When your heart is broken you feel like no freaking book in the world could help you because a book is not the person who you love, who doesn't love you. However, books help, if only because they serve as something you can hold in your hand and throw across the room in agony.
My first whopping sobbing-day-and-night-obsessed-and-miserable-heartbreak was in my twenties and I am pretty sure all I read was The Weddings Section of The New York Times and wept assuming that I would never end up with a happy ending like all of the people in the Sunday Styles section. Back then they didn't have photographs of the happy couples, maybe one of the bride, so all you could do was stare at the names forever linked together in black and white. But somehow wallowing in the wedding announcements helped, kind of how it helps to bite canker sores in your mouth. It's a hurt-so-good thing.
I did read Letters To A Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke, over and over again in my twenties, and since I was heartbroken for much of my twenties (I got dumped a ton before I started getting it right), they probably helped me quite a bit. Rilke wrote to this nineteen-year-old kid in ten letters and gave him the most incredible advice, one of the first pieces being "Go into yourself." And that is true about heartbreak, really only you can get yourself out of it.
Okay, I'm going there -- cookbooks. Reading cookbooks will help with just about anything in your life including heartbreak. Anything written by Jamie Oliver (but maybe start with Happy Days With The Naked Chef, not his first, but my fave) will put a smile on your face, and in his case, it's worth it to drag yourself into the kitchen and make something. His recipes are for the most part easy and they are without fail delicious. Make yourself a chocolate cake or risotto. The methodical, peaceful cooking will heal your heart and you will be proud of yourself for producing something that tastes good. Eat your chocolate cake in front of a "Sex and the City" Marathon in your sweatpants. It's not giving up, it's taking care of yourself.
Since I just read it, I will suggest The Goldfinch, by Donna Tart. It's so long, engrossing and good. If you are heartbroken and can't face the world, you need something with a fantastic plot. You won't be able to read anything boring because your attention span when you are heartbroken decreases by three-quarters. The book won't help you figure out much about love per-say, but it will distract you and take you other places in your mind.
Let us not forget almost every book Jane Austin ever wrote. If I had to choose one for heartbreak, I would choose Sense and Sensibility. This novel, set in the 1700's in England is about the Dashwood sisters. There is love, match making, marriage, heartbreak and a very satisfying ending. The book (and also the movie version directed by Ang Lee) plunks you down in the middle of another families' longings and dreams, plus there are a lot of good descriptions of beautiful English houses and clothes.
Anita Shreve is an author I adore. I rip through her meaty books and get off on the robust romance immensely -- especially if I am feeling less than robust in my real life. For the most part they take place in coastal, stormy settings that set a perfect heartbreak mood. Fortune's Rocks is my favorite.
Someone once told me that the way to mend a broken heart or get through really any of life's set backs is to learn something. I have put this advice into practice and it works! I find reading how-to books or even magazines about something outside my wheelhouse is very soothing, and I pick up a few things. A marvelous book sort of in this arena is Counting My Chickens and Other Home Thoughts by The Duchess of Devonshire. This is not a manual, but it's an amusing, wise and lovely account of this lady's life in her manor house in England. I keep this book by my bedside and read it when I am feeling blue.
Is it so piggish to recommend my first book, called Happens Every Day? It's a memoir I wrote about when my first husband left me for a friend of mine who was working with him. It's also about kids, flowers, academic life and Ohio, but I think it's a pretty good read if you want to feel less alone in your heartbreak. I was SO HEARTBROKEN but I got through it and made my way to a very, very happy life. And I promise you will too, you just have to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness, and maybe spend some time wallowing at the bottom of your bed with a few good things to read.
Isabel Gillies is the author of Starry Night.