If Valentine’s Day is an unwelcome reminder of what has become of your love life, you can find solace at the bookshop. Here are 10 literary highlights for the lovelorn
Some relationships ebb away, petering to their end. There is loneliness and ambivalence after this kind of breakup, no doubt. But there is another altogether more visceral kind – the brutal, sudden and sometimes unexpected end to love, which is experienced like a death. For this, some serious heartbreak literature is required. The heroine in my new novel Missing, Presumed, suffers just such an emotional karate chop. Ghosting appears to be the modern term for it, though it’s as old as the hills. In Thomas Hardy’s day, someone would stop cycling to your village. Today, you can find yourself cut dead by WhatsApp.
In my novel, Manon Bradshaw is felled by the end of a relationship that had offered her great hope. She is 39 and once again facing loneliness, after brief respite. If I could hand her a stack of books to help her through the snotty-tissue stage, these are the ones I would choose.
Books like these – which carry us through the worst of times – become lifelong friends.
They offer wisdom in the dark, a voice saying you are not alone. And they touch on larger themes of grief and the inward-looking process of rebuilding oneself. They will hold your hand through the worst of it, my friend. Happy Valentine’s Day.
1. Instead of a Letter: A Memoir by Diana Athill
As a young woman, Diana Athill was engaged to an air force pilot, Paul, whom she’d met at the age of 15. Instead of a Letter tells how he broke off the engagement – he abruptly stopped writing to her, then two years later she received a curt note asking her to release him from the engagement so he could marry someone else. Paul died overseas before she could confront or forgive him. In a sense, this is a memoir about hanging on when all is lost. Athill writes elegantly about the shabby gentility of her childhood and her later career as a literary editor, but the drama here is in her frankness about the struggle to rebuild a personality taken apart by sadness.
2. Solitude by Anthony Storr
Did Beethoven compose great works before snuggling up in happy coupledom? He did not. While the world harps on about relationships being the key to happiness, psychiatrist Storr argues in this very kindly work that we pay far too little attention to some of the other great satisfactions of life – work and creativity. This book is a rallying cry for the irascible, lonely curmudgeons. We have stuff going for us too, says Storr, with much reference to psychoanalytic theory, and the twin human instincts – outward towards attachment yes, but also inward towards self-sufficiency and the kind of contemplation that can only happen when we are alone.
3. After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell
This novel tells the story of Alice, a young woman in a coma. The story’s clever, dreamlike structure loops back into her past and the secrets held there. It has all the grip of a psychological thriller, but the writing is drenched in loss and absence. It’s the intense atmosphere of grief that stays with you.
4. Two Cures for Love by Wendy Cope
If you haven’t yet discovered Some More Light Verse, my personal favourite in this collection, you have a treat in store. Two Cures for Love encompasses meeting men, falling in love, falling out of it, not being able to decide whether you’re in love, struggling to improve yourself even though the outlook’s grim. The ambivalence on every page is doleful and humorous and real. Noting that men are like bloody buses, she writes:
You look at them flashing their indicators,
Offering you a ride.
You’re trying to read the destinations,
You haven’t much time to decide.
5. To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush
This memoir is the author’s attempt to reconnect with life after the cold wastes of extended grief. Rush’s wife – “the woman who had been at the centre of my existence for a quarter of a century” – dies quickly and unexpectedly from cancer, leaving him alone with two children. Rush descends into a desperate decline, in which he loses his connection to life, to literature and to himself. This account of a journey into the Cevennes, in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson, takes him towards recovery and a realisation that the world still has riches to offer.
6. The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
A novel about the derangement provoked by abandonment – not a sanitised kind of madness, but the real, dark thing. It opens with Olga’s husband walking out on her and their two young children for a younger woman. The unravelling of Olga’s internal world is as ugly as it is compelling, with terrifying jeopardy to the children and a dog. This is a book where the freedom and power of Ferrante’s anonymity is put to full use in writing that is driven by a ruthless honesty.
7. Unless by Carol Shields
Every novel by Carol Shields is a salve. The late Canadian novelist specialised in lonely misfits and the ordinary difficulties of human relationships. The mystery at the heart of Unless is why the central character’s daughter has dropped out of college and chosen to live on the streets. Like Solitude, its subject is the process of writing itself and of grief turning inward. And like Villette (see below), it boils with loneliness and rebellion against the “miniaturism” foisted on the lives of women.
8. Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse
To really be glad he/she is gone, revel in some “Oops, I married a sociopath” literature. Before We Met is creepy, tense, and closely observed. Hannah is less than 18 months into her marriage and waiting for her husband to fly in from New York. When he doesn’t arrive, and his business assistant tells her she thought they were in Rome together – and then she finds her bank account emptied – she realises how little she knows about him.
Thank God you’re not married, right?
9. Villette by Charlotte Brontë
This story of a lonely woman’s love for an unattainable man caused George Eliot to cry: “Villette! Villette! It is a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre. There is something almost preternatural in its power.” I first read it aged 18 and was swept away by its restless energy – the way Brontë, as Virginia Woolf put it, expresses “untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things”.
Villette tells the story of Lucy Snowe – a cauldron of repressed emotion and desire. “Deeper than melancholy,” Snowe says, “lies heart-break.” This was Brontë’s last novel and for many her finest.
10. The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank
This collection of linked short stories spent 16 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list after it was published in 1999. Loosely at its centre is Jane Rosenal, a wisecracking single New Yorker who is suffering at the dating frontline and in some senses this book is a riposte to The Rules – a brutal and demoralising dating manual published five years earlier. Though shoehorned into the chick-lit genre by some reviewers, and inevitably lined up alongside Bridget Jones, Bank was also likened to Lorrie Moore for the gentle ironies in her literary style. Truly wonderful.
- Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner will be published by Borough Press on 25 February, priced £12.99. It will be available from the Guardian bookshop for £10.39, with free p&p.
Susie will also be taking a Guardian Masterclass on creative writing on 22 February.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010