What is the true practical use of a breakup book? When an important relationship ends you imagine you are in a completely singular situation, that no one else has endured quite the exact exquisitely painful situation that you are currently muddling through. You intuitively believe that your feelings are unique, sui generis, but it is somehow reassuring or uplifting to stumble on evidence that they are not. The pleasure of listening to certain songs or reading certain books is that, after an obligatory and useful period of disorienting isolation, they welcome you back into the human circle. It is oddly reassuring to see that you are not unique, i.e., alone, that this same tragedy has befallen other people, and they have mysteriously survived. (As Shakespeare put it: “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not from love.”)
What follows is my list of the three all-time best breakup books:
In Love by Alfred Hayes
The New York Review of Books is reissuing this lost masterpiece of breakup literature, originally published in 1953, and when I came across it, I thought to myself, “How have I made it this far in life without reading this book?” A man who read it said to me, “It’s great isn’t it? I’ll never date again.” Both of which seem to me completely reasonable responses to In Love. It’s a ruthlessly observant novel with heart-stoppingly good sentences. (It’s impossible not to be seduced by passages like: “The only thing we haven’t lost, I thought, is the ability to suffer. We’re fine at suffering. But it’s such noiseless suffering. We never disturb the neighbors with it. We collapse, but we collapse in the most disciplined way. That’s us. That’s certainly us. The disciplined collapsers.”)
The whole book is the moody monologue of a man sitting at a bar telling a woman about a bruising affair that has haunted him. (One of the clever and elegant things about it is that the elegy for the lost affair is also the preamble for a new one; it’s both a fierce indictment of love and the chatting up of a pretty woman.) In the affair that obsesses the man, he was evasive, uncommitted, ironic. But when the woman in question runs off with a rich man and marries him, he is lost: “It was becoming painful to think. There seemed to be inside me whole areas I had to be careful of. I could feel my mind, like a paw, wince away from certain sharp recollections. I contained, evidently, a number of wounded ideas.”
Hayes’ description of a failed trip the two lovers took to the Jersey Shore is one of the greatest scenes of romantic alienation ever written. He pinpoints the desperate desire for love and the recognition that it is slipping away with magnificent precision: It is one of the most confusing states two people can encounter, and to see it rendered in words is rare and lovely.
Light Years by James Salter
In this painfully beautiful book, Salter somehow manages to capture the lushness of a thriving marriage and its simultaneous decline. (“Life is weather. Life is meals. Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled. The smell of tobacco. Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives.”) He conjures the gorgeousness of daily life, the rhythms of love, of a worn and comfortable familiarity along with the wordless restlessness, the growing discontents. (“ … and he reads to them, as he does every night, as if watering them, as if turning the earth at their feet.”) Somehow we see in this elaborately complex portrait of domestic life both the greatness and transcendent possibility of family, and the crashing insufficiency of it, which is an astonishing, nearly impossible literary feat. The book is ultimately about how happiness and restlessness collide, about the ends entwined in beginnings, the imperceptible changes of heart, the nascent elegies embedded in our warmest, safest, happiest moments. If the real question we want answered in breakup novels is how a vivid, pressing love fades, this book comes closer than any other I have ever read to answering it.
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
In this classic of the genre, Greene captures the mood of natural malice that occurs post-love: “This is a record of hate far more than of love,” he writes. His main character, Bendrix, is not afraid to express his untrammeled rage for his ex-flame: “Nothing would have delighted me more than to hear that she was sick, unhappy, dying.”
The novel, like all of Greene’s, mingles a perfectly crafted story with existential musing. His mistress writes in her journal: “Sometimes after a day when we have made love many times, I wonder whether it isn’t possible to come to an end of sex, and know that he is wondering too and is afraid of that point where the desert begins. What do we do in the desert if we lose each other? How does one go on living after that?”
Here as elsewhere, Greene takes as his subject the mysteries of sexual involvement: “The act of sex may be nothing, but when you reach my age you learn that at any time it may prove to be everything.”
Other great breakup literature, should one need more, would include several stories from John Updike’s Licks of Love, Richard Ford’s Independence Day, certain poems of Robert Lowell’s, and the first dazzlingly ironic chapter of Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps.