British journalist Natasha Lunn launched the Conversations on Love e-newsletter in 2017 to answer three questions: How do we find love? How do we sustain it? How do we survive when we lose it? Her interviews with Alain de Botton, Roxane Gay, Esther Perel, and many others have covered all forms of love—romantic, familial, parental—and, along with personal essays, are compiled in her forthcoming debut, Conversations on Love (Viking, Feb.).
“While Lunn’s subject matter is famously known to inspire clichés,” PW’s review said, “these insightful conversations resist that impulse with their rawness and wry wisdom.” Lunn, meanwhile, concedes that even wisdom has its limits. “There’s no magical set of answers,” she says. “I set out hoping to understand love. I’m now at peace knowing that it will always be a mystery.”
Lunn’s book is among several this season that grapple with the elusive, transformative, and all-consuming emotion of love.
Love and marriage
In what PW’s review called the “deliciously sardonic” Foreverland (Ecco, Feb.), “Ask Polly” advice columnist Heather Havrilesky ponders the nature of matrimony, starting with her own partnership. The review concluded, “Havrilesky’s candid reflections will delight those who’ve taken the plunge, for better or for worse.” (See “Put a Ring on It,” p. 27, for our q&a with the author.)
Memoirs such as Havrilesky’s can provide deeply personal portraits of intimacy while illuminating more universal concerns. Screenwriter and playwright Abi Morgan, in This Is Not a Pity Memoir (Mariner, June), recounts her husband Jacob’s recovery from a medically induced coma, and his belief after awakening that Morgan was an imposter. “The heart of the book is the challenge to my very existence, on a literal level, with my partner no longer remembering who I was,” she says. “I wanted to interrogate the nature of love and how much of that is bound in what you know of someone, and what happens when that person unravels and disintegrates in front of you.”
The book ends on a hopeful note and urges readers to accept and adapt to the ebbs and flows of any relationship. “The threads of marriage are such that at times they break,” Morgan says. “How do you recognize that and learn how to jump those breakages and those points of change?”
Not all marriages survive life’s uncertainties. In Dinner for One (Park Row, June), which grew out of Sutanya Dacres’s podcast of the same name, the author rebuilds her life one meal at a time after her French husband walks out on her. The Jamaica-born, Bronx-raised Dacres mends her broken heart in her Montmartre kitchen; along the way, she forges new friendships, dips into the dating pool again, and examines what it means to be a Black American woman in France.
Available by Laura Friedman Williams (Borough Press, May) is about sex after divorce—one-night stands, multiple orgasms, 10 lovers in eight months—and how joy and sorrow can coexist at the end of any relationship. “I was sleeping with all these men and living my best life,” she says. “I was also grieving. I looked at my children and my heart broke. I would have five orgasms one day and cry all day the next.”
Though her book is about her marriage and subsequent divorce—she set out to write a Sex and the City for the middle-aged set, she says—Friedman Williams stresses that Available speaks to second acts of any kind: “It’s a story of knowing yourself before you align yourself with another person.”
Make up, break up
Other authors train their lenses outward, leaning more heavily on reportage. In The Newlyweds (Atria, June), journalist Mansi Chokshi presents portraits of three against-the-grain marriages in modern India. The country is undergoing an astounding transformation, she writes, yet young people are expected to adhere to centuries-old expectations of marriage: arranged, heterosexual, in-community. Her subjects defy all norms —she profiles a lesbian couple, an interfaith couple, and an intercaste couple—in the face of exclusion, estrangement, even death.
Jessie Stephens’s Heartsick (Holt, June), in contrast, documents difficult breakups, and was inspired by the author’s own messy heartbreak. As part of her healing, the podcaster, who lives in Sydney, went in search of resonant stories. Her subjects—Claire, who has returned to her hometown after leaving her love, Maggie, in the city; university student Patrick, who is conflicted about his feelings for his classmate, Caitlin; and married-with-children Ana, who falls for her best friend—share similar takeaways despite their disparate experiences.
Some books challenge accepted understandings of love and partnership. “We think of love and intimacy as private experiences; we think of love as a refuge from the world,” says cultural critic Laura Kipnis, whose next book is Love in the Time of Contagion (Pantheon, Feb.). The title, she explains, refers to more than the current pandemic. “We’re always living in history; we’re not immune from it. It seeps in. You get infiltrated and penetrated and infected by history and culture.”
Kipnis’s book documents the pandemic, drawing on insights gleaned from feminism, gender studies, philosophy, psychology, and her own life. In four essays, she examines how the pandemic, in tandem with fractured politics, vast economic disparities, changing gender relations, and movements like #MeToo, has reshaped concepts of dating, love, and sex. PW’s review found Kipnis’s take on relationships “pessimistic and somewhat cynical” while praising her as “an ardent and astute interrogator of accepted wisdom,” adding, “Readers won’t always agree, but they’ll relish grappling with this bracing study of modern life.”
Part manifesto, part self-help tract, essayist Aimée Lutkin’s debut, The Lonely Hunter (Dial, Feb.), attempts to reframe the cultural narrative around the uncoupled. “We need to let go of romance and couplehood and talk about building community,” Lutkin says. “People get married for health insurance or because of their immigration status, because it’s the easiest way to file their taxes or for protection of their property. It’s scary to think that you might not have that or get to keep it or lose it at some point and lose your status and safety net.”
The book has its roots in a dinner party, Lutkin says, where she answered a question about her love life with “I don’t really know if I’m ever going to date anyone ever again.” The other guests—all coupled, she explains—“had this very visceral reaction to that; they were almost angry with me that I would suggest such a thing.” (She wrote about the experience in a 2016 Jezebel essay, “When Can I Say I’ll Be Alone Forever?”)
In response, Lutkin went on two dates a week for a year. “I got very good at first dates; I didn’t necessarily find a relationship,” she says. Instead, she discovered a desire to strengthen other kinds of bonds. “I end the book with wanting to build a community around me that isn’t dependent on romantic relationships. The work of building community isn’t always comfortable or easy. It involves caring about other people around you. There’s a reward to that care: it comes back to you and it can fill up your life in a really meaningful way.”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.
Read More From our Feature on Dating and Relationship Books of 2022:
Put a Ring on It: PW talks with Heather Havrilesky
In Foreverland (Ecco, Feb.), “Ask Polly” advice columnist Heather Havrilesky brings her insight into and humor about relationships to bear on her own union.
You Complete Me: Dating and Relationship Books 2022
New books about rom-coms and reality TV invite the reader to Netflix and chill—er, distill the genres’ deeper meanings.
Rewriting the Rules of Engagement: Dating and Relationship Books 2022
Forthcoming dating and relationship self-help books are bending and even breaking the rules, their editors and authors say. For one, they’re more progressive and inclusive.