Book of the Month: Heartbreak (2022)

by Florence Williams

Critical Evaluation

“Who hasn’t asked themselves the same aching question framed by the Bee Gees in their plaintive 1971 masterpiece, “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” Broken hearts seem in vast supply these days, as we engage in individual and collective grieving for so many and so much lost during the cataclysm of the pandemic.

“But then there is the very specific subgenus of heartbreak that is untethered to a particular historical moment and has probably existed since the Neanderthals: the sheer, abject misery of being rejected by someone to whom you are still deeply attached. You’ve lived a life together and envisioned that life would continue. How is it possible to exist without this person? How is it possible that this person suddenly finds it impossible to exist with you? Often what happens is the worst of both worlds: Their presence weirdly endures in the form of immense physical and emotional anguish, impossible to ignore, like a kind of phantom limb.

“This is the situation that science writer Florence Williams found herself thrust into as she tried to cope with the emotional and physical wreckage following her divorce from a man she had met and fallen in love with during their freshman year at Yale. They had married, parented two children and loved until she was at the cusp of 50, when he “decided to live on his own after three decades of togetherness,” leaving her feeling as if she’d “been axed in the heart.”

Szegedy-Maszak, Marianne. “Her heart was broken — so she turned to science.” The Washington Post. March 11, 2022

First Excerpt

“My biggest problem at the moment was the portable toilet. It was just too heavy. It was weighing down the bow of my canoe, which was already loaded with 80 pounds of water and a double-walled cooler filled with fairly ridiculous items like coconut milk, rib-eye steaks, and cage-free liquid whole eggs. Also, I’d brought a fetching beach parasol. But why does something you shit in in the desert have to be made of ammunition-grade 20-millimeter steel? It doesn’t! I just needed some sturdy plastic bags. The ill-conceived toilet was one of many small and giant mistakes that had led me to this moment, cursing alone in the wilderness. There were the mistakes in my marriage, the cosmic mistake (to my mind) of the divorce, the wrong men I’d fallen for in the year since my separation, the friendships I’d overburdened. All of these were, yes, weighing me down. If I thought about the heavy-shit metaphors too long, my head hurt.

Most recently, there was the poor decision, made because I was possibly having a hot flash, to launch this leg of my journey a day early, at 7 P.M., in fading light, just above a small rapid, in a canoe that felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. Then again, it was August and it was 97 degrees in Green River, Utah. Even a teenage boy would be having a hot flash. Camping at the shadeless town park was an unbearable option. Running a desert river for a month in the height of summer was probably another bad decision. But here I was. An outfitter named Craig had rented me the 15-foot canoe with a broken thwart, splintering gunwales, and the tanker toilet. The boat was the color of lipstick you wear when you’re trying too hard. It did, however, match the parasol.”

Second Excerpt

“‘Remind me why it’s good for me to be alone?’I had asked my therapist some months earlier, for maybe the third time.

“’Being alone is like a muscle,’ said Julia. ‘One should exercise it, because you never know when you’ll need it, and you want it to be working.’

“Right. But. Plenty of people marry young and stay married and don’t really ever exercise this muscle. Must I? Apparently yes, because I wasn’t one of those people anymore. I needed practice.

“As David Sbarra, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, had explained to me: ‘We start feeling better after breakups as we start rediscovering our sense of self. This is a core engine of recovery. A separation experience violates your meaning systems and the expectations you have for life, so how do you get things sorted out? How do you narrate the experience?’

“I told him that a few months out from the split, I was still having trouble making sense of what had happened and what was going on. I mentioned I was forming plans for a big wilderness river trip, and he approved. Then again, he lives out west, and he understands the compulsion to seek solace in wild places.

“’Being in nature is about expansion and getting outside of yourself,’ he said. ‘The doing is the key. The ones who shut down and withdraw, these are the people with difficulty navigating the end of marriage.'”

“According to neuroscientist Shane O’Mara at the University of Dublin, the phrase ‘walking it off’ is a real phenomenon. The author of In Praise of Walking, he explained that moving around can help prevent depression, as well as a host of arterial and metabolic woes. As blood pumps and new neuronal growth factors flow, we become more creative, more self-aware, more ourselves.’A simple, collateral effect of rising and moving,’he writes, ‘is that activity spreads across more distant brain regions—increasing the likelihood that half-thoughts and quarter-ideas, sitting below consciousness, can come together in new combinations.'”



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