Hard To Do: The Surprising, Feminist History of Breaking Up
By Kelli Maria Korducki
Coach House Books, 144 pages
It starts with a breakup. Kelli Maria Korducki’s Hard To Do: The Surprising, Feminist History of Breaking Up, of course, kicks off with her own story of splitting up with a partner of nine years. The writer – who divides her time between Toronto and Brooklyn, N.Y. – spent her 20s watching friends date a series of ”slackers, softboys, and duds.” Meanwhile, she did the opposite, getting “serious fast” with a warm, wonderful male roommate in university, “functionally a hausfrau before I’d even exited my teens.”
And then, one day, at 28, she wanted out.
The resulting book, peppered with personal anecdotes, is similar in tone to Kate Bolick’s 2015 blockbuster, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, but with little exploration of the post-breakup reality.
Instead, what follows is a sweeping look at the myriad forces that shape domestic partnerships between straight men and women, and the argument that walking away is, for such women, both a radical act and historically unprecedented. Women have few models in this, she argues, and few ways of thinking through their choices.
To illustrate, Korducki takes a tour of the past, surveying the fraught history of marriage, touching on everything from Jane Austen and flappers to slavery, and highlighting the many ways in which women have not been in control of their own fate. Until very recently, deciding to end a live-in relationship has been next to impossible for women, for a plethora of reasons, ranging from financial to legal.
Even now, it’s far from easy, and Korducki – who has a new partner of several years – looks back on her breakup with guilt and shame. For comfort, she turns to an essay from Cheryl Strayed, then serving as advice columnist Dear Sugar for the online literary magazine Rumpus, who, of course, explored a similar conundrum in her bestselling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, as she exited a marriage. “Go, even though you love him,” Strayed advises. “Because wanting to leave is enough.”
Korducki, it must be noted, is a superb writer: articulate, engaging, polished. This debut is well thought out and impressively researched. With some truly compelling moments.
“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 at one point. “I was ambivalent about marriage, period, and about children even more so. … Above all, there was too much I wanted to do, too many windows that my sanity demanded I keep open. The trappings of permanence made me feel uneasy.”
Through Korducki, we get a window into the conflicted private lives of an emerging generation. “Our intimate freedoms are startlingly new and they absorb us in exhilarating pursuit,” she reflects. “But the basic blueprint of Western partnership – a marriage between two people until one or the other is dead – remains tethered to a time that was not so free, nor so distant.”
In the end, though, one can’t help but feel that she could have gone further here, probing the actual act of leaving more deeply, with all its attendant consequences.
How exactly does a woman go about rebuilding her life? What does it mean to support oneself in a society that bestows social and economic privileges on couples, in a work world with a persistent pay gap?
How does a woman define her life in a time when, as Korducki puts it, “the archetype of successful adulthood still rests on finding our ‘other half’ ”? Moreover, how does a woman cope with loneliness? How does she forge a future on her own – often with considerable ambivalence about doing so?
Adding to these unanswered questions is Korducki’s tricky position as a lottery winner in the game of love. By her own admission, she’s dated only stable, decent, loving men, for extended periods of time and the decision to part ways has always been hers. “Maybe a Good Man is hard to find,” she muses, “but I seem to have a knack for it.”
This is perhaps refreshing, given the cultural conversation around Gen X and millennial women, which has focused almost entirely on the dramatic rise of single living and women’s panic over finding partners in time to have children, in the face of men who are unable, or unwilling, to commit. But such a stance could also be seen as a bit tone-deaf and likely to alienate readers.
Add to that, it lacks narrative tension. If a woman is in control of her romantic life, is confident that she’s worthy of love and knows she’s likely to find someone else – in fact, writes from the comfortable place of having done so – the stakes are pretty low. In this scenario, she can, as Korducki does, attend four weddings in six weeks after a breakup, and get drunk and dance, and laugh as she toasts “forever love.”
All of this is to say: It’s hard to tell who this book is for. In the end, though, that’s a good thing.
Because this book does not cater to any of the cliché female tropes we’ve become accustomed to in mainstream culture. It’s not written for smug marrieds or soul-searching Eat, Pray, Love divorcees, or determined “career girls,” busy carving out a life of Lean In ceiling-smashing. It’s not for desperate singletons, either. Nor zealous Mommy bloggers.
One gets the sense that Hard To Do is written for a brand-new kind of young woman – ushered in by the 21st century – who’s stumbling along without the wisdom of mothers or grandmothers to light her path, without even that many books to shape her vision for her life. Unsure, uncertain, not yet fully formed, she is fascinating.
Tara Henley is a Vancouver writer and broadcaster, and producer of the CBC documentary 39.