A Post About Post-Relationship Life in Literature

Adjusting to life soon after divorce, widowhood, or the end of a non-marital romantic relationship often isn’t easy — even if the partnership was negative.

But reading about the emotionally wrenched lives of fictional characters after they break up? Well, that’s sort of like watching a horror movie relatively calmly rather than being a scared horror victim in real life. There’s enough of a remove to feel interest, fascination, and, heck, even a sense of entertainment — minus the personal angst.

Yet while reading about fictional breakups, we probably do think about our own breakups — which helps us also feel empathy for now-solo protagonists in literature. (I was divorced myself.) And those characters’ experiences can be so dramatic and curiosity-evoking. How are they coping? Will they get their lives together again? Meet someone new? If kids are involved, how are they handling things?

Of course a novel I just read made me think of this topic. It was Elizabeth Berg’s Open House, a 2000 book that starts with Samantha Morrow’s husband leaving her. Samantha struggles to keep it together emotionally, while also dealing with a sullen son made more sullen by the impending divorce. She also struggles enough financially to have to take in boarders: a nice elderly woman with a great romantic life, then a depressed young woman, and then an upbeat young gay man. Meanwhile, Samantha becomes friends with an almost-too-good-to-be-true guy, yet doesn’t see him as a potential romantic partner until…

Anne Lamott’s Blue Shoe (2002) has a somewhat similar story line as it focuses on protagonist Mattie Ryder after her marriage fails.

Then there’s Fay Weldon’s The Bulgari Connection, in which Grace McNab Salt’s dishonorable husband leaves her for the much younger, more glamorous Doris Dubois. Grace first reacts badly (she tries to run over Doris) and then more maturely (I’ll avoid spoilers here). But suffice to say that Weldon’s 2001 novel, like Open House and Blue Shoe, has inspiring and empowering moments for its female stars.

The three above books were published 2000, 2001, and 2002? What was it about novels that came out soon after the millennium turned? 🙂

Other recent or relatively recent novels with compelling post-end-of-relationship scenarios in the main plot or subplot include Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (Ruth leaves her abusive husband), Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (Subhash deals with life after his wife departs), Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story (adultery in the days of apartheid), Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (Dellarobia chooses independence over a lackluster marriage), and Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back (a divorced mother finds love on vacation).

Latter-20th-century and early-21st-century novels by male authors also deal interestingly with this subject matter. For instance, there’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (widow decides whether to reunite with a man she was involved with five decades earlier), Jack Finney’s Time and Again (time-traveling Simon Morley finds a better relationship in the past than in the present), David Baldacci’s One Summer (about a father’s experiences after his wife’s death), Stephen King’s Rose Madder (about a woman who flees an abusive husband — and gets involved with some supernatural stuff), and John Grisham’s The Client (the book’s back story has Regina “Reggie” Love becoming a compassionate lawyer after a terrible marriage).

Then there are classic novels with plots or subplots dealing with life after marriages or relationships end — including George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Colette’s The Vagabond, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and the Bronte sisters’ tremendous trifecta of Jane Eyre (Charlotte), Wuthering Heights (Emily), and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne).

What are your favorite novels with the kinds of scenarios discussed here?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

64 thoughts on “A Post About Post-Relationship Life in Literature

    • I read that semi-autobiographical novel recently! If I’m catching your meaning correctly, jhNY, the book’s prisoner protagonist had a close relationship (not romantic) with some fellow prisoners, and was in close quarters with many others, but that was basically in the past because the book was written after the protagonist finished his sentence at the prison camp. And of course some prisoners left wives and girlfriends behind when they were jailed.

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      • My thinking was merely: the man whose writings form the body of the book was sent into the prison system for killing his wife. At least that’s how I remember things. You’ve read it more recently– did I get that wrong?

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Ivan Bunin (Russian, 1870-1953, Nobel Prize for Literature winner, 1933) wrote well on the theme of love’s end and aftermath in a few short stories I’ve read. One in particular stands out, especially the description of a man’s ride on horseback over frosted, stubbled, moonlit fields to the home and object of his old romance.

    But the book in which I read it, put out by the Soviets in the ’60’s (!), I cannot locate among my tottering piles, so I can provide no more helpful detail than what I’ve managed above….

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    • That story sounds very evocative, jhNY, as was Bunin’s life — much of it spent in exile from Russia. After seeing your comment, I just reread the Wikipedia entry about him. Yes, the Soviet Union did surprisingly publish him posthumously.

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  2. Howdy, Dave!

    — What are your favorite novels with the kinds of scenarios discussed here? —

    Bearing in mind the main reason I most likely will not run another New York City Marathon in this lifetime centers on the fact it is conducted in the chilly, frosty, icy, snowy, wintry month of November, I must say that among novels of this nature E. Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News” left me cold, not figuratively but literally, with the author’s controlling objective correlative between the frigid mental landscape of her characters and the frigid physical landscape of her setting effectively reducing my body temperature by an estimated 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) per every 10 chapters, which is quite a good thing while reading on an Atlantic Ocean beach around noon on one of those hazy, hot and humid dog days of August during an interglacial period when the sun burns your head and the sand burns your toes and everything else burns everything else. Cool.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Okay, nobody would want to break off a relationship with great writing like that. 🙂 Really enjoyed reading your comment, J.J.

      Another novel that evokes cold, cold, cold is Peter Hoeg’s “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” — sort of a mystery, but really hard to define. And then there are those Jack London novels and stories set in the Yukon…

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      • — Another novel that evokes cold, cold, cold is Peter Hoeg’s “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” — sort of a mystery, but really hard to define. —

        Based not on reading “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” but on seeing the film of the same name (bits and pieces, anyway), I can see why you flashed on it in terms of the arctic vibe it shares with “The Shipping News.” However, I cannot recall anything about it that relates to post-relationship life in literature, as you described the phenomenon in your blog post. Of course, I have not seen the whole flick: Cursed cable channels!

        So: Did I miss a major (or even a minor) subplot in the movie?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Good question, J.J.! In my previous comment, I strayed from the theme by mentioning novels that evoked cold without thinking of the post-relationship aspect. Smilla might have had a romantic relationship previous to the one depicted in the book (I forget), but, if so, it was a minor part of the book. She DID have a friendly/sort of sibling-like/sort of parental relationship with the murdered boy, but that’s of course a different type of relationship.

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      • Hard to beat To Build A Fire on the evocation of “cold, cold, cold .”

        Once winter comes, I always carry a few match-packs in my mukluks, in the hope it makes my husky, an avid London reader himself, less suspicious of any sudden movement on my part.

        Surely you remember that old AK axiom: warm hands, cold dog.

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        • Yes, the riveting “To Build a Fire” is one of the ultimate dealing-with-bitter-cold literary works.

          I feel like I should read your excellent/funny comment with Three Dog Night music in the background… 🙂

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        • Howdy, jhNY!

          — Surely you remember that old AK axiom: warm hands, cold dog. —

          Only in the modified form associated with Ashley and Tyler Selden on the Discovery Channel’s “The Last Alaskans”: Four warm hands, eight cold dogs.

          J.J.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Howdy, J.J.McGrath!

            Unfamiliar with this modified form– so far, I am lured to watch shows set in AK only so long as gold is involved. Gives me the fever just seeing the dust glittering on the scale. Must be in the blood– one my great-grandfather mined silver; another brought back a gold nugget stickpin from South Africa, though I think he was more involved in accommodating miners than in the digging: he had a hotel in Kimberley; we still have a classified ad for it framed. My brother, who has studied up on the place and the era, assures me his ‘hotel’ was most likely a big tent.

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            • — I am lured to watch shows set in AK only so long as gold is involved. . . . Must be in the blood– one my great-grandfather mined silver; another brought back a gold nugget stickpin from South Africa, though I think he was more involved in accommodating miners than in the digging: he had a hotel in Kimberley; we still have a classified ad for it framed. My brother, who has studied up on the place and the era, assures me his ‘hotel’ was most likely a big tent. —

              Well, a tent would appear to be better housing in Kimberley, South Africa, with its coolest average monthly low temperature of 34 degrees Fahrenheit (July), than in Nome, Alaska, with its coolest average monthly low temp of -3 degrees Fahrenheit (January). Of course, I hope the concierge at your great-grandfather’s place was equipped to field a patron’s occasional call about the odd black mamba on the hotel premises.

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  3. The Pope of Greenwich Village is a pretty good NYC Little Italy guys and the troubles they will get themselves into sort of a book. The dialog is tight and well-paced, and the dark humor that arises out of desperation and increasingly impulsive stupidity made me laugh out loud from time to time. The characters are memorable and though not unfamiliar as types, are better realized, and more individualized than one might expect. It may be that some the familiarity with characters and the general milieu are due the novel’s very success– among later writers, anyway.

    The movie made from the novel is probably better for those who haven’t read the latter. Casting Eric Roberts, who does as well as he is able, suffers from the reverse of the Reacher Movie Syndrome: the Paulie character is a little guy, a craven, reckless, self-destructive, resentful little guy, and none too bright. Eric brings height and a lush looks to the part– this was before his terrible car accident– where none should have been.

    But I mention The Pope of Greenwich Village to contribute to the week’s theme, and in the form of Charlie and Diane, we have, at the novel’s opening, a love affair in deep trouble. Charlie is a divorced neighborhood guy, but with enough vision to see he’s got no future there, and Diane is a nice out-of-town girl from Maine and an aspiring actress who’d like to see him do better, only there’s the constant chiseling, almost by reflex, the other girls and the late-night drinking and the shylocks looking for him and his no-good friends and the casual lying about all of it, right to her face, anytime a lie would cover the truth.

    Though there had been, over the course of their relationship, a few new leaves from Charlie thrown on the fire, everything between them was burning up, and fast. Charlie owes everybody everywhere he goes, and he needs more money than he can ever earn at his restaurant gig. Just to break even, just to keep from being broken. So, he turns to thoughts of crime– just as Diane announces she’s pregnant, and keeping the baby. She wants them to settle down somewhere out of NYC, open up his dream restaurant. Charlie secretly just wants to leave her and the baby altogether and make his new start solo, leaving a bit of folding money for Diane and the kid. After he makes a big score, he stashes the cash there, but stays away from their apartment for days, and when he comes back, he sees the note. She’s left him for the sake of their baby, who needs a good father with a steady job. She’s found the money. And takes nearly all of it when she goes.

    Charlies still owes everybody, only now, he can’t pay and wise guys, a few, want more than money out of him. A more desperate desperation ensues, and there will be blood. But somewhere in the back country of Maine, there’s a mother and child and enough nest egg to get them through the first year or two– at least that’s probably what Charlie figures he’d hear, if he ever heard from her again.

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    • Thanks, jhNY! I think I saw “The Pope of Greenwich Village” movie many years ago, but never read the novel. I appreciate the truly excellent summary of the story line.

      And I had to chuckle at your “reverse of the Reacher Movie Syndrome” phrase. Tom Cruise as a 10-inches-too-short Jack — unforgiveable!

      (I was on Canal Street near NYC’s Little Italy just last weekend. The impression I get is that there’s a lot less Little Italy and a lot more Chinatown — and perhaps a lot more of another neighborhood or two — than there used to be.)

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      • My summary is but of a sub-plot, really, but the only one pertinent to theme, unless you count the break-up of Paulie with his employer, Eddie The Bedbug, by way of lye in a cup of espresso.

        Chinatown is a very interesting case, ethnic-neighborhood-wise. The neighborhood spans the ground once populated by the immigrant Irish, and later, the ground once populated by immigrant Italians. The Italians did it a little, but the Chinese did it a lot: they bought they places they lived; the Irish never did, at least in that area. Result over time? “There’s a lot less Little Italy and a lot more Chinatown .”

        The Pope of Greenwich really deserves a bigger audience. It’s well-made, engaging and funny, if very dark. The conversation between Diane and Charlie about honesty really gets to the hard heart of a local perspective….

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        • “…lye in a cup of espresso” — yikes! But “The Pope of Greenwich Village” does sounds like a very good novel.

          Excellent explanation of one reason why Chinatown has expanded. And I’m thinking many Italian-Americans have moved to the suburbs in recent decades without many Italian immigrants replacing them, while the Chinese-Americans who have moved to the suburbs may have been replaced by many newer immigrants from China and Taiwan. (I have no exact numbers to back that theory!)

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  4. Well, neither one of these authors are fictional characters, but I would venture to say that they were somewhat self-fictionalized in their respective memoirs. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote of the breakup of her marriage and her subsequent life with Norton Baskin in “Crosscreek”. Karen Blixen wrote of the breakup of her marriage (he gave her syphilis) and her subsequent relationship with Denys Finch Hatton in “Out of Africa”. After so many years, it’s hard for me to separate what I saw on the screen versus what I read in the books 🙂

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    • Great point, lulabelle, about how people can semi-fictionalize themselves in memoirs.

      I’ve read a bit of biographical info on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and it seems her first marriage broke up partly because the guy didn’t want to be in rural Florida, where MKR settled. Norton Baskin, as you know, was a successful hotel and restaurant owner who ended up outliving MKR by more than 40 years.

      Yes, it CAN be hard to separate novels and their screen versions. I both read and saw “Out of Africa” in the 1980s, and remember them having significant differences (for one thing, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford were of course more glamorous than their real-life counterparts), but the book and movie still sort of blur together.

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      • RE: The film of ‘Out of Africa’. Meryl, of course, looked nothing like Karen Blixen although she did her usual fantastic accent. Robert Redford, however, played an Englishman with a non-existent British accent. THAT was one of the most blatant bits of miscasting that I’ve seen.

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        • Thanks, Brian! I had forgotten that accent thing with Robert Redford. So his “Out of Africa” casting involved more than just a problem with being too good-looking for the part (which also happened when he played Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men”).

          Meryl Streep can indeed nail ANY accent!

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          • A synopsis of a biography of Denys Finch Hatton, called “Too Close to the Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton” describes him as follows: “A champion of Africa, legendary for his good looks, his charm, and his prowess as a soldier, lover, and hunter, Denys Finch Hatton inspired Karen Blixen to write the unforgettable Out of Africa. Now esteemed British biographer Sara Wheeler tells the truth about this extraordinarily charismatic adventurer.” Looking at the images of him that I found, a great choice for his part might have been Hugh Grant, although he wasn’t nearly old enough to have played the part at the time. I was satisfied with Redford’s performance (for obvious reasons 🙂 ) It was much better that he left off an accent than to have messed up an English accent.

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          • I’ve been reading (and re-reading) Isak Denisen’s (Karen Blixen) Seven Gothic Tales this week, and reading about her a bit on the ‘nets as I go. There’s one photo of her that seems most prevalent, and has also been used as the basis of an illustration, in which the author, very old, appears in profile, ironically smiling, in a dark cloak. I found it unsettling without knowing why, till I figured it out: she looks in that pic a bit too much like Max Schreck as the coachman in Nosferatu!

            Not surprising, I guess, given her theatricality as combined with age and bad health.

            I have only recently read her, though of course, I’ve looked at some of her books over the years. I am very impressed with Seven Gothic Tales, and consider it to be one of the most auspicious debuts in modern literature. Masterful!

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            • Thanks, jhNY, for your thoughts on “Seven Gothic Tales” and more! Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen is one of those authors of which I’ve read only her most famous work (“Out of Africa”). It’s hardly surprising just how good iconic writers’ less-famous work can be.

              As you might know, Carson McCullers hosted a 1959 party for Dinesen. Both in ill health at the time. The idea was for Dinesen to meet Marilyn Monroe! Arthur Miller was there, too.

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                    • “Pah-rumpa-pum-pum” — ha!

                      Wow — didn’t know about that odd combo of Mike Douglas and Ted Nugent, though I can easily imagine Nugent dueting with a racist, a woman-hater, or a homophobe. Or maybe they can just form a quartet…

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                  • Thread’s maxed, so–

                    I left out particulars which only make the moment weirder: Ted Nugent, Mike Douglas, Dolly Parton and Susan Anton performed Kansas City on the Mike Douglas Show. Happened on it as it occurred while flipping through the channels (by hand!– no remote back then) and never quite recovered. Of course, I am also a veteran of having seen Wayne Newton play the guitar and sing (credibly) the blues on a Jerry Lewis telethon, so nothing can really shock me but so much….

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                    • Serendipitous strangeness! Hope you at least partly recovered. 🙂

                      And Wayne Newton credibly singing the blues is a bit of a shocker. My Wayne Newton moment was seeing him share the stage with Israeli leader Shimon Peres at the 1998 editorial cartoonist convention Las Vegas. The cool factor was off the charts, but that was all due to the air-conditioning…

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  5. About a week or so I posted Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera at my place then almost used it on your short story post but I kept going back and forth in my mind because it “obsessive” to be escapist though certainly ” psychologically insightful.”

    I remember reading Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald, because it reminded me of the Jackson Brown song, similarly titled–actually the song is about a strained relationship; I wonder if there’s a connection– Wealthy privilege, alcoholism, dysfunction this novel made it clear: money does not necessarily translate to ” diamond sunbursts or marble halls.” Ok the quote should be an easy one for you to solve.

    I hope I transitioned between the two post well 🙂

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    • Thank you, Jack! Your comment and its transition looked fine to me. 🙂

      You named two classic novels that focused on ended relationships or marriages — and what happened, good and bad, after they ended.

      “Tender Is the Night” is an excellent book, and one thing that adds to its impact is the partly autobiographical way it reflects the troubled real-life marriage of F. Scott and Zelda — though of course the author changed a lot of the particulars. In some ways I like “Tender” better than Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” — it’s not as “perfectly” written, but pretty powerful in its more messy way.

      Sort of the opposite with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “One Hundred Years of Solitude” — the former pretty tightly written, and the latter a sprawling masterpiece.

      And, yes, money often does not equate with happiness, though it’s sure nice to be able to hang out in the south of France — where the Divers were as their marriage unfortunately disintegrated.

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    • “I remember reading Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald, because it reminded me of the Jackson Brown song.”

      To say nothing about that noisy nightingale…

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  6. I would mention another novel by Edith Wharton. It took me by surprise when Newland Archer didn’t attempt to meet with the Countess Ellen Olenska after the death of his wife, May Welland. At this point in his life, would it have been inappropriate for him to have reestablished connection
    with his wife’s cousin (I think), or was he more in love with May than he knew? Any ideas about that, Dave? I’d also mention Henry James’s novel, “The Wings of the Dove,” in which Kate Croy, who is engaged to Merton Densher, comes up with a plan to have Densher woo (is that still a word?) an enormously wealthy American, who Kate discovers is incurable sick. The whole plan backfires when Milly does die, and Densher doesn’t want to profit off her death.

    On a more modern level, as you know, I’m a big fan of Liane Moriarty and all of her novels. One that may be the best for this column is, “The Hypnotist’s Love Story,” in which an actual hypnotherapist falls for a widowed man, who is being stalked by a former girlfriend that is crazy as a loon.

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    • Kat Lib, a great question about why Newland Archer decided not to see Countess Ellen Olenska at the end of “The Age of Innocence”! I don’t think his marriage to May was ever a real love match. Perhaps Newland realized his pre-marriage interest in Ellen was more infatuation than love, or more an attraction to Ellen’s unconventionality than love? Or maybe a middle-aged Newland felt too mentally weary to get into another relationship at that time (in Paris)? I’m not sure.

      I definitely want to get to “The Wings of the Dove” one of these days. And “The Hypnotist’s Love Story” sounds VERY interesting.

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      • I think that Newland felt his relationship with Ellen belonged to the world of his youth, an ‘age of innocence’ so to speak, and didn’t want to tamper with that image by clouding it with something from his elder years. I believe he said, “I’m old fashioned” (at least in the Scorsese film that was the line of dialogue), which also supports that interpretation. It was a ‘road not taken’ to borrow from another literary source.

        In ‘The Wings of the Dove’, Merton had been morally transformed by sincerely falling in love with Milly, rather than using her fatal illness to profit from it, as had been the original plan with Kate. The artificial love became real for him.

        At least that’s how I interpret both novels.

        Liked by 1 person

    • It IS a great novel, Bill. While I like the author’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” better — and, why not, it’s one of the deepest, most go-for-broke-ambitious novels ever written — “Love in the Time of Cholera” is definitely an easier, more linear book while still being FAR from simple.

      How do you define “moral fiction”? I’m curious, because Florentino in the novel is a very interesting mix of moral and not so moral.

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  7. It’s very quiet here today, but I know this is how it usually goes on a weekend holiday. This means that I am a single person who doesn’t have to have some place to go on a holiday. I don’t actually want to have any place to go on Memorial Day but that is OK since I don’t much like picnics or whatever is going on that day. I still love my home, and I am looking forward to my childhood friends coming to visit in the first part of June.

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    • Yes, Kat Lib, it IS relatively quiet here on this Memorial Day. Hopefully the pace of commenting will speed up as the week goes on!

      There’s something to be said for staying home on a holiday weekend rather than dealing with packed roads or packed airports. 🙂

      Great that you’ll soon have visitors!

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  8. Hi Dave, I must admit that I am mostly moved by author’s memoirs when it is about the death of a spouse. The two that come to mind immediately are Joyce Carol Oates and Joan Didion, who both wrote eloquently about their husbands’ unexpected deaths. I’m sure, I’ll come up with literary examples but these were first to come to mind.

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    • Thank you, Kat Lib! Memoirs about the (unexpected or expected) death of a spouse can be very intense. I haven’t read the two you mentioned, though I remember Joan Didion’s book getting a LOT of coverage at the time of its publication — because of her eloquence (as you note), her fame, her late husband being fairly famous himself, etc.

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    • OK, I just spent time discussing another Joan Didion memoir, that had to do with her daughter’s death at age 39. Quintana Roo was in a coma from septic shock when her father died from a sudden heart attack. It took 3 months for her to be well enough in 2003 to attend her father’s funeral. She got better, but died in 2005. So tragic! Didion wrote another memoir, “Blue Nights” about her daughter and aging. Both are very moving and so well written. I think I will close out here and start again later so I don’t wipe out everything I already posted.

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