Books to break up by

It seems a particularly cruel stroke that Valentine’s Day falls in the coldest stretch of winter.

The glimmer and rush of the holidays behind us, we see nothing ahead but sunless skies, biting winds and a long, slushy trudge toward an elusive spring. And in the midst of this gray wasteland blooms Love’s Big Day.

Why February? So that on the 14th, all of us who are alone can shiver like little matchgirls in the cold? Press our noses to the glass of cozy restaurants where every table seems set for two?

And if you’re a part of those couples seated in the restaurant, is it always better? Experience says no. Even established relationships can be lonely. And even happy ones can wilt in the face of oversized Valentine’s Day expectations. After all, this is Love’s Big Day, right? How better to celebrate than with a grueling internal audit that can only end badly? Where are my roses? Where’s my honking diamond pendant? My uncomplicated happiness?

Take heart. It’s over, at least for this year. And Xpress has gathered five volumes with which to take to your bed in recovery. The first book discussed — a collection of breakup letters written by women through the centuries — provides the inspiration for a reading list of other great end-of-the-affair books by female authors. Some are new, others are offbeat classics, but each proves that, while breaking up is hard to do, it can be awfully amusing (as well as consoling, cathartic and clarifying) to read about.

Dear $•%(&# John

Queens and poets, courtesans and college students. They all share something: bad relationships. And each has, in her day, sat down with pen, keyboard or feathered quill to tell her love exactly where to get off.

Edited by Anna Holmes, Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters From the End of the Affair (Carroll & Graf, 2002) not only collects these kiss-off notes in one volume, it identifies and groups the various species of letter with the particularity of a butterfly collector. We all know “Dear John,” but here is a new genus, the “Just Friend.” The colorfully plumed “Tell Off.” And the operatic dissection termed “The Autopsy.”

In this volume, we discover writers like Anne Sexton, Zelda Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton sifting through the ashes of their love affairs; Virginia Stephen coolly turning down the marriage proposal of Leonard Woolf; and Anne Boleyn pleading her faithfulness to Henry VIII. There are also plenty of letters by not-famous modern women. But many of these latter inclusions are tiresome (“but what does this relationship mean?”) and repetitive (“but what did you mean when you said that?”), and it’s impossible to imagine they were effective.

In fact, one of the few graceful letters in this volume was written by Princess Margaret to a lover her husband was forcing her to give up: “Our love has the passionate scent of new mown grass and lilies about it,” it goes, and the reader is not entirely surprised to learn, in a biographical note, that the lover was later found a suicide on the bed where he and Margaret made love.

More often the letters inspire the cringing thrills of looking on at someone else’s relationship train wreck. Witness Sylvia Plath clumsily edging away from intimacy with a childhood friend, and you may begin to wonder if the best breakup letters are the ones never sent. It’s a humbling task, to make a lover at once cherish and regret you as well as own up to all he or she has done.

However, when a letter begins — as one entry does — “Dear Ira, You have B.O. even after you shower,” it may be that the writer has other things on her mind than posterity.

Spurned by lovers and readers

If you’ve read all of Jane Austen’s novels — even mucked your way through the treasonous treacle of Mansfield Park out of devotion — and find yourself casting around for a suitable successor to place on your nightstand, look no further than the novels of Barbara Pym and Dawn Powell. Sharp, rueful, comic and heartbreaking — by turns and often, wonderfully, all at once — it’s possible to see in these wise ladies the inheritance of Austen’s bright-eyed gaze. In their hands, the absurd is appreciated, the puffed-up lampooned, and love is treated as unflinchingly as if it were just any other troublesome household pest.

Yet beyond alliterative surnames, Pym and Powell would seem at first to have little in common. Pym, who died in 1980, was English, a spinster, and spent a quiet career as an assistant editor of an anthropological journal. Meanwhile, Powell gadded about New York City’s Greenwich Village in the ’20s and ’30s, living a complicated and fittingly Bohemian life involving both a husband and a lover in for dinner. But both writers, after an initial run of success and recognition, fell out of print and out of fashion.

And both had their careers resurrected by opinionated gentlemen champions and fellow authors. In 1977, when a newspaper asked a group of preeminent British writers to name “the most underrated writer of the 20th century,” two — including poet, critic and ueber-librarian Philip Larkin –answered Barbara Pym.

Similarly, Powell’s reputation was revived (in this case posthumously) by laudatory essays by the likes of James Wolcott and Gore Vidal, among others.

Dubbing her America’s best comic novelist, Vidal wrote: “In her lifetime she should have been as widely read as, say, Hemingway or the early Fitzgerald … But Dawn Powell was that unthinkable monster, a witty woman who felt no obligation to make a single, much less final, down payment on Love or the Family.”

No place does Powell show off this monstrous talent so well as in the gorgeous Turn, Magic Wheel. Here we meet Effie Callingham, the cast-off wife of a Hemingway-esque literary titan. Fifteen years after her marriage ended, Effie still nurses a deep animal hurt. Now, as her ex-husband returns to the United States from abroad, she tries to make sense of his desertion (was she too understanding? not understanding enough?). The reader has the sense that, though the marriage lasted only a short time, a movie composed of all of its scenes has replayed in Effie’s head ever since — with several screenings a day.

And as the story progresses, carrying us through drunken lunches, adulterous lunges and other furiously funny scenes of Jazz Age New York literary life (think Algonquin table), it is Effie who keeps us in mind of the wounds beneath the glitter.

“There are various ways of mending a broken heart, but perhaps going to a learned conference is one of the more unusual.” So begins Pym’s No Fond Return of Love. The broken heart in question belongs to our heroine, a self-effacing wallflower named Dulcie Mainwaring. As her former fiance has explained to her, it’s not that he doesn’t love her — it’s that he’s not worthy of her love. Off with him! And on to the “learned conference,” where Dulcie’s head will be turned by the handsome, leonine Aylwin Forbes. Unfortunately, their meeting takes place after Aylwin faints while giving a lecture, “Some problems of an editor.”

Like many other Pym heroines, Dulcie doesn’t fall in love in these pages so much as submit to it. Austen may have ended her books with a romantic flourish, but a few generations later, her successors seem unable to imagine such an ending without the accompaniment of a cocked, amused eyebrow. At these novels’ end, it’s the reader who sighs contented — not the lovers.

Knocking cobwebs off the Gothic

If your entire knowledge of Victorian England were gleaned from the Gothic novel, you could be forgiven of taking a dim view of the place. In a Gothic, all the servants are villainous, windows are for spying and a country estate is always moldering and on the verge of falling down. Here, the only people in insane asylums are sane women with dastardly male relatives. It’s a feverish, topsy-turvy hothouse, the Gothic, and in Fingersmith (published in paperback by Riverhead Press in 2002), British author Sarah Waters trots us by the familiar landmarks with accomplished style.

And then she turns the whole thing on its head.

The story takes up at a suitably isolated, decrepit country estate where two orphaned girls, Sarah Trinder and Maud Lilly, are in residence. And as we’d expect from any Gothic worth its garters, at the center of a web of intrigue we find a handsome brute with suspect intentions. Typically, we’d expect the girls to hunger for his cruel embrace and bruising kisses. But while there’s plenty of erotic longing in these pages, it’s not for this handsome devil. It’s Maud and Sarah who make sparks fly.

But just because it’s between women doesn’t make the lovemaking any less dangerous. And that’s as much as can be told about the plot of this absolutely delicious, beautifully written thriller without ruining it.

Read it if you ever thought your love was a crooked liar. You may have gotten off easy.

Take a relationship road trip

In her memoir Breaking Clean (published in paperback by Vintage in 2002), Judy Blunt paints the portrait of a lover who treats her poorly, uses her badly, but whom she can’t bear to leave. This lover goes by the name of the state of Montana.

Blunt grew up where the cattle and the antelope roam, not to mention the snakes, the mice, the jack rabbits and the mosquitoes. Hers is a third-generation ranching family, eking out a living from an unforgiving, hardscrabble land. The nearest town (population 2,500) is an hour away and often, because of floods and blizzards, unreachable. Much of the pleasure of this memoir derives from the careful detailing and visceral evocation of the extreme hardship and grueling routine that make up the ranching life. If you loved Laura Ingalls Wilder as a child, Breaking Clean waits for you as an adult.

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