When you’re going through a breakup, a good book can be a source of great comfort. Personally, my taste in breakup books is very particular. When my recent heartbreak was at its most raw, I basically had no patience for anything that wasn’t contemporary fiction written by a woman, with a female narrator who had a slightly depressive and honest-yet-droll voice — aka, voices that mirrored my interior one. As time went on, my scope widened a bit, but the best breakup books, in my opinion, all have this in common: They allow you to escape, but not in a mindless way. Their insights help you process what’s going on as you are thoroughly engrossed in something else — the best of both reading worlds.
Here are some of my suggestions for breakup books that won’t make you feel bad for feeling bad.
While Melissa Broder’s book of essays So Sad Today is also a fantastic breakup book, her novel The Pisces is a must-read for anyone going through love addiction withdrawal. The book starts with a breakup, and while there is an erotic romantic plot with her merman rebound (just go with it), this book is definitely anything but saccharine. It’s the perfect escape for those who like to question the need to escape itself. I devoured this book in two days, and the only way it didn’t help was that I then had to sit with a new sadness when it ended.
Relatable Quote: “I swore that married women used their left hands more than their right when they spoke, gestured, or wiped a stray hair out of their eyes, just to rub it in. They seemed to be saying, Look, someone wants me this much. I have safely made it to the other shore.”
I used to think self-help books screamed “scam,” but this book changed that, because it claims to fix nothing. This Buddhist approach to broken-heartedness by meditation teacher Susan Piver is all about learning to sit with the pain of a broken heart. It is both deeply philosophical and practical and ends with a seven-day self-imposed retreat of sorts to help you process everything. I downloaded it to my Kindle the day of my breakup and had a nice commiserating cry through the first few chapters. It was comforting to be spoken to directly by someone wise yet vulnerable — a mentor-aunt-counselor type who professes no magic cure.
Relatable Quote: “When the one you love does not choose you on the deepest level, although he may actually love you in his own (bizarre) way, the pain of not being chosen is too much to bear. In a great show of self-respect and personal dignity, she elected to end it rather than tolerate being less than fully embraced.”
When you go through a breakup, you might realize the degree to which you were holding on to the relationship because of a story you were telling yourself. If you’re ready to examine that story and the role of narratives around romantic love in your choices, bell hooks’ book (from her all-around masterful “Love Trilogy”) is for you. This book is nonfiction but is readable even with a distractible mind, filled with feminist head-bobbers and new frameworks for moving forward.
Relatable Quote: “As females in a patriarchal culture, we were not slaves of love; most of us were and are slaves of longing — yearning for a master who will set us free and claim us because we cannot claim ourselves.”
This is another Buddhist book to help you sit with — you guessed it — anger. Zen master Tchit Nhat Hanh is the author of many different books that will be helpful to the heartbroken, but perhaps none more so than Anger. Learning to work with this emotion and to reframe the way you might be directing anger at your ex is incredibly useful.
Relatable Quote: “[W]hen you are angry, if you continue to interact with or argue with the other person, if you try to punish her, you are acting exactly like someone who runs after the arsonist while everything goes up in flames.”
If you’re in the mood to escape into a brilliant and melancholy mind, I highly suggest Charlotte Shane’s Prostitute Laundry, which is the compilation of several years of her e-letter by the same name. While her other such collection, NB, is also a sexy and whip-smart read, Prostitute Laundry deals especially with breakup emotions and their aftermath. If you want to examine female sexuality and be thoroughly absorbed while you also wallow a bit, this is your book.
Relatable Quote: “I found George because I was yearning to replace Ethan, and look what happened. I just added another love to the list. The mistake is in thinking there is only one spot. You divot the sand and the tide fills it in and then you create another pocket while the tide drains itself out. Same properties. Different shapes. It's never the same.”
I once sort-of-dated a very handsome serial cheater who called Kaur’s writing “asinine.” Though he was a poet who had never managed to publish a book himself, let alone one that has resonated with people the way milk and honey has, his attitude was exactly the kind of thing Kaur would know how to skewer in about five words. She makes the very difficult — articulating universal emotions — look simple and completely intuitive. This book of poems deals with both the onset of heartbreak and its eventual healing.
Relatable Quote: “how cruel i was to myself. giving you credit for my warmth simply because you had felt it. thinking it was you who gave me strength. wit. beauty. simply because you recognized it. as if i was already not these things before i met you. as if i did not remain all these things after you left.”
This novel managed to engage me completely in the weeks after my breakup, which is no small feat. While it doesn’t surround a breakup, it does center around themes of longing for someone who leads you on and doesn’t give you what you need back. It is also incredibly smart, amusing, and written in that slightly wry female voice I found myself drawn to.
Relatable Quote: “[W]hen I saw Ivan's name in the in-box I almost started to cry. It reminded me of a kind of torture I had read about where afterward the captors returned your senses to you one by one, and you felt so grateful that you told them everything.”
Another book that will blanket you in its melancholy tone, The Vegetarian is a Metamorphosis- esque fable about a woman who basically breaks up with her own body. There is a slight romantic plot, but rest assured it’s just as dark as the rest of the book. If you’d like to examine themes of bodily autonomy, eating disorders, depression, and suicide, this should do it.
Relatable Quote: “She watches the streaks of rain lashing the window, with the untouched steadiness unique to those accustomed to solitude.”
While Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation is also a captivating breakup read in its own right, her earlier novel, Eileen, is even darker, and will be cathartic for those who relate to the process of escaping an old life and starting anew — or even just the fantasy of it. The narrator is an old woman looking back on one seminal week of her young life, and there are plenty of relevant insights about romance.
Relatable Quote: “Love can reappear, too, but never again unscathed. The second round is inevitably accompanied by doubt, intention, self-disgust.”
That I was able to be completely amused re-reading this book a few weeks ago is a testament to how far I’ve come in my own breakup biases — I never would have been able to tolerate Diaz’s serial-cheating Yunior when things were fresh, a character who calls women “sucias” and “bitches.” But now that I’m a little less raw, I was able to rediscover this book — which reads like a connected set of short stories, each about how a relationship with a different woman is lost — and appreciate it again for its voice, humor, and theme of heartbreak.
Relatable Quote: “You ask everybody you know: How long does it usually take to get over it? There are many formulas. One year for every year you dated. Two years for every year you dated. It's just a matter of will power: The day you decide it's over, it's over. You never get over it.”
If you’d like to continue to learn to sit with your sadness, know that Pema Chödrön's When Things Fall Apart is a classic for a reason. This book centers on ways to reframe how we think about times in our life when — as its title says — things fall apart, and interrogates our desire to move on from such moments quickly.
Relatable Quote: “As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don't deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.”
I highly recommend Rachel Cusk’s writing, no matter your relationship status — I certainly fell in love with her voice, which is astute while seeming effortless. While The Country Life and her entire Outline trilogy are all great breakup companions, the middle book of her trilogy, Transit, deals especially, as its title suggests, in transitions. As with much of the Outline trilogy, there’s little plot, and more a feeling of sitting in on a series of fascinating conversations, sort of like the Before Sunrise movies. That said, what through-line exists in Transit focuses on the protagonist moving into a new home after a divorce. You will be entertained while also feeling you’re getting an education on the human condition itself.
Relatable Quote: “That idea – of one’s own life as something that had already been dictated – was strangely seductive, until you realized that it reduced other people to the moral status of characters and camouflaged their capacity to destroy.”
Sometimes reading someone else's pain is the best breakup salve, and this deeply sad and compulsive page-turner is definitely in that vein. The book follows a group of four friends over many decades, and for the central character, Jude, just about everything bad that can happen to a protagonist pretty much happens. (A note: this might be a triggering book for people with a history of abuse or self-harm.) While I at times found myself hate-reading this novel for that reason, it also undeniably drove me through all of its many pages. If anything, it will remind you that things could always be worse.
Relatable Quote: “[T]hings get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”
Ariel Levy’s memoir has a big breakup and the heartbreak of miscarriage at its core. It is written from her vantage point as a bisexual woman who cheated, which I was grateful to get to really delve into in a nonjudgemental way — making this read, along with Levy’s fluid prose, refreshing.
Relatable Quote: “You have an affair to get for yourself what you wish would come from the person you love the most. And then you have broken her heart and she can never give you any of it ever again.”
This collection of short stories takes no shit. It is deeply feminist and at times chilling, but also very entertaining and funny, full of stories that often read like cautionary fables — such as a retelling of the classic story about a woman whose head is tied on with a ribbon around her neck. You’ll find yourself smirking over its dark humor in one moment, and then getting punched in the heart the next.
Relatable Quote: “He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt.”
When you’re starting to heal, you might find yourself contemplating what’s next for your sex life. If you have a vagina and/or have sex with people with vaginas, this is most definitely the book for you, no matter your gender. It is also filled with tons of useful tips around communication and consent — it will make you better in bed no matter who you are or who you love. There’s also an erotic story told in graphic novel form interspersed throughout to illustrate Moon’s advice that might just bring you back to life.
Relatable Quote: “This is a question I want you to eradicate from your lexicon: ‘Is this okay?’ Any answer to this question gives you exactly 0% constructive information. It’s the sexy time equivalent of ‘How are you? Fine, thanks.’ Don’t do it. Instead, ask ‘Do you like this?’ That question is easily answered with a yes or no. And with either answer, the next question can be ‘What would make it better?'"
Rachel Krantz is the senior writer at Mercy For Animals, where she writes about veganism. She is the namer of Bustle, and one of its three founding editors. She’s the recipient of the Peabody Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights International Radio Award, the Investigative Reporters and Editors Radio Award, and the Edward R. Murrow Award for her work as an investigative reporter for Youth Radio. She is working on a book about non-monogamy.