Books to help you deal with unrequited love

There’s no better-worn territory in the world of books than love. Whole oceans of ink have been spilled about falling in, being in, and losing love ­­– not to mention that half-effected, equal parts pleasurable and painful type: love which is unrequited.

From schoolyard crushes to adult yearning, almost everyone who has loved has been on one or the other end of unrequited love. Yet despite its commonality, it retains something enigmatic, too. Perhaps it’s that we can’t seem to agree on whether it’s a pleasurable experience or an excruciating one.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, of all people, falls on the pleasurable side. He once eloquently wrote, illuminating the intrinsic value of it, that unrequited love is “indispensable” to any lover, one “which he would at no price relinquish for a state of indifference.” For Nietzsche, unrequited love was incontestably preferable to indifference, but many in the thick of it might beg to differ. Psychologist Eric Berne, for one: “Some say that one-sided love is better than none,” he once wrote, “but like half a loaf of bread, it is likely to grow hard and moldy sooner.”

Literature offers loads of examples for the lonely lover looking for commiseration, all the way back to the classics. Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy is propelled by the idea that the author will meet his beloved Beatrice in Heaven; indeed, his guide through the epic’s last cantica, Paradiso, is based on the real-life woman Dante met, and became immediately infatuated with, when he was just nine years old. The book portrays a fantasy, though: Dante spent his life longing so ardently for the real Beatrice di Folco Portinari, who married a banker – a banker! – instead, that he often meandered around Florence just to catch a glimpse of her.

Though Dante eventually married someone else, he never forgot Beatrice; after her death, he withdrew from daily life to compose a series of poems dedicated to her, which culminated in a second masterpiece, La Vita Nuova.

Fellow Florentine humanist Petrarch suffered a similarly lonely love life. History can pinpoint the alleged day – 6 April, 1327 – that the famed poet first caught sight of a woman, named Laura, so beautiful she inspired the Canzoniere, an entire sequence of sonnets and other verse that stands as one of the poet’s best-known works. It remains unknown whether Petrarch and Laura ever actually spoke (and unlike Dante, he never married), but he still managed to jot down this devastatingly dramatic line in his “Letter to Posterity”, at the big age of 66: “I certainly wish I could say that I have always been entirely free from desires of the flesh, but I would be lying if I did.”

Today they look despairing and, let’s be honest, very creepy, but both Dante and Petrarch’s depictions of love adhere to the conventions of courtly love, wherein even unrequited love is posited as a noble, precious, and – often – secret endeavour. There might be something palliative in that for today’s unrequited lover; both echo Nietzsche’s position that there is value in your feelings, however painful they are.

Only more recently did the pain of unrequited love become more fraught, establishing a more contemporary perception it as something more volatile and susceptible to mental wellness. In Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, a 1774 novel that would hugely inspire the Romantic poets – and, roughly 225 years later, scads of emo bands – the hero dramatically takes his own life in order to cease the pain of his affections for the married Charlotte.

Through the 19th Century, unrequited love took a more everyday tone; it afflicts at least one character per each of Jane Austen’s novels, and provides the central thrust of Persuasion, in which the entirety of Anne Elliott’s early life is consumed with regret over breaking off her engagement to Frederick Wentworth. That the happy ending to this and the majority of Austen’s novels made them extremely popular after their publication through the early part of the century speaks to the way that unrequited love would come to be seen later in the novels of the Victorian era. Even in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights – perhaps one of most famous tales of unrequited love ever told – Catherine and Heathcliff are thought to have found each other as ghosts (though perhaps that won’t offer much comfort to flesh and blood folk).

By the 20th Century, famous novels like The Great Gatsby, in which Jay Gatsby spends the last months of his unfulfilling life in unrequited love with Daisy Buchanan, and The Sun Also Rises, through which war veteran Jake Barnes is in love with the unattainable Brett, were expressing unrequited love in ways that reflected the uncertainty of the post-war world. By the latter half of the century, love in literature was going unrequited for a myriad more reasons: tradition, as in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate; sexuality, as in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Spell; or delusion, as in Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. There is a novel for every unrequited lover, from the very young to the aged.

And non-fiction, too, a large portion of which is the work of love psychologists. The aforementioned Eric Berne’s Sex in Human Loving is a good place to start, as is The Dark Side of Close Relationships, by psychologists Brian H. Spitzberg and William R. Cupach, who explore the ways that unrequited love manifests in unexpected places and comes on slowly – as in platonic friendships, which “provide a fertile soil for unrequited love”. For something lighter, try Loves Me...Not: How to Survive (and Thrive!) in the Face of Unrequited Love, in which Samara O’Shea tells real-life and ridiculous tales of unrequited love (including the unsavoury tale of a South Carolina governor outed for adultery on national TV) aimed at anyone who has “ever stalked a crush on Facebook”.

It’s telling that O’Shea shines a light on social media; as the internet widens and connects our world, the potential for unrequited love widens, too. Like Petrarch falling for Laura, we might similarly come across a tweet or Instagram story of somebody whose wit or, um, Snapchat angles ensnare our attention. Lest we reach an ability to relinquish our weaknesses for Nietzsche’s “state of indifference”, there will soon be a book about that, too.

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