Valentine’s Day is almost here! If you’re nestled in a romantic relationship, good for you and your immunity to February's emotional turmoil. If, however, you happen to be post-relationship wallowing in despair, rage, or melancholy, Valentine’s Day is a time to curse your loser ex and blast sad songs on repeat as you tearfully drink wine alone in a bubble bath (I have muddled through a breakup or two in precisely this manner).
TL:DR – Valentine’s Day can suck if you’re single and your singledom is still raw and achy. So I offer you an alternative to bar crawls, bubble baths, and Netflix binges: Six books to get you through the holiday. Here are the best books for your worst moment if that worst moment is February 14th. Whether you’re post-breakup, mid-breakup, or pre-breakup (but definitely breaking up), there’s a book on this list to use as a Band-Aid (or a Xanax, whatever you’re into) on your broken and (or) breaking heart.
1) If you need a quick, hopeful read that reminds you why you fell in love in the first place and that you’ll be okay no matter what, read:
"The Lover’s Dictionary" by David Levithan
What it is: A guidebook to moving on after a relationship.
This novel is made up of bittersweet vignettes that tell an earnest, honest story of a couple that falls in and out of love. It’s tender, tragic, but doesn’t lay the sentimentality on too thick. One reviewer notes, “There's plenty of reflection, not just on the relationship but on the attempt to distill and describe such complex feeling.”
The 200-plus definitions (this is an expansive dictionary) offer a real glimpse into the unraveling of a real relationship; even the joy isn’t sugarcoated. There’s some real rage here as the writer comes to terms with the ending of a relationship. Case in point:
Best of all, The Lover’s Dictionary doesn’t preach or demand anything from the reader. The Guardian resoundingly praises this full-circle love story and calls The Lover’s Dictionary “both unique and universal: It's impossible not to nod along in recognition. For all the cutesiness of the form, it is a refreshingly grown-up story of a love affair.”
2) If you self-soothe with stories of revenge, Neil Gaiman, and Law & Order SVU, read:
"Darling Jim" by Christian Moerk
What it is: Equal parts twisted (spoiler alert) love story à la Gone Girl and vengeful murder mystery.
Rightfully dubbed “spell-binding,” by The Washington Post, Darling Jim is the kind of novel you can get lost in. Taking cues from old Irish folktales, Moerk infused true crime grit into his first (and sadly, only) novel. A grisly crime scene is slowly unraveled across three interwoven narratives with a scorned lover (hell hath no fury, right?), a devious heartbreaker, and a few courageous acts of true love at its core.
Also featured prominently: posthumous journal entries, beginning with “We are already gone. Read this tale only to remember us,” several (read: more than two, less than six) murders, and a bittersweet ending. For more details about the wicked plot, built up from "diverse genres — murder mystery, romantic suspense, psychological thriller, [and] folk legend,” check out The New York Times' kind of spoiler-y review.
3) If your last relationship crashed and burned in a blaze of infidelity, dishonesty, and broken promises, read:
"Rookery" by Traci Brimhall
What it is: A collection of poetry that begins with a woman grappling with her husband’s infidelity.
Traci Brimhall is the perfect poet for people who aren’t completely sold on the idea of poetry. Rookery, her first full-length collection, begins with the story of an unfaithful lover in language that anyone can relate to. In the words of the late Claudia Emerson, Rookery “makes beautiful the brutal” in poems that explore “the disappointments of the human heart.” If you’re not ready to take on a full novel and want a few poem-size bites of emotional validation, grab a copy of Rookery and read a few poems from the collection here, here, and here.
4) If you’re recovering from a love triangle, read:
"Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro
What it is: This is a cry-it-out style novel for readers who like their dystopian futures to be realistic, subtle, and quietly terrifying.
Never Let Me Go follows three students at an idyllic boarding school in the English countryside and the turmoil that arises when their friendship gets tangled in romance.
I’m not going to lie, the lives of Kathy, Ruth, and their mutual object of affection, Tommy, are not happy ones. But as Louis Menand of The New Yorker points out, the story itself, “though filled with incidents of poignancy and disappointment and cruelty,” is also “weirdly, funny.” Bonus: You can watch the movie version of Never Let Me Go, which came out in 2010, starring Andrew Garfield, Carrie Mulligan, and Keira Knightley.
5) If you’re sick with nostalgia, read:
"Not Merely Because of the Unknown That Was Stalking Toward Them" by Jenny Boully
What it is: A subversive retelling of Peter Pan in genre-bending prose.
This book works in two ways, literally. There are two stories happening at once on the page: The story of Wendy Darling growing up, post-Peter Pan, and a story that unwinds in "the home underground" in a Neverland that slowly becomes sinister and foreboding.
Have you ever felt sorry for Wendy Darling or questioned Peter Pan’s commitment issues? Boully’s Not Merely takes a thimbleful of kisses and creates a love story in which a girl in love with a heartless boy and slowly realizes his heartlessness in painfully gorgeous language. Here's just one example of Boully's (and Wendy's) slow burn:
"These things may fit inside a thimble: a pinch of salt, a few drops of water, the tip of a woman’s ring finger. I will give you a thimble, says Wendy. I will give you a thimble so that you will know the weight of my heart. A thimble may protect against pricks, pin pricks, needle pricks, Tinkerpricks, but not hooks, never hooks. When he stabs his hook into you, you will see that his eyes are the blue of forget-me-nots – but that is Hook and not Peter – Peter who will forget you, whose eyes are the color of vague memories, the color not of the sky, but rather of the semblance of sky, the color of brittle-mindedness, of corpse dressings, of forgetting." — Excerpt from PANK Magazine
6) If you’ve sworn off love and want a short, sexy, thriller, read:
"Netsuke" by Rikki Ducornet
What it is: A perverse and gorgeous novella about a sex-addicted psychoanalyst.
There’s a lot of sex, a lot of vulgar language, and a lot of beauty in this slim novella that “takes [the reader] out onto thin ice, under which large, dark shapes are discernibly swimming.” The lush world, full of gardens, love objects, and priceless artifacts, is viewed through the eyes of a nameless psychiatrist with a penchant for having affairs with his patients.
As the story progresses, his entire world falls to ruin. One by one, his estranged, suspicious wife and his patients — the most striking is a young man who lives side by side with a gorgeous alter-ego named Jell-O — rebel against him which, honestly, serves him right. You’ll cheer for his patients as they escape, you’ll will his wife to leave him, and you won’t expect the ending. Take a peek at Jell-O below and fall in love with her (instead of whoever you might be pining after):
Breakups suck. Breakups around Valentine’s Day suck harder. Hopefully, these six books will offer you a few hours escape from Valentine’s Day drudgery. If you’ve got a particular book that has helped you through a rough patch, share it in the comments or bombard me with book recommendations on Twitter: @amberdeexterous