Heartbreak—the agony of lost love, the ache of a disintegrating relationship, the depression that comes with a one-way ticket to Splitsville—is no fun at any time of year. But getting dumped during the holiday season is orders of magnitude worse. A kiss-off under the mistletoe can ruin Christmas—not just this year, but for years to come, as twinkling lights become the trigger for waves of painful memories.
This holiday season, if your bells have lost their jingle and your nights are all too silent, you can take comfort (if not joy) in a simple, eternal truth: Misery loves company. That’s why Meghan Laslocky has collected narratives of romantic woe from two millennia of history, folk tradition, and the arts—from medieval ballads to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—into one handy resource. Pocket compendia like this are often characterized as “bathroom readers,” but the proper place for Laslocky’s The Little Book of Heartbreak: Love Gone Wrong Throughout the Ages is by the couch, within easy reach as you sprawl at right angles on your hungover Boxing Day, a glass of red wine in your free hand and the TV tuned to the Lifetime Movie network with the sound turned down, staring absent-mindedly at the phone you know isn’t going to ring.
Or maybe it’s a can of Pabst and reruns of Cops. Because although Meghan Laslocky is a certified lay-dee and The Little Book of Heartbreak tends towards the chick-centric, it offers compassion and empathy to the dudes, as well. Heartbreak does not discriminate. Anyone can be blindsided by love gone wrong, no matter what’s down the front of their trousers. (Or what isn’t. The most vivid of Laslocky’s historical anecdotes concerns the famously doomed love affair of Abelard and Heloise; if you don’t know the story, I won’t spoil it—but suffice it to say that something seriously heinous happens to one guy’s junk.)
But just because we’re all susceptible to sorrow, that’s not to say the male and female perspectives are the same. Indeed, one of the saddest recurring themes of The Little Book of Heartbreak is how easily a relationship can be undone by the differing expectations of the partners—and how often those expectations break down across gender lines. Men and women, she suggests, simply want different things out of love—indeed, may even have different definitions for the word “love.”
The Greek language famously has several words for love, each with different shades of meaning; in one fascinating segment, Laslocky looks at the traditional magick of ancient Greece, and how the different love spells practiced by men and women reflected different understandings of love. A man would cast a love spell when he was tormented by sexual yearning, or agoge, seeking to inspire in his chosen subject the same all-consuming desire, with the endgame being a one-night stand. Feminine love magic, by contrast, was most often practiced by women who were already married, with the goal to make their husbands tender, considerate, and faithful—to conjure up philia, or affection, in other words.
That’s the most explicit example of the phenomenon. But over and over again in The Little Book of Heartbreak, we see even people of good will undone by their inability to understand the other’s needs. Again and again, well-meaning people talk past each other, speaking the language of love in mutually incomprehensible dialects. With such different means and different ends, it’s a wonder that love ever goes right.
But sometimes it does. Sometimes two people achieve a true meeting of the minds; but even there, their troubles do not end, as brute circumstance can tear apart even the best-matched and most devoted of lovers. Laslocky unearths the story of the Indian noblewoman Khair un-Nissa and the English diplomat James Achilles Kirkpatrick, whose enduring love and its heartrending aftermath simply cry out for the big-budget costume drama treatment. Perhaps you’d better keep a box of tissues handy by that couch, too, along with the hair of the dog; because even if you’re still together with the one you love, after reading the essays in this funny, wise, melancholy book you may weep for the sheer joy at being alive, and at still having the chance to keep on getting it right.
Some say the heart is just like a wheel, but Jack Feerick, Critic at Large for Popdose, has always believed it’s more like a bone; when it heals after a trauma, it is stronger in the place where it was broken.