In college, I developed a crush on a man with whom I worked. He was a good person, he made me laugh, and we were friends. But since I was a student and we were coworkers, we were off limits to each other, not that he ever expressed any romantic interest in me at that time. Undeterred, I declared in my journal that one day I would marry him. Love was a simple equation to me. Then, he fell in love and married someone else.
A few years later, we met up again, this time free of outside constraints: I wasn’t a student, we weren’t coworkers, he was no longer married. He asked me on a date, and we went, and it seemed like a spectacular beginning. Then he disappeared. He didn’t call or contact me, even when I reached out. I would find out later that he was still grappling with the grief of his divorce.
We ran into each other a few years later. He apologized. We talked on the phone, we met up a few times, we started dating. He was healed, emotionally available, and open to a serious relationship. And did I mention what a good man he was? Because he really was. What could go wrong?
I went wrong. I’d just gotten out of an unhealthy relationship that had mixed love with anger. I was in a dark place, and no matter how much this good man tried, I couldn’t find my way out. I tried to convince myself he wasn’t right for me, but finally I realized I wasn’t right for him—or for anyone, at that moment.
I’ve spent my adult life trying to figure out why people love whom they love. It’s what I write about, and it’s what I read about. I’m not just talking romantic love, but sibling love, parental love, platonic love, love built on loyalty that defies reason, flimsy love that breaks with the snap of one’s fingers, love that emerges after long hibernation, love that leaves but makes a person whole again in its wake.
The books below shine light on the intricacies of our longings: why we choose to latch on to someone else, why we push them away, how growing up sometimes means redefining love or redefining ourselves, and why, sometimes, love means letting go.
Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett
A friendship formed out of shared interests and hopes—and forged from experiencing pivotal life events together—is built on a foundation of love. Not romantic love, but a deep love nevertheless. Patchett’s memoir about her friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy, whom she met in college, is a story about two friends—one a novelist, one a poet, and both with big dreams—whose lives both intersected and diverged. Their loyalty to each other is tested by fame, jealousies, addictions. Patchett tells this tale with insight, grace, and a trace of regret.
The Big Love by Sarah Dunn
I’m a big fan of laughing out loud, so although my tastes veer toward more serious books, there was a time in my thirties when I could not see my way out of a particular period of sadness. This book allowed me to escape. I read it on a beach, before and after jumping into the cold ocean. I guess this might be classified as a “beach read,” and not just because I read it on a beach, but instead I classify it as a witty tumble through one young woman’s love-career-friend adventures. The protagonist makes herself vulnerable to the reader, opening up about her quirks and fears in a self-deprecating and humorous way. This is a book I have kept and reread, and when a friend is having a rough go at life, I buy another copy and give it to her so that she might soon laugh again, too.
Looking for Angels in New York by Jacqueline Osherow
I have no idea how I got hold of this collection of poetry. I only know I’ve held onto it for decades, toting it from apartment to house to condo and through a marriage and a divorce and personal disasters. It contains some of my favorite poems about love lost, and love tested by distance. In the poem “International Call,” there is a space separating two people, filled by all the unspoken things between them: “I want to tell you things, to say we are not doomed / To repeat the disasters of the world, or your / Old disasters, that a person who has loved badly / Can love well. This is a universe of constant changes.”
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
What I like most about this story collection is Lahiri’s exploration of relationships: why we choose to love the people that we do, how sometimes we can come to dislike the person we fell for—because of grief, because of hard truths, because of a newfound awareness—and how, sometimes, we open our hearts to someone unexpected who sees us with more clarity than we see ourselves. These stories cross cultural and emotional borders. The opening story, “A Temporary Matter,” is a stunner.
Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life by Abigail Thomas
I read this book more than a decade after its publication, but I return to it still and reread passages. All the chapters are short; some are just a paragraph long. The point of view shifts, the stories skip back and forth in time, yet the author constructs a unified story from all the different pieces. What I like best is the narrator’s focus on the big romantic loves of her life—primarily, her three husbands. Thomas allows us a glimpse into what it means to sustain love despite fractures and hurts, and even after the initial incarnation of the relationship has ended and another has begun.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
My all-time favorite essay is Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” so it’s no shocker that I enjoyed this memoir. I’m not gonna lie: I enjoyed it, in part, because of Didion’s voice, which is unique (and enviable) in its style. But I return to this book because of its story, too. I more than willingly walk alongside Didion as she takes us on a journey of words about love and marriage, death and grief, heartbreak and survival.
The Carrying by Ada Limón
Ada Limón’s poems are both accessible and heavy with meaning. This book is about what it means to live and love while at times grappling with fear and uncertainty. If you want a love poem that is strong and unsentimental, read “What I Didn’t Know Before.” If you want a poem about how the people we love make us confront uncomfortable things, read “After His Ex Died.” My favorite poem in the collection is “The Raincoat,” and is about a mother’s selfless love.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
This novel-in-stories is on the list because of its opening story, “Pharmacy.” Not that the rest of the book isn’t great—it won a Pulitzer for a reason—but it’s “Pharmacy” that I have reread and dissected and studied. It’s a masterpiece, containing so many aspects of love: adoration, pity, tragedy, tenderness, jealousy, sympathy, hurt, loss, and hope. Yet for all the abstract words it evokes, the story itself is not abstract. Strout artfully crafts a story that has depth of character and is detailed and specific. If you’re looking for a light read, Olive Kittredge isn’t for you. If you’re looking to understand the callings of the heart and the ways that life can fail to answer, it is.
The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel
I cried when I finished this book. I mean cried. I won’t tell you whether it was from sadness or joy, but I will tell you that this book has stayed with me in the fifteen or so years that have passed since then. It’s a story about an academic and a minister who are (unhappily) thrown into each other’s lives because of a murder, and because of two little girls who desperately need them. I think all humans yearn to be seen and loved—that’s what I think of when I think of this book.
100 Love Sonnets/Cien Sonetos de Amor by Pablo Neruda, translated by Stephen Tapscott
The first time I picked up this collection was at the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. I was twenty-four and desperately in love, and I must have mentioned the book to the man I loved because after we broke up, he sent it to me, except for a long time I didn’t know it was he who had sent it. That’s its own story. I am half-Mexican, so Spanish is a part of my life. I like reading these poems in both languages, and though sometimes the translation varies from my own interpretation, both versions brim with devotion, tenderness, and desperation.
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
This memoir is about a woman, given up by her Korean parents and adopted by white parents as a baby, who goes searching for her roots. It’s a book about what it means to be family, what it means to belong, what it means to be a mother, and whether love can spring up between people who have been strangers but are bound by blood.
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
Jami Attenberg’s novel about a woman coming to terms with who she is, who she wants to be, and how her choices affect the people she loves is another book that has stayed with me long after I finished reading it. With connection comes understanding—but also vulnerability, and, sometimes, heartbreak. Love is a complicated thing.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
I know. Two books by Ann Patchett on one short list? I almost didn’t include this novel for that reason, but had to. The Dutch House is about so many different characters’ longings—for approval, for fairness, for acceptance, for kindness, for revenge, for peace. At its heart, this novel is about two siblings whose relationship trumps all others, but over the course of the book the reader comes to understand the sacrifices they both make in order to sustain each other, and how love can be a kind of debt. I’d never seen love portrayed in this way before, and I’m still in awe.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Shuly’s debut story collection, A Small Thing to Want, forthcoming May 3 from Press 53! – Ed.
A Small Thing to Want by Shuly Xóchitl Cawood
A Small Thing to Want, the debut short story collection by Shuly Xóchitl Cawood, chronicles the choices people make about whom to love and whom to let go, their yearnings that either bind them or set them free, and the surprising ways love shows up, without reason or restraint. The characters in these stories long for freedom, truth, friendship, courage, and second chances, but each person will have to grapple with the consequences and costs of their desires.