There’s this idea, in books and in life, that breakups are failures. Society trains us to believe this — we’re surrounded, from childhood, by media that upholds happily ever afters as the be-all-and-end-all of romantic love. Look, I don’t have anything against happily-ever-afters. I am romance reader, and I love an HEA. But it’s not the only kind of love story I like to read, and it’s also not the only kind of love story that most of us live.
Breakups are often messy and painful. Heartbreak is devastating. But heartbreak doesn’t always mean the relationship itself was a disaster. And I’m obviously not talking about getting out of toxic, harmful relationships. I’m talking about a thing many of us have experienced: loving someone, and then not loving them anymore. Loving someone, and then changing. Loving someone, and then realizing that they don’t love you. My first love broke my heart. But I don’t look back at that relationship as a failure. I loved her; it was an experience that changed me; I am older now. I look back at that time with fondness.
These eight novels feature romantic relationships that don’t end with happily-ever-afters. Some of them are about breakups, and some of them are more open-ended, leaving the future of the relationship(s) up to the reader to imagine. Some of these books have joyful endings, and some of them have bittersweet endings. But they all celebrate time spent knowing and caring for another person. They’re all about people in love. Love that doesn’t last forever is still real.
Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
Sometimes a person comes into your life and shakes it up in a way that leaves you changed. This is a novel about a relationship like that. Rachel is a Jewish woman living in LA. She has severely disordered eating and a toxic relationship with her mother. When she meets Miriam, an Orthodox woman who works at her favorite fro-yo shop, they fall into a whirlwind romance. It is a lush book, sexy and sometimes darkly funny, often painful, and excruciatingly honest.
Stone Fruit by Lee Lai
Ray and Bron are a queer couple who delight in the time they get to spend with their 6-year-old niece, Nessie. The three of them build a magical world together away from the demands of real life. But their shared joy in aunthood hides the cracks in their relationship, and when Bron leaves Ray to go spend time with her estranged family, they’re both forced to confront who they are outside of aunthood, and outside of each other. It’s a breathtaking book about the many shapes that families take and the many different ways there are to love. It’s also beautifully open-ended. It’s a story about a journey; the destination is less important.
Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi
This book isn’t so much about a breakup. Rather, it’s a book in which a romantic relationship plays an important part, but isn’t the emotional center of the novel. So whether or not the couple stays together becomes almost irrelevant. Jayne is a 20-year-old student in New York City with an eating disorder that she doesn’t want to address. Then her older sister is diagnosed with cancer, and everything in her life gets suddenly harder and messier. It’s a hard book to read at times, but it’s such a beautifully honest coming-of-age story about sisterhood.
Memorial by Bryan Washington
There are plenty of books out there about the end of a relationship. What I love about this one is the tenderness with which Washington portrays his characters. Mike and Benson have been together for years. Their already-strained relationship is further derailed when Mike announces he’s flying to Japan to visit his enraged and dying father, just as his mother arrives in Houston to visit. Benson is left living with a mother-in-law he doesn’t know well. It’s a sad book, but not a hopeless one. Mike and Benson’s relationship is layered and complex, and we get to see all of that on the page: the sweetness, the care, the fighting, the breakdowns in communication, the joy. It may be about a relationship ending, but it’s certainly not about a relationship that wasn’t worth living.
Weekend by Jane Eaton Hamilton
This novel follows two queer couples at very different stages in their relationships over the course of one weekend at their summer lake cottages. Joe and Elliot have just had a baby; while Logan and Ajax are on their first weekend getaway together. One couple stays together, and one couple breaks up. There is a lot of romance in this book — characters tending to each other, taking care of each other, showing up for each other. There’s also a lot of hurt and harm and mistakes and mess. It’s a lush, unforgettable story about four queer humans struggling through love and parenthood.
Finna by Nino Cipri
Can a book that starts just after a breakup still be romantic? I think so! This hilarious and heartwarming adventure story is set in an IKEA-like store with a wormhole problem. When Ava and her ex-partner Jules are sent into the wormhole to rescue a lost customer, they end up confronting some truths about their relationship and how it ended. It’s a beautiful book about what happens after a romance ends — which, in this case, is the beginning of something else.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
Addie LaRue made a deal with the devil as a young woman. Three hundred years later, she’s immortal, but no one she meets ever remembers her. Until she meets a bookseller named Henry. This is a romantic novel if I’ve ever read one, but it’s not so much about the endgame of a relationship. It’s about how relationships can profoundly change you and alter the course of your life. It’s a long, meandering story that moves through many time periods, but the heart of the book is Addie and Henry’s romance, and what it ends up meaning for both of them.
Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis
This beautiful historical novel is about a group of queer women in 1970s and 1980s Uruguay who become each other’s family. Living under a repressive dictatorship, they find refuge together in a small house they buy together in a remote fishing village. The novel charts their various romantic entanglements as they all fall in and out of love, navigating passionate affairs, long-term relationships, and breakups. De Robertis captures all of the messy realities of romance, especially in the relationships that don’t last the length of the novel.