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?

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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.