This is a guest post by Jessica Hendry Nelson
Of course, grief is often the purview of great literature. When someone we love dies, we are (with any luck) offered comfort, casseroles and centuries of books to help us through. Such is also true of heartbreak, which is romantic, eviscerating, a rite of passage for the young and passionate. It’s sexy and dangerous. And yet, divorce is somehow different. When we get divorced, people tend to leave us alone, as if our grief were a private, shameful thing, contagious even, worthy of speculation and gossip, but not ceremony. Certainly not art. Divorce involves lawyers and bare, beige apartments in the city. The difference, I think, is the breach of the social contract. When I got divorced at the age of thirty-three, after fifteen years of partnership and two years of marriage, I felt like a momentous failure. I, too, had suffered the lesson that divorce, especially for women, is a tawdry affair, suggestive of bad behavior and moral dysfunction. Friends and acquaintances skirted the subject, my elephant companion, while the intricacies of my private pain manifested behind closed doors.
But I was lucky. One day someone knocked. And then someone else. These were my closest friends, women mostly, and they showed up and showed up and showed up. They sat with me in silence, and they walked beside me on snow-heavy trails. They listened as I repeated the same chugging, grief story until it finally evolved into something more nuanced.
Harder to come by were books that treated divorce with the same intricacy. After all, I’d had loved ones die, and while this grief was not the same, it was no less rife with meaning. I didn’t want self-help books or how-tos. I needed art, not advice: memoirs, essay collections, novels, and poetry that investigated this life-altering experience without reducing it to clichés. Books that explored divorce in all its tragicomedy and complexity, not just its anguish. Oh, there’s some, but we need more! Thankfully, the books on this list are radical, artful portrayals of marriage and divorce—a small, but mighty trove for the lovelorn and seeking.
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk
Eleven years after releasing her much lauded, but controversial first memoir, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, Cusk published Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation, about her divorce from her daughters’ father. The reception to both books often shared a thread of a deeply ingrained misogyny—a staunch resistance to Cusk’s neglect of the gory details. For Cusk, the facts of her divorce, the various misgivings and moral ruptures, are less interesting than the extrapolation of her argument that marriage is an illusion of personal choice. With far-ranging vision, research, and insight, Cusk weaves an unflinching portrayal of divorce while simultaneously eviscerating romantic ideals to reveal a broken feminist fantasy. It’s not a book for the feint of heart, or the newlywed for that matter, but Cusk’s razor-sharp analyses dispense with foregone conclusions with impeccable clarity.
Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey by Florence Williams
Somewhere along the path of recovery, the heartbroken among us may, if we’re lucky, start to get curious. I came across Florence Williams’s Heartbreak at just such a moment, and reveled in the journalist’s immersive journey to understand how heartbreak works, both psychically and physiologically, and how we might better recover. I listened to this one in podcast form, and it was both a joy and a commiseration to accompany Williams as she endeavored to understand and recover from the end of her twenty-five-year marriage. With forays to Portland to try MDMA under the guidance of a therapist; a neurogenomic research laboratory; a divorce workshop; a weekslong river expedition; an impulsive love affair, the journalist embarks on a holistic and relentless pursuit of answers. She has her blood tested for genetic markers of grief and even suffers electrical shocks while looking at pictures of her ex-husband. Finally, she explores theories on the role of awe in grief recovery, which I also investigate in Joy Rides Through the Tunnel of Grief. A deeply personal, ambitious book rife with wide-eyed wonder.
A Separation by Katie Kitamura
A beguiling novel for its lyric restraint and astringent observations, the narrator of A Separation is all head as she tries to solve the disappearance of her unfaithful ex-husband. Not much happens on the surface, and yet the novel is thick with quiet suspense and menace, much like a certain kind of uncoupling, the one I know best. The narrator’s various separations—from her husband; herself; the world—are rendered with arch analyses and vivid symbolism, no less aching for those familiar with self-abandonment and sabotage.
My Marriage by Jakob Wasserman
Originally published posthumously in 1934, this autobiographical novel was translated into English by Michael Hofmann 2012, which is when I first read it, peeking between my fingers in abject horror and delight. When Alexander Herzog goes to Vienna to escape debt and a failed romance, he meets and marries the wild, eccentric Ganna, who seduces him with her passion and prosperous family. But her very attractions will also prove ruinous, and the story of their undoing is recounted in lurid detail.
The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos by Anne Carson
Oh, beauty! In quintessential Carson fashion, this devastating collection of what? —prose poems? fictions? essays? —develops kaleidoscopically, yet follows a loose plot through the unraveling of a marriage while simultaneously investigating Keats’s notion that beauty is truth. Through fragments, versified dialogue, forays into classical scholarship, slips of memory and analyses, The Beauty of the Husband shatters fundamental ideas about love, then glues the pieces back together in a new and reflective form.
See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid
This book is a harrowing, semi-autobiographical novel set in New England that explores the fault lines of a marriage that, on the surface, appears “perfect.” Told from multiple points of view and through both intimate and mythic lenses (the daughter is named “Persephone,” her brother, “Heracles”), See Now Then is about the danger of the writer’s dual perspective, which demands that we see “then” now and “now” then. It is the best evocation of marriage and the uncanny that I’ve ever read.
Jessica Hendry Nelson is the author Joy Rides Through the Tunnel of Grief (Sept. 1), which was selected as the winner of the AWP Sue William Silverman Prize for Creative Nonfiction.
Her memoir If Only You People Could Follow Directions (2014), which was selected as a best debut book by the Indies Introduce New Voices program, the Indies Next List by the American Booksellers’ Association, named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Review, received starred reviews in Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, and reviewed nationally in print and on NPR—including twice in (O) Oprah Magazine. She is Assistant Professor in the MFA program and English Department at Virginia Commonwealth University and on faculty in the MFA Program at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.
Joy Rides through the Tunnel of Grief: A Memoir by Jessica Hendry Nelson
When Jessica Hendry Nelson’s father days she can literally feel his love pass into her. She feels the need to direct this at everyone around her. Her brother, suffering from opioid addiction, her partner, unknown friends at the gym and towards her future child. Then, her partner Jack shares that he doesn’t want children. Not with her, or anyone. This sets her off on a journey to understand her desire for motherhood and explore the realities of love.