It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History

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It Ended Badly: 13 of the Worst Breakups in History

★★★★


 

This was a different kind of book for me! I don’t generally read a lot of nonfiction, even though I’m always saying I want to read more.

But then I read this interview with Jennifer Wright, and I just knew I had to check it out. I love history and I love hearing about other people’s drama. Plus the book starts with two quotes – one from Buddha and one from Taylor Swift (two of our greatest philosophers). I knew I was gonna like it.

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As the title suggests, this book covers thirteen of the most terrible, violent, heart-wrenching and just bizarre breakups in world history. And, boy, are there some doozies. You will never feel bad about drunk texting you ex again — at least you didn’t send him a bloody lock of pubic hair (seriously)! Starting in 55 AD with continuing through the late 20th Century, Wright captures the full spectrum of failed relationships and the often crazy circumstances created by them.

This book has the potential to be major bummer. The stories are all about people losing love, often with an extra dose of murder, adultery, and even one life-size sex doll. But Wright makes the smart decision to write about the breakups in a delightfully snarky and hilarious way. She understands and celebrates the ridiculousness of the stories without taking away from the historical details. Her enthusiasm for the historical figures is infectious – you can tell she’s a true history nerd who would be a total asset to any trivia night team.

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I am not a historical expert (can you tell?) but this book seemed really well-researched to me. The bibliography is extensive, especially for a book that’s only around 250 pages. It has a lot of great links and resources for people who want to learn more about the historical figures mentioned (I definitely did).

Wright also makes an effort to include some helpful life lessons from each breakup, like learning to be happy on your own and knowing that it’s always okay to leave a bad relationship. While none of them are particularly revolutionary, I appreciate that Wright found common themes between breakups from centuries ago to our romantic entanglements today.

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This is a fun read for anyone interested in some of the most significant and outlandish relationships in history. I think it would also make a great gift for any friend you have going through a bad breakup who could use a healthy dose of perspective. Definitely one of the most memorable books I read this year!


 

The full list of breakups covered in this collection are:

  1. Nero and Poppaea
  2. Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II (Eleanor is my new favorite historical figure, btw)
  3. Lucrezia Borgia and Giovanni Sforza
  4. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard
  5. Anna Ivanovna
  6. Timothy Dexter
  7. Caroline Lamb and Lord Byron (the aforementioned pubic hair incident)
  8. John Ruskin and Effie Gray
  9. Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas
  10. Edith Wharton and Morton Fullerton
  11. Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler
  12. Norman Mailer and Adele Morales Mailer
  13. Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor

 

Other cool related sources:

It Ended Badly –  Official Website

A Love too Big to Last – Vanity Fair article on Liz Taylor and Richard Burton

14 Series You Should Watch After Getting Dumped – Buzzfeed

DUMPLIN’ (or: Not Another Love Triangle)

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Dumplin’

★★★

Y’all, I am really tired of giving three-star reviews. I have certainly given more three-star reviews this year than I have in a long time. Maybe that’s because I’ve been reading a lot more than I used to, or maybe it’s because I’ve gotten pickier with what I like, and don’t like, in books.

Unfortunately, Dumpin’ falls solidly into the three-star category. I found it 100% meh.

Our hero, Willowdean Dickinson, is a self-proclaimed fat girl who has never been bothered by her size. She’s always had better things to focus on her – friends, school, work, and above all, Dolly Parton. Willowdean’s body positivity is the best part of the story.

“I know that fat girls are supposed to be allergic to pools or whatever, but I love swimming. I mean, I’m not stupid. I know people stare, but they can’t blame me for wanting to cool off. And why should it even matter? What about having huge, bumpy thighs means that I need to apologize?”

But Willowdean soon finds her confidence racked when she starts hanging out with Bo, a brooding teenage heartthrob she meets at work. Bo likes her, really likes her, but Willowdean finds herself terrified of his touch.

“The reality of him touching me. Of him touching my back fat and my overflowing waistline, it makes me want to gag….. I see myself in comparison to every other girl he’s likely touched. With their smooth backs and trim waist”.

As a way to regain her confidence, Will decides to enter the Miss Ten Blue Bell beauty pageant, of which her mother is a former winner and current director. I loved the concept of this – like Miss Congeniality but body-positive! But the pacing of this book is really weird, and the pageant doesn’t actually start until the last few chapters.

A huge portion of the book is devoted to a love triangle between Willowdean, Bo, and Mitch, another sweet and lovable guy vying for Willowdean’s attention.

I get how there is a valuable message in seeing Willowdean, who does not fit into our rigid conventional beauty norms, being sought after by two handsome and popular boys. But the number of pages devoted to her agonizing over the boys is staggeringly boring. The love triangle doesn’t even have any impact on the beauty pageant story. Willowdean does not handle herself well in the love triangle, as she leads Mitch on to keep her mind off Bo – who she broke things off with. I get it, teenagers don’t always act responsibly with other people’s hearts, but it’s also hard to root for a main character when you hate how she’s treating the people around her.

So anyway, I mostly like this book because I’m glad a book with this message exists, not actually because I like the plot or the story. The beauty pageant storyline offered so much potential, but it is totally derailed by a pointless love triangle and a mostly-unlikable main character.

HONOR GIRL.

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Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

★★★

Maggie is a Backstreet Boys-obsessed, Harry Potter-devouring fifteen year old in the year 2000. She has attended the same summer camp, Camp Bellflower, every year. Camp Bellflower is nestled in the Ozarks. In many ways, the camp is a bastion of a bygone era: all the girls are white and Christian, and each morning starts with a Civil War re-enactment.

Maggie doesn’t expect anything to change until suddenly everything does. A routine lice inspection from an older female counselor, Erin, draws Maggie into a deep and gut-wrenching love for the older counselor. Most amazingly, to Maggie, is the possibility that Erin might feel the same way. But even as the two become closer, Maggie can’t forget that conservative Camp Bellflower is not an acceptable place for two girls to fall in love.
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The art in it is beautiful – Thrash used watercolor pencils, and the glow is a perfect match for the hazy summer setting.
Maggie is a great character — she is sarcastic and funny and so real. I loved her obsession with the Backstreet Boys (Kevin is her favorite), because what fifteen year old in 2000 didn’t love them? I also loved that she was always reading Harry Potter — I remember being at summer camp and seeing those books gets passed around like crazy! Her friends are great, too, and surprisingly supportive when they learn about her crush. That was refreshing.
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It’s kind of hard to review the plot of a memoir because, well, it’s real life. Erin and Maggie have so many moments of missed connections and almost-kisses that it frustrating to read. But that’s sort of like real life, isn’t it? But I found the ending really unsatisfying. For the second half of the book, I felt like I was waiting for the big crescendo, and it never came. I don’t know if you could say this book really has a climax, and the plot falters when the summer ends. I know life doesn’t always work itself into rising action/climax/falling action, but I do think memoirs should still follow a basic literary structure. Ultimately, it felt like there was something missing. Actually, this illustration from the book pretty much summed up how I felt after finishing it:
Courtesy of NY Times

UNDER A PAINTED SKY.

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Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

★★★

I think this book had the misfortune of following These Shallow Graves, one of my favorite books of the year. I definitely had a bit of a book hangover, and maybe that hampered my enjoyment of Under a Painted Sky. But I just never felt like this book got to where it wanted to go.

Missouri,1849. Sammy is a Chinese-American girl who dreams of becoming a professional violinist. But when a double-helping of tragedy strikes, she finds herself orphaned and wanted for murder. Seeing no other options, she takes off on the Oregon Trail with Annamae, an escaped slave. The Oregon Trail is no place for two young women, so Sammy and Annamae go undercover as two young argonauts seeking their fortune out west.

My favorite thing about this book was that it features a strong female friendship. Sammy and Annamae build a beautiful bond together as they both escape the demons of their pasts. I really grew to love both of their characters — especially clever and headstrong Annamae. She was a perfect foil to the more introspective Sammy. Even when romance entered into the picture, Lee was careful to make sure the true focus of the novel remained on the relationship between Sammy and Annamae. I loved that.

The author, Stacey Lee, is one of the founders of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and I so appreciated the diversity of this novel. Sammy is proudly and unapologetically Chinese, and many of her conversations and inner monologues are peppered with cultural references — it’s educational but not at all didactic. Annamae, too, is proud of her heritage and does not allow herself to be bullied or harassed by racists. I wish all books embraced diversity as much as this one did.

I thought the plot was lacking. The book gets off to such an exciting start, but after Sammy and Annamae hit the trail, it all kind of drags on. They meet the hot cowboys who take them under their wing, and then there’s like a hundred pages of cowboy lessons (roping, hunting, etc), sing-a-longs, and mild sexual tension. There’s a lot about horses and hunting and fishing. I kept waiting for the Big Climax or Shocking Conflict but it never really materialized. It was just kind of a fun cowboy story, which isn’t a bad thing at all, but it didn’t hold my interest.

The writing itself is very beautiful. Stacey Lee paints the landscape of the wild west expertly. It’s definitely atmospheric, and it was really easy to picture myself sitting around the campfire with this band of cowboys. She’s a great descriptive writer. One of my favorite descriptions:

I never heard someone call the sky painted before, but it’s the perfect word. Clouds outlined in gold streak across the firmament, casting uneven shadows over the landscape.

It’s definitely not a bad book — I think this could’ve been a four-star read if I hadn’t just finished an almost-perfect historical novel. But the plot was too unstructured, and by the 3/4ths mark, reading it kind of felt like a chore.