Rethinking the Breakup

Reviewed by Mandy Catron

Breaking up is hard to do. We’ve all more or less agreed on this since Neil Sedaka’s impossibly catchy tune cemented the phrase in the public consciousness in 1962. But, as journalist Kelli María Korducki points out, the challenges of breaking up are not evenly distributed. For today’s women, the freedom
to leave a relationship is still relatively new. And the choice to exercise that freedom
can be both difficult and empowering, in a society “whose institutions continue to uphold the nuclear family as its foundation.”

Hard To Do: The Surprising, Feminist History of Breaking Up is part of Coach House Books’ Exploded Views collection, a series of “probing, provocative essays” published as short books. In both tone and perspective, Hard To Do fits neatly alongside recent books including Kate Bolick’s Spinster and Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies. What begins as a blend of personal reflection and incisive cultural criticism segues into a history of the past two hundred years of courtship, marriage, and divorce in Western culture. Though the book seems, at times, unsure of its voice, which veers from irreverent to dense and scholarly, it is most engaging when Korducki uses her own experience as a launching point for examining the uniquely feminist concerns of breaking up. “My dreams for myself were bigger, louder, more insistent than my dreams for an us—any us, even hypothetical pairings that would never exist,” she writes in the introduction, conveying a sense of longing and possibility that was, she observes, largely unavailable to previous generations.

Each chapter traverses ideas in ways that are surprising and engaging, even if the purpose of a particular historical anecdote or tangent isn’t always immediately apparent. The lengthy list of citations includes everything from Taylor Swift to Ovid, from Simone de Beauvoir to marriage historian Stephanie Coontz. With such rich material, footnotes or page numbers (rather than a single alphabetical list) would help connect readers to the wealth of texts from which Korducki draws.

In her conclusion Korducki returns to the current moment, where, she notes, “[heterosexual] women are the likeliest to file for divorce, and those of us who do are happier afterwards.” This fact gets little further reflection, but it seems crucial to understanding where we’ve arrived. Though breakups are typically framed as failures or disappointments, Korducki implies that they are just as often openings for new and better lives for women. In the final paragraph, she looks toward the future: “Maybe we will recognize the value in different types of close relationships in a way that lifts the existential pressure currently bearing down on romantic partnerships.” I found myself hoping her sharp, sincere voice from the introduction would linger a bit longer here, reminding us that, though breaking up is still hard to do, it also ushers in new possibilities for the lives of the next generation of women and femmes.

This review “Rethinking the Breakup” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 159.

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