Love is a Four-Letter Word: True Stories of Breakups, Bad Relationships, and Broken Hearts, a new collection edited by Michael Taeckens, offers flashes of insight from well-known writers about love gone wrong. Gary Shteyngart writes of the leggy blonde who followed him all over Europe, sobbing. Junot Diaz remembers an ill-fated trip with a lover to the Dominican Republic. George Singleton somehow brings dignity to the act of peeing in his girlfriend’s kitty litter box.
But the best stories come from the newer or lesser-known writers. Both “Runaway Train” by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh and “Conversations You Have at Twenty” by blogger Maud Newton depict torturous, sprawling and ultimately unhealthy relationships with the wincing comedy and clarity that can only come from having been in the trenches. Meanwhile, “Why Won’t You Just Love Me?” by Emily Flake—one of several comic strips in the batch—shows the painful trajectory of a one-night stand that resulted in the author having to send an apology note.
There are a few misses here—most notably, the lifeless introduction by Neal Pollack—but on the whole, the pieces sparkle with wit, pain and honesty. If one can deduce an overarching conclusion, it’s that love is not as blind as the clichés would lead us to believe. Nearly all the writers in this collection sensed their breakup well before it happened, but let the relationship continue past (sometimes well past) this point of realization. The anthology never seeks to explore this disconnect, but one has to wonder: is it because we’re spineless? Naïve? Complacent? Or is it simply—as the contributors here continually show—that the best stories are often the least clear-cut?
Jillian Quint is an Assistant Editor at the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.