Reading Through A Breakup

There’s no easy way around this: breakups are the fucking worst. They’re usually messy despite your best efforts, and in my case I felt an unfortunate cocktail of guilt, ambivalence, and emotional exhaustion. And while binge drinking and crying to my girlfriends about how I’ll never find love again had its place and time, reading the right books was an incredible solace and a beautiful escape. This was my way of reading through a breakup. 

reading through a breakup

BOOK 1: Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

bridget jones's diaryA little personal reveal: I lived with my partner for an entire month after we broke up until I could find my own place. It was at once beautiful and painful as we talked over the memories and shared tears as we realized with each passing day what was inevitably coming: the day we would finally say goodbye.

I am living with depression. This makes handling day-to-day things hard enough, let alone a huge life decision like leaving your long-term partner. Day after day memories confronted me and living in that environment gradually started weakening my resolve. So when Bridget Jones’s Diary came my way, it was an unexpected blessing that helped me rediscover my strength and conviction.

Bridget Jones was an unexpected blessing because so much of it focuses on how difficult it is to find love in your 30s. As I slowly approach the big 30 (3 years to go!), it’s something I inevitably worry about.

All the complaining aside, in Bridget Jones Fielding creates a brilliant and hilarious testament to the pressures society places on single women. It tells us happiness requires us finding someone and making children before it’s too late. Having this message repeated in various ways throughout the book really underscored the importance of finding my own happiness and not settling based on pressures outside myself.  

The next great thing about this book is Bridget herself. Her character is funny, smart, occasionally self-deprecating, occasionally self-obsessed. She is flawed and very human. On her good days she eats well and puts down the cigarettes, on her bad days she records in explicit detail the amount of calories consumed through chocolates, cheese slices, and alcohol. She’s horny, worried about her weight, struggling to find meaning in her career, and all the while dealing with a pair of really fucked up parents.

Bridget’s character made me feel like it was okay to not be okay sometimes. She made me feel like I was not alone, and that struggling through adulthood and on the quest to find love is a natural part of life. It was a nice reminder as I sat there for those 30 brutal days wondering if I was doing the right thing.

Of course Bridget is not perfect, and that’s very clear (but it’s also what I love about her!). She too finds herself in a pit of self-loathing after dates gone wrong. But the narrative also exposes a lot of perks of being single like being able to pursue a career, date freely, keep up an exciting social life, and take “two hour bubble baths on Sunday mornings.”

Bridget frequently journals about all the “smug marrieds” who have noticeably settled, let themselves go and find themselves arguing over petty things. Her observations about couples suffice to show the damages of staying in a relationship out of a sense of duty or guilt. This again reinforced why I needed to go.

I was really surprised by the feminist manifesto I found deep within the pages of Bridget Jones and the wit and intelligence of the writing. I honestly had the impression that it would be a contrived read. But I found it was so much more than that.

And while there was a lot to learn from Bridget as she navigates the complexities of adulthood, it’s also just a straight up hilarious read. I found myself laughing aloud many times, and often paused to read passages from the book to whomever was in earshot and was willing to listen. This book provided a small daily relief from the sadness of my situation, and I was forever grateful for it (I even gave it 5 stars on Goodreads I was that excited about it).

BOOK 2: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

the virgin suicidesAt this point, I was almost moved out and was wrapping up packing. Packing put things into perspective: this was real. The relationship was almost to its final end and the thought of reading something as light as Bridget Jones, which I had just finished, seemed impossible. I had that odd compulsion to make myself suffer more (like listening to sad music just so you can cry), and suffer I did – with The Virgin Suicides.

Let’s be clear – you’ll encounter none of the levity you did in Bridget Jones’s Diary in the Virgin Suicides (though Eugenides does have a unique ability to infuse this story of tragedy with darkly comic moments). This is the story of family with five daughters, all of whom kill themselves. And that’s not a spoiler – he tells you right in the beginning that they will do it. After the first death comes, the reader is left for 250 pages wondering how the other four will go.

The Virgin Suicides was the perfect read when I was feeling down and hopeless. Don’t get the wrong idea, it wasn’t because I thought I would be inspired to kill myself. Rather, it was helpful to explore grief from someone else’s point of view, to let someone else’s story be more tragic than my own, even if that story is fictional.

Eugenides’ own exploration of grief in this novel is extensive and provides a raw glimpse into the human experience. There is the grief of his parents which manifests itself in the slow decay of their home and property, the sadness of the living daughters who eventually find themselves under house-arrest by their overprotective parents, and the strange grief muddled with the love and curiosity of the neighborhood boys, whose collective voice gives us our narrator.

While the theme of grief is certainly prevalent, it’s not as explicit as one might think. Oftentimes it’s uncovered in the small, mundane moments of everyday life; I found myself dwelling in my own tiny moments of grief in the same way. I would be out on the bus and a scent would trigger a painful memory, or a song would play unexpectedly over the radio that would make me think of him.

Chugging along through The Virgin Suicides was the perfect, self-indulgent way to dig into my sadness, and was a beautifully written book to boot! (Do people still say “to boot?”)

BOOK 3: The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn.

the woman in the windowAlas, I finally made it into my new apartment! Within a week I had unpacked and began calling this place home. Because I knew the way I handle breakups is compounded by my depression, I thought not getting internet could help me stay focused on positive things. Without the internet I’d have more time for reading, writing, painting, and listening to records (side note, my new neighbors did not like my live cut of Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” pumping through their walls at night).

I imagined an entire new single life à la Bridget Jones where I would do classy things and feed my broken soul with high literature. But, when I tried to get into anything even remotely artistic my brain rebelled; I realized that in the absence of TV and Netflix, I was actually craving something trashy and entertaining. I was craving a distraction from the new lonely confines of my solo apartment.

Woman in the Window is not trashy, but it did satisfy my craving for cheap thrills. I had never really read a thriller before. But, reading outside of my comfort zone is part of what I have tried to do since starting working at the library. This one stared at me from our library’s “rapid reads” shelf like a challenge. And ,since I was looking for something exciting, I thought I would give it a try.

I have to admit the first 175 pages were largely back story and repeated anecdotes about how much our narrator likes to drink (girl, preach!). When we finally get the initial crime, I thought it would trigger an avalanche of fast paced connections, twists, and turns. But, that wasn’t exactly the case. Again we travel back into our narrator’s personal life (which has tons of twists of its own) and for a while I forgot I was reading a thriller.

But by the end of the book, everything happens so fast and dramatically that I got the  excitement I wanted. It was also clear why so much back story was needed; it was setting up the ending which all came together very neatly.

Having a book that was pure entertainment really took my mind off things, and made staying in my new, bare apartment actually enjoyable.

So…

Breakups are super fucking shitty, but good books (like good friends and good wine!) can offer you the distraction you need while you process what’s going on in your romantic life. Reading through a breakup can really help. For me, each book helped in its own way and I’m grateful.

Sarah is an east-coaster and teen librarian. When she’s not trying to stay hip with the kids, she’s making moody artwork and listening to music.