cathartic. Click through for our list of unhappy marriage literature that is nonetheless wonderful to read, and let us know which books contain your own most dearly held crumbling marriage stories.

Revolutionary Road — Richard Yates

In the original article, the author writes that “for Yates, every husband is a moral coward, every woman on the verge of a breakdown, every tray of cocktail-hour hors d’oeuvres just moments from being hurled at the wall.” In no book is this more true that Revolutionary Road, one of the most heartbreaking and unsettling portraits of a marriage of all time. In this case, the marriage dissolves in monotony, in the place where fear of change and need for security butts up against hopes and dreams, and ultimately crushes them. It’s depressing, but it’s a gorgeous book.

Anna Karenina — Leo Tolstoy

Of course we must mention the book that brought us the ubiquitous line, Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Though the novel begins with Anna helping to mend a crumbling marriage, she goes on to abandon her husband and son to run away with another man. There is much time spent keeping up appearances, and staying in a relationship both parties know is a farce, but the intricacies of Anna and her trials and tribulations leave you loving her.

The Awakening — Kate Chopin

Edna Pontellier was so unable to reconcile her feelings with her world that she walked into the ocean to drown herself, leaving her bewildered traditionalist husband behind. It’s hard to be a lady.

Freedom — Jonathan Franzen

The dissolution of Patty and Walter’s marriage in the face of Richard’s influence and their growing guilt is made no less terrible by their eventual reconciliation. The whole thing, as we’re sure you know, reads like a delicious, delicious soap opera.

The Portrait of a Lady — Henry James

Why oh why does Isabel Archer choose the hopelessly cold Osmond? She passes up the much more appealing Lord Warburton for fear that marriage would ruin her newfound independence, but chooses Osmond, who wants to collect her as an art object. She is ultimately unable to escape him, losing whatever independence she might have thought she had to her terrible marriage.