Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill
Offill’s sophomore effort is being widely heralded as one of the best books of the year, and with good reason: it’s smart as hell, psychologically complicated, and likely to stir up quite a few emotions. For those who cannot see through the other side of their despair, Offill’s slim novel might not show you the way, but it will show you that there is a way.
The History of Love, Nicole Krauss
This gorgeous novel centers on two people, a refugee from WWII and a young girl, both desperately plagued by loss and loneliness, as their stories, unexpectedly but, of course, inevitably combine. Fate, people. It’s a thing. If nothing else, read it for those last lines: “He fell in love. It was his life.”
Pleasure, Brian Teare
Teare wrote this collection of gorgeous, ecstatic, overwhelming poems about the death of his partner from AIDS. In the book-length elegy, he casts his lover’s body as a lush Eden, filling his grief with language, watching his language break down in the face of it. He has spoken about the bizarreness of being still sexually attracted to someone who’s dead, and the reader can feel the physical desire in these poems like a transmission. There is intense mourning here, but there is also beauty, and there is also hope, a clearing, an edge. And for those who are still pissed, there are also lines like “I’ll tell you how I feel : fuck the real.”
Paris Trance, Geoff Dyer
A slacker expat novel, to be sure, but more importantly: Dyer is so good at evoking the very particular magic that you get at the beginning of things that you won’t be able to wait to have a new lover again. You’re ready.
This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Díaz
For when you know you’ve fucked up (over and over and over) and want to commiserate (over and over and over). After all, as Díaz tells us in that sneakily heartfelt pop prose of his, “the half-life of love is forever.”
The Epicure’s Lament, Kate Christensen
A novel that will convince you that being a curmudgeonly old cynic isn’t all that bad. And you know, you were right about her all along.
Late Wife, Claudia Emerson
This collection by the late Claudia Emerson (who will be much, much missed) won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 and was recently summed up in my hearing as “we got divorced, but now I have a new love, so suck it.” Indeed, the book is split between poems about and to her ex-husband, poems about her life alone, and sonnets for her current husband. For when you need a reminder that life goes on.
The Family Fang, Kevin Wilson
First of all, this book, all hijinks and magic and absurdity, a Wes Anderson movie committed to paper, is likely to make you forget about any kind of troubles you might have for a while. Second, in the end it manages to be a book about creating your own family, your own love, out of what you’ve got, and out of what has you. A worthy reminder.
Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds
What a beauty of a book. In this collection of poems, Olds tells the story of her divorce — in all its strangeness and sadness — but ultimately affirms that life will go on, that she will be fine, that we all will. After all, she writes, “When anyone escapes, my heart / leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from, / I am half on the side of the leaver.”
Get in Trouble, Kelly Link
When you just need to escape into a world that’s weirder and more interesting than the one you’re living in, Kelly Link is the answer. This, her newest collection, is also the most intelligent about the workings of the human heart, even while her characters are at superhero conventions or mystical getaways. Her stories remind you that love is strange, people are stranger, and that Ghost Boyfriends are way more trouble than Werewolf Boyfriends.
Going Away Shoes, Jill McCorkle
Somehow snarky and tender at the same time, McCorkle’s stories are masterful odes to moving on, to getting through, to staring into the darkness without blinking, or maybe just blinking once, and then having a drink, and getting back to it. And then there’s this, from the end of the title story: “She is Sisyphus. All day long she pushes that rock and when she is almost to the top, something happens to distract her and it all rolls back to the very place the journey began. Some day she will make it to the top. Some perfect day she will stand, wind in her face and watch it barreling down the other side, taking anything and anybody in its path. But until then she will travel this worn and familiar road, sure-footed and steady in real time, eyes vigilantly focused on the life before her. She is the cobbler of her own heart and this will save her soul.”
Heartburn, Nora Ephron
Seriously? Enough Nora Ephron can fix just about anything.
My Antonia, Willa Cather
For, when you know you can’t go back, when you know you have to leave them behind, just wallowing and indulging your nostalgia. Pair with red wine and the notes you took on this novel in high school, little hearts and misspellings and all.
Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare
The original romantic comedy, and the original deconstruction of a romantic comedy. Beatrices rejoice, your Benedicks are surely out there, and will, before the curtain closes, embarrass themselves in front of you with their love poems.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver
For talking about it, and for not talking about it.
Mr. Fox, Helen Oyeyemi
Oyeyemi’s brilliant novel features a fellow who just can’t stop killing off the women in his novels. Enter his muse, who is not the same as his wife, and we’re off on a meta-fairytale-novel about love and literature and keeping to your own path.
Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson
Anne Carson’s theories of the erotic are likely to confuse those in relationships and delight those who are out of them. Essentially it’s this: you can only truly desire something when you don’t have it, so all the poor schmucks who have what they want don’t — can’t — want it anymore. There’s really no way to win.
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
You don’t want any part of that person anyway. They’re probably secretly a complete psychopath.
The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch
Never has been committed to paper a more convincing argument against pursuing someone who isn’t interested in you. But, you say. No, says Murdoch. No.
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Here’s a novel that might put things into perspective. Also a novel about what happens when grief is made (sort of) flesh. Also a novel that will consume you and leave little room for anything pesky, like feeling bad about some lame ex-lover.
Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
Amis’ comedic romp will definitely divert you for a few hours, and also remind you that, despite frequently ridiculous complications, sometimes things do turn out all right. At least for the time being.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Your relationship? Oh, it could be worse.
Self-Help, Lorrie Moore
But of course — who else but Moore to teach you how to salve your own wounds? Sharp and funny and full of vigor, these stories will teach you how to live, they’ll teach you how to live again, they’ll teach you how to coach yourself off a ledge. “Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you,” begins “Amahl and the Night Visitors: A Guide to the Tenor of Love.” In another: “Remember: at Blakely Falls High, Willis Holmes would have done anything to be with you. You don’t have to put up with this: you were second runner-up at the Junior Prom.” In another, we are reassured, after a fashion. ”The sadness will die like an old dog. You will feel nothing but indifference. The logy whine of a cowboy harmonica, plaintive, weary, it will fade into the hills slow as slow Hank Williams. One of those endings.”
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
Without giving too much away, while reading this book, consider how much you really loved that person. Too much sacrifice can be a bad thing.
Blankets, Craig Thompson
For straight-up wallow time.
Rabbit Hole, David Lindsay-Abaire
There are many kinds of heartbreak, but likely none so devastating as the one dissected in this incredible play. Depending on the nature of your own, you may find some solace, or some hope, or some much-needed perspective here.
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
Another wallow book, about the death of Didion’s husband, but only attempt if you want to really cry, and even then, only if you want to ultimately decide that Joan Didion’s pain is more terrible and more beautiful than yours.
High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
The modern break-up classic! And hey, if you’re feeling too morose to turn the pages, you can always just watch the movie.
What the Living Do, Marie Howe
Howe’s incredible What the Living Do is an elegy to her brother, both devastating and redemptive. Here is some of the best writing about loss you’ll ever read, and some of the best writing about finding a way through.
Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
Well, sometimes when you’re sad, you just need a 850-page time-travel novel filled with Scottish Highlander sex. An excellent distraction from anything that ails you.
The End of the Story, Lydia Davis
Get lost in the aftermath of somebody else’s love affair — and decide you’re maybe not as obsessed with your ex as you could be.
Heavenly Questions, Gjertrud Schnackenberg
This book is an ornate, soaring elegy in only six long poems, an elegy that widens its gaze to encompass the nature of reality and experience. As D.H. Tracy put it in Poetry, “Grief raises the question ‘Why him?’ (which, as every good elegist realizes, means ‘Why me?’); the book undertakes to turn this question into a generalized cosmic Why… Schnackenberg has written nothing less than a Miltonic book-length poem on eternity, infinity, and the meaning of life.”
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
If nothing else, it’s a book-length warning about what hanging on to all that bitterness will do to you and those around you. Cake, anyone?
Wild, Cheryl Strayed
There is an option beyond just staying in bed with a pint of ice cream. Just do the opposite of that. After you read this book, that is.
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin
Thinking everything would be way better if you just never had feelings about the opposite sex? Get lost in this novel about a genderless planet — because hey, maybe the friendship love story will remind you to call someone you actually still like.
Important Artifacts and Personal Property From The Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, And Jewelry, Leanne Shapton
A unique love story told via auction catalog for the stage where you want to throw everything out, but know you shouldn’t, but really want to, but….
Endless Love, Scott Spencer
Look, at least your ex-boyfriend hasn’t burned down your parents’ house… yet.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
The classic epistolary seduction novel, filled with cruelty and deception. Love is dangerous, it tells us. You’ll never give in again, right? Right.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
A friendly reminder that poisoning is always a possibility.
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
By the time you’re done with this novel, you’ll have forgotten all about the person who broke your poor heart. And even if you haven’t, you’ll be all set to snatch up a delightful hipster-intelligentsia rebound, and I hear those are the best.
Tenth of December, George Saunders
Saunders’ empathy just pours out of these stories, and a reading of this (or any) collection will remind you on some deep level that humanity is OK, people are trying, and that love is real. He is a giver of the faith.
The Portable Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker
For when all you need to feel better are a few clutch comebacks.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan
If you’re a book nerd, you’ll find that this is one of those novels you’ll put your nose into for a moment and only come out several hours later when you’ve read it all the way through. It’s seriously that delicious. So if you want to jump straight into another world for a while and forget about your own, may I suggest this magical bookstore cult-land? You’re welcome.
Black Hole, Charles Burns
Well, sex leads to having tails and skin that comes off and facial deformities anyway. You don’t want any part of that.
The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald
If your instinct for mending a broken heart is to go on a long walk with a very interesting man who’ll tell you all you ever wanted to know about everything but don’t know anyone who fits that description, let me introduce you to W.G. Sebald, your new best friend.
A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
If you need a reminder that life is long, that it changes, that it circles back around, that people you meet now you might meet again, this is the book for you. Also, it’s wildly entertaining, and that always helps.
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
Trust Cal; you have it easy.
The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
Not only is this a luminous little book, but it reminds us that we never really know what’s actually going on with other people, and shouldn’t jump to conclusions. A good life lesson, no matter when you learn it.
The Classic Horror Stories, H.P. Lovecraft
In case you need to just completely redirect your attention. Can’t be lovesick when you’re terrified.
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
It’s a love story, sure, but maybe you want that. Or maybe you just want someone to agree with you, in the form of a whole book, that lovesickness is indeed a disease. Perhaps this is the cure.