On Books and Unrequited Love
How reading can help process feelings of desire and romantic heartbreak
A while back, I met a man who, in another life, might have been my soulmate. The profound unlikelihood of our ever being together didn’t stop me falling hard for him. He probably had no idea I felt this way, and that’s likely for the best.
Unrequited love. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
Friends can only bear to listen to us harp on about it for so many hours, or weeks, or months, before they start to roll their eyes, swerve the conversation away to another topic, or very gently ask us questions like, are you giving yourself a deadline for moving on? Which, translated, means: get a grip. And these friends mean well, they really do. They probably even have a point. But sometimes we’re not ready to get a grip. Sometimes we want to wallow in the melancholy. We might even argue that we need to do this, that it’s part of the process.
Books are there for us in those moments.
The man I met loves to read, which was— of course — part of the attraction. We recommended books to each other; in the months that followed, I read a couple of his favourites. One of them, George Saunders’ Tenth of December, completely blew me away: all I could do after I finished it, all I wanted to do, was sit with my emotions about this fabulous writing, and by extension about a man I’d met who was smart enough and aesthetically tuned in enough to fully appreciate it. I was less sure about another book he’d liked: when it was over, I wanted to whack him over the head with it repeatedly. But there’s a kind of shared experience in that too, in knowing what he enjoys, in knowing that if I ever see him again I’ll be able to engage him in conversation about its themes (and hopefully restrain myself from unwarranted book-induced violence). So books help us to wallow. To feel closer to the person who seems to be so out of reach.
They also offer hope. Sometimes, in the denial phrase of grief, I want to feed my soul with stories of impossible love that nonetheless worked out. But that’s not the only kind of hope, nor perhaps is it the most important. There is also, in the stories out there in the world, the hope of a meaningful life despite the heartbreak, the hope for a friendship with the object of your affection, the hope for healing and for love with someone else, the hope that one day you might even desire that.
Books can also offer what many of us so long to hear when our hearts are aching: I understand. In the days and weeks, even months, after I met this man, I searched the quotes section on Goodreads over and over, desperate for words that would express something of what I felt. I’m not sure why: to legitimate my emotions, to explain them to myself or to others, to feel less alone and less crazy? Probably all of those things.
Books clue us in to what might be our emotional journey, illuminating the path ahead. Take, for example, Christina Haag’s beautiful memoir of her time with JFK Jr, Come to the Edge. “I did not know how long it took to get over such a love,” she writes, “and that even when you did, when you loved again, you would always carry a sliver of it in your stitched-together heart.” There is so much wisdom in that. There’s also a signpost for what’s to come for me. And hope of a different kind: permission to move on because moving on does not invalidate what I once felt. It has forever changed me, and I will carry that with me through my life.
Books can also help us to process. “Why is love intensified by absence?” Clare asks in The Time Traveler’s Wife. Or, elsewhere, “But don’t you think that it’s better to be extremely happy for a short while, even if you lose it, than to be just okay for your whole life?” I ended up writing a whole novel around this idea, and I’m still not sure I have the answer, but questions like this are valuable to think about, to journal about, to ponder as we process what’s going on inside us so that we can move on.
Because, as the narrator puts it in Arthur Phillips’ haunting, tender The Song Is You, “How much of life could he spend aching? Aching is not a stable condition; it must resolve into something.” In the end, he might be right. And books are there for us, to help this resolution.
This article first appeared in the now-defunct literary magazine called Lumen in July 2015.