When A Memoir's Post-Book Breakup Breaks Your Heart


It happens again and again. You read someone’s life story, feel you know them, thrill to their romance — idealize it, even. And then, without a word to you, they end it. And it’s traumatic!

Recently, my fiance found me crying. When he asked what was wrong, I pointed mutely to the computer screen, where an article announced that my favorite writers, a married couple who for more than 30 years have chronicled America’s indigenous cuisine, had quietly divorced. He did not need to ask what the issue was; only a few weeks prior I had solemnly handed him a copy of their joint 2007 memoir and asked him to read what I considered to be “a portrait of an inspirational marriage.”

Perhaps it seems strange, but I was devastated. Even my own parents’ divorce could not have shocked me more – indeed, it would have shocked me considerably less, since I’ve seen my parents fighting, whereas my literary couple had existed, on the page, in a world of comical mishaps and loving accord.

A generation ago, people waited until they were old to write their memoirs. By that time, romances tended to be squared away and chances were, they’d stick with whoever they ended up with in the story – and, at any rate, the exhaustive chronicling of a relationship is a modern phenomenon too. Nowadays, when people write memoirs at 40, culinary love-stories at 29 and personal chronicles every ten years, this is not the case: and we, as readers, need to guard our hearts against vicarious pain.

Many of Julie Powell’s readers were shocked when, after falling in love with what seemed like an adorable and supportive marriage of high-school sweethearts in Julie and Julia, she confessed to affairs and dysfunction in her follow-up Cleaving. Tamasin Day-Lewis’ Where Shall We Go For Dinner , in which she chronicled her transatlantic romance with a New York foodie, was a bestseller in England that had us all yearning for ripe cheese and passionate second chances. Soon after its publication they broke up; he now has a wife and baby and it’s hard not to wince for her whenever one sees a copy of that book. In Anthony Bourdain’s latest, Medium Raw, he’s a domesticated family-man; that’s great, but some of us grew attached to Nancy, the long-suffering, no-bullshit first wife of Kitchen Confidential. Now, she’s out of our lives, too.

Obviously, these things happen: relationships end and a writer has no obligation to live his life according to his readers’ fantasies. But as readers, it’s something we need to be aware of. These people become real to us: friends and guides whose problems and triumphs are our own. Their love stories, stripped down to essentials and beautifully told, seem more perfect and less fraught than our own. And even as we’re drawn to their “reality,” doesn’t a part of us want the neat happy-ending of a novel? Can we still enjoy a book knowing how things “ended?” Without feeling duped, or manipulated? These might be irrational reactions, but when a book has struck an emotional chord, it doesn’t seem unnatural.

I know I have tried to harden myself. Sighing over the adorable romance of a pair of young foodies in a recent culinary memoir, I forced myself to stop and do a Google search and confirm that they were still married before I allowed myself to enjoy it fully. The other night, I woke up with a horrible thought: what if the protagonists of one of my favorite memoirs of all time, Castles in the Air, hadn’t made it? What if their partnership had collapsed, and they’d never complete their great joint work of lovingly restoring their Medieval Welsh castle? Wikipedia, which has so often broken my heart on similar occasions, in this case provided reassurance: no reality has intruded to damage my ideal. And at the end of the day, I was glad to know that while crying over the two writers’ divorce, I had someone, however complicatedly real, to hold my hand.

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