Dive into these good books about bad relationships

We love to read books with cosmic romances that transcend fate, but we also love to read about bad relationships that don't end well. One makes us hopeful, and the other makes us feel better about our own past situations, say Heather and Arizona O'Neill.

Sure, books about cosmic romances are great, but there's value in reading about toxic relationships too

Books about good relationships can make us hopeful, but books about toxic relationships can feel more realistic. (Arizona O'Neill)

Relationships are hard. They are never how you want them to be, and most times you end up disappointed. Yet, we seem to throw ourselves into them time and time again.

As author Laura Kipnis points out in Against Love, the rise of romantic love in society and the invention of the novel occurred simultaneously and came from the same preoccupations with individualism. We can't think about love without being influenced by its portrayal in novels, and novels would hardly be recognizable without their deep thoughts about how and why we couple.

We love to read books with cosmic romances that transcend fate, but we also love to read about bad relationships that don't end well. One makes us hopeful, and the other makes us feel better about our own past situations.

Personally, we prefer the latter, more realistic portrayals of relationships. Here are some of our favourite books about toxic relationships.

Normal People, by Sally Rooney

You may find it hard to avoid yelling at the characters while reading this book. (Arizona O'Neill)

Normal People is the heart-wrenching love story we have been looking for. The book asks and answers the question: Can two people change each other? The main characters, Connell and Marianne, meet in their final year of high school and we follow their relationship over the next four years in four-month intervals. Their love and friendship is raw and complicated. We watch as they go through multiple healthy and unhealthy relationships.

Marianne is such a beautifully written human being. She is self-destructive in the most poetic ways. Connell is an introvert who wants to read all day. He is also terrible at expressing his feelings and telling others what he is thinking.

You will often find yourself yelling at the pages of the book, hoping the characters will hear your advice and warnings. The best kind of books are the ones that make you exclaim out loud. The way we would describe it is: My Year of Rest and Relaxation meets Pride and Prejudice.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong

In On Earth, We're Briefly Gorgeous, a son spills his soul to his mother, knowing she will never know his truth. (Arizona O'Neill)

Poet Ocean Vuong uncovers a brilliant way of storytelling. It reads almost like warm milk and honey dripping from the page, so smooth and comforting. This is Vuong's debut novel, in which a son in his 20s is writing to his Vietnamese mother. She is illiterate and he knows she will never read all the secrets and truths he is pouring onto the page.

A large part of the book talks about what is like being gay as a child of an immigrant. A love story unveils itself with a young man named Trevor who refuses to admit he is gay. The book goes so deep into real emotions and fears one has toward their parents.

As he writes to his mother, a rich history of his family during the Vietnam War comes out. We learned a lot about what it means to be Vietnamese in a postwar United States. This is one of the most interesting books we've read all year.

Life with Picasso, by Françoise Gilot with Carlton Lake

Picasso tried to stop this book from being published, because why should a woman be allowed to tell her own story, right? (Arizona O'Neill)

Françoise Gilot's memoir, originally published in 1964, documents her 10-year relationship with Picasso, which began when she was 22 and he was 62. She had recently been disowned by her parents for choosing to be an artist and was living in poverty with her grandmother.

The problem with the book is how bloody predictable it is. The imbalance of power between the two artists is so enormous that it's impossible for Gilot to have any agency. In the memoir, Picasso comes across as the world's greatest mansplainer, lecturing Gilot on every subject imaginable. Picasso is also physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive to Gilot. The emotional abuse is the hardest to read.

Gilot loses her entire identity in the relationship, becoming nothing other than a compassionate listening ear and bearer of children. The book highlights how power dynamics make some relationships impossible and necessarily abusive, if one considers a relationship to be a union where two people have equal sway.

She chronicles the visits of Picasso's famous friends and her exposure to an illustrious art world that does not take her seriously. Gilot has a reckoning when she realizes that if she had spent time with her peers and had genuine artistic dialogues, she would have had a more enjoyable and successful career.

Gilot writes in a lighthearted and clear-eyed prose that makes you realize she has regained her sense of self. Picasso had 40 famous artists attempt to block publication, and launched three lawsuits to stop the book from coming out — God forbid she should ever have a voice or the right to her own narrative.

Against Love: A Polemic, by Laura Kipnis

Need some arguments against love? Laura Kipnis has you covered. (Arizona O'Neill)

The nature of a polemic is to argue against an opposing point of view in an aggressive, over-the-top manner, in order to shake up our very notion of said position. And that is what Kipnis does — she posits monogamous love as a capitalist institution that negates desire. She has a chapter written in the form of a list of complaints partners might typically have against one another.

Furthermore, she regards adultery as an acceptable mode of rediscovering one's self. This book can be used as a reminder of what modes not to slip into in a relationship. It is also surprisingly touching and funny (although probably less so if your partner is currently stepping out on you).

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies offers a look at a marriage from the perspectives of both parties. (Arizona O'Neill)

We read this book a couple years ago, and reading it again made it even more painful. It is a critique of marriage that strikes so deep, the whole time you will be cursing the very institution of matrimony. It tells the story of a marriage, first from the husband's perspective and then from the wife's.

The reader learns that you can spend decades of your life with a stranger, and also that love and the anxiety of losing it turns us into liars, allows us to give up our central narratives, and makes us into judgmental monsters.

This is what happens in a marriage when we don't expect our partner to reveal themselves over time, but to remain exactly who we supposed them to be at that initial coup de foudre. At its very least, this book is a damning indictment against the coup de foudre. But dear reader, this is a beautifully written, soulful thing.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell

This graphic novel would make a good gift for any teens in your life. (Arizona O'Neill)

This graphic novel is for a younger audience. It would be a perfect gift for a teen. The story is about a girl in high school whose girlfriend has broken up with her three times already and has done it again, and her friends are tired of hearing about it. Our favourite part of the book is when she and her friends go to see a fortune teller who acts more as a therapist for $10.

This is a great coming-of-age story that can remind us all not to get consumed by our lovers. The story is very relatable, and like Normal People, it paints a portrait of an on-and-off again relationship. Sometimes relationships are worth fighting for, and sometimes you just need to dump them! Break up with Laura Dean!


Heather and Arizona O'Neill

CBC Homerun Book Columnists

Heather O'Neill is an award winning novelist, short story writer, and essayist who lives in Montreal. She is Arizona's Mom. Arizona O'Neill is a filmmaker and avid reader who lives in Montreal. She is Heather's daughter. Follow them on their Instagram @oneillreads


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