When the heart is breaking or has been broken and feels like it will never mend, it’s typical to want to lose ourselves in books.
While many people reach for self-help books, that is not my chosen fix for a broken heart.
Instead, I overwhelmingly turn to literature.
The books below are my comfort food of choice whenever I feel down on love. Plus, a broken heart doesn’t just have to refer to the loss of romantic love—all is included in this list.
Therefore, if you happen to be in that boat or know someone who is, check out the following recommendations below:
1. Atonement by Ian McEwan
While many are familiar with the superb 2007 film adaptation, this is a case where the novel is even better than the movie.
In addition to the doomed lovers, Robbie and Cecilia, the novel also deals with the loss of familial love between two sisters, the aforementioned Cecilia and her kid sister, Briony.
In addition to coming across as far more sympathetic than she does in the film, Briony also shows how the power of both art and words can go a long way towards redemption.
While Briony may never be able to completely forgive herself for all the problems her lie causes, the reader nonetheless does and comes to see how no one is ever the sum of their worst action.
2. Ariel: The Restored Edition by Sylvia Plath
Even if we don’t know the slightest bit about poetry, most of us are familiar with the work of Sylvia Plath and the collection of poems that turned her into a posthumous icon.
While many critics have claimed that they show Plath’s descent into madness and depression, few know that before she died, she already completed the manuscript and her arrangement of the poems was very different than what was eventually published. (Plath’s estranged husband, Ted Hughes, was the executor of her work, and it’s his arrangement that became the final published version.)
It wasn’t until 2004—forty-four years after her suicide—that the public finally got to read her original selection in the above-mentioned work that was edited by her daughter, Frieda Hughes.
Hughes mentions in the foreword that her mother’s original intention was “to cover the ground from just before the breakup of [her] marriage to resolution of a new life, with all the agonies and furies in between.”
While, sadly, Plath never got to experience the new life she envisioned for herself and her children, reading Ariel as it was intended to be read leaves the reader with a feeling of hope for the future.
3. The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
This is my favorite novel of all time. Anyone who has ever lost a lover to a rival—especially one that we thought was a friend—should read this book.
Atwood perfectly captures those feelings of abandonment, anger and sadness, as one of the three heroines, Toni, debates whether or not to contact her husband, West:
Now that she’s started to cry it seems impossible to stop. . . She thinks about going over to their apartment. . . But what would she say? Give him back? Zenia would just laugh. . . “He’s a grown-up, he can make his own choices.” Or something like that. And if she were to turn up on Zenia’s doorstep, to whine and beg and plead, wouldn’t that be just what Zenia wanted?
Despite the heaviness of the theme, the novel is surprisingly funny, too. Ultimately, it is more about the power of female friendship and the bonds that women form, helping them through their most challenging times.
4. Scarf Style by Pam Allen
This isn’t a novel but a book about knitting scarves. While this may seem like an odd choice, it makes perfect sense to those who are passionate about crafting. As a handwork instructor, I feel that needlework can be a lifesaver. It’s saved mine more times than I can recall.
While hopefully, you will have several warm pairs of arms to wrap around your neck and shoulders during a difficult time, there is something empowering about making a scarf for yourself just for you to enjoy.
Don’t know how to knit? Learn online or better yet, join a local knitting group and meet some new people.
5. The Boleyn Inheritance by Phillipa Gregory
While some critics say that Gregory is guilty of turning the Tudor saga into a sort of medieval Dynasty-like soap opera, I happen to love her books on the Tudors. The Boleyn Inheritance is my favorite in the series. While we all know about Henry VIII and his first two wives, little is known about Wife number four and Wife number five, except the former was “ugly” and the latter “a slut”.
Drawing on historic records, Gregory finally gives these two women a voice and shows them as young women searching for love, but through fate, get tangled up with Britain’s most notorious king ever. In particular, Katherine Howard’s account of finally finding love with Thomas Culpepper is especially touching. Even though we already know it won’t end well, and the forbidden romance will result in both of their deaths, it still reminds us the old adage is true: it’s better to have loved and lost then to have never loved at all.
In closing, books can be a great way to nurse a broken or still-tender heart.
Reading about the experiences of others—even if they are fictional characters—reminds us that we are not alone. Plus, in all the works mentioned, there is a sense of hope running throughout each of them.
Therefore, even if you are in the early stages and wish to be alone, consider taking at least one of these books with you on your journey. You won’t regret it.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Jhayne Holmes