Reading Remedy: what to read if you’re heartbroken

Few things hurt as much as when relationships break down. But much as there are love stories, there are ones about falling out of love, too. Here we recommend some reading for heartbreak.

An illustration of three medicine bottles with library stamps on
How do you mend a broken heart? Books can help. Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

Nobody’s wholly sure when we first began to speak of our hearts breaking, but there are references that date back to 1050 BC – which means a good 3,000 years of that unique and searing pain that often emerges in the wake of a relationship ending. Whatever happened, whether it was your fault or theirs, or you think it’s your fault but it wasn’t; whether you saw it coming a mile off or it swept in one Thursday morning and left you winded, break-ups are hard, and they can leave a long tail.

Even back when certain sections of society were unconvinced by the concept of love matches (as opposed to ones to benefit a couple’s social standing), writers such as Jane Austen had pinpointed the challenges of relationships, writing in Pride and Prejudice: "Is not general incivility the very essence of love?”.

But if you’re in the throes of grief for a relationship or lost love; even if you’re out the other side, but nevertheless keenly aware of the pain of it all, what can you read to make you feel better?

If you’re still counting ice cream as one of your five-a-day while scrolling through your ex’s social media feeds, fiction can offer an escape

The good news is there are plenty of practical tomes. Dr Guy Winch goes for the jugular in How to Fix A Broken Heart, an examination of the two different kinds of emotional pain that can emerge from heartbreak, shedding light on why you’re feeling what you’re feeling in a way that is undeniably comforting. Amy Chan devised an effective method of dealing with relationship fall-out after being cheated on by her ex-boyfriend. After trying healing therapies from the ancient to the scientific, and looking into the psychology of love, she recovered – and wrote Breakup Bootcamp to help others get over their former lovers too.

Paul McKenna’s Seven Things That Make or Break a Relationship, meanwhile, offers practical solutions and techniques on how to move on and make the best of the next time you find yourself with someone new.

But if you’re still in a phase of counting ice cream as one of your five-a-day while idly scrolling through your ex’s social media feeds, perhaps fiction can offer a little escape. Strange comfort can be found in reading about others’ failed relationships – these narratives can offer spaces to reflect and compare, to re-examine where things went wrong or merely feel grateful that yours wasn’t as bad.

Two authors, Caleb Azumah Nelson and Megan Nolan have based their startling debuts on love going wrong – among other things – and their novels, Open Water and Acts of Desperation, respectively, are slim enough to prove deliciously digestible. Less recent, but no less potent, is Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, which entwines shame, immigration and addiction into a tapestry that beautifully captures the complexities of heartbreak. Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie, meanwhile, explores what happens after you’ve been dumped – to hilarious delight.

But what of hope, arguably an essential cure for the broken heart?

The Classics, meanwhile, offer plenty, from the chilly despair of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to the folorn betrayal at the heart of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Has the American Dream ever looked so bleak as in Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, or felt as keenly out of reach in Patricia Highsmith’s Carol?  

But what of hope, arguably an essential cure for the broken heart? Some of our best-loved books have a remarkable ability to conjure optimism and the belief that there are new starts ahead – and that, for all of the sadness that break-ups hold, sometimes they are necessary for us to find new paths in our lives. And many of these books are memoirs.

Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House makes for riveting reading regardless of your relationship status: the author cannily plays with genre fiction and perspective to unpick her experience – and survival - of an abusive love affair and its fallout.  

Buy the books

Diana Athill waited decades to publish her autobiographies, but when she did, we realised why: the woman had a lot of life to write about. It is her first (of 10!) memoirs, 1963’s Instead of a Letter, that best shows how the young Athill recovered from being, essentially, ghosted by her Air Force pilot fiancé who died overseas before she could confront him. While the spurning of Athill’s greatest love caused her years of pain, her story of how she lived through it makes for inspiring reading.

Because you will come out of this alright: heartbreak happens every day, and people still function, recover and return to love again, wiser and stronger than they were before. In the meantime, there’s books – and what better excuse to curl up and escape into someone else’s world?

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