Book Review: Hard to Love: Essays & Confessions
Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions is Briallen Hopper’s deep, thoughtful, moving, and beautifully written book on relationships. It is unlike anything else out there and perfectly in keeping with how we actually live in the twenty-first century.
In the U.S. and other countries around the world, rates of marriage have been declining for decades. Even people who do marry typically spend many years of their adult lives unmarried. Research has shown that, contrary to the stereotype of the isolated and lonely single person, people who are not married are, on the average, more connected to their friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers. They make the effort to stay in touch, exchange help, and be there when needed.
And yet, at a time when people such as friends, relatives, and mentors are so often at the center of so many of our lives, books about relationships are overwhelmingly about romantic relationships and marriage. Hard to Love is that rare and priceless collection in which the neglected pantheon of personal relationships gets the attention and respect it deserves.
I don’t think Briallen Hopper imagined writing a book like this when she was younger and believed with all her heart that romantic relationships are more important than every other kind of relationship and should be prioritized. (In the jargon, that’s called “amatonormativity.”) Describing how she felt when she was suddenly single after six years of romantic coupling, she said, “I honestly believed that as far as I was concerned, all joy in life was gone.”
Faced with the option of seeking the next romantic partner or refashioning herself as a self-reliant single person, she chose door number three — a way of living single based on “powerful forms of female love, friendship, commitment, and community.”
Across twenty-one essays, the 30-something year-old Hopper shows us the joys, complexities, depths, and meaningfulness of her spinster life. (I don’t use “spinster” as a pejorative and neither does she.) She had great material to work with. She and her brother and four sisters were “homeschooled children of religious hippies” in Tacoma, Washington. She dropped out of high school twice before finishing. Getting a PhD in American literature from Princeton should have set her on a sure path to success, but she couldn’t get a job. She enrolled in divinity school. Now she is a college professor teaching creative nonfiction.
Emily Nussbaum, the Pulitzer Prize winning television critic for the New Yorker, puts together delicious end-of-year reviews of the year’s best TV shows. Her article might start with, “the best show this year was “Fleabag.”” But then, a few sentences later, she says that “The People v. O. J. Simpson” is “the year’s best show.” Then, in the next paragraph, it is “The Americans” that is “this year’s best television show.” And so on.
That’s how I felt about the essays in Hard to Love. My favorite essay was “Hoarding,” about Hopper’s friendship with Cathy. They had “fallen into instant friendship” and “took an idyllic trip to Positano.” For a long time, she said, their friendship “kept that honeymoon quality.” Years later, when Hopper was a “single, childless, broke divinity student” and Cathy was a tenure-track professor, living with her husband and child, Hopper moved into one of the four bedrooms of Cathy’s home. It was a disaster. Hopper moved out. Six years later, they finally had a wrenching discussion of what transpired during that trying time — while “holding hands and crying in public,” in a coffee shop. Now they are “truly and unequivocally family again, taking care of each other with joy.”
My favorite essay in Hard to Love was “Dear Octopus,” about Hopper’s relationship with her brother. They grew up fighting as kids, then grew close enough for Hopper to say, “I hated high school and had few friends, but I didn’t need them; I had him.” Later, though, their relationship became strained when Hopper dated an atheist, then went to a divinity school he deemed too liberal. There were “times when he kept reaching out to try to bring me back in… Until, at last, he stopped trying.”
My favorite essay in Hard to Love was “Coasting,” in which Hopper’s friend Ash, in treatment for Stage IV cancer, was cared for by Hopper and three other friends of Ash’s. Not all four women on the care team knew each other at the outset, but “strong structures of friendship… arose in response to the crisis.” Ash is still alive.
And so on.
It is evident from the very first essay that Hard to Love is going to offer something special — the unexpected. In “Lean On,” Hopper skewers the American celebration of rugged individualism, calling self-reliance “less a virtue than a myth.” The subtitle of the essay is, “A Declaration of Dependence,” and it is a declaration that is proud and unapologetic.
Pundits and even scholars are making names for themselves by castigating college students as “snowflakes” who are needlessly coddled. In “Tending My Oven,” Hopper boasts of coddling her students with homemade cupcakes as they “dared to demand justice and respect [in their] March of Resilience.”
We all know we are supposed to yearn for quality time with the important people in our lives. But a brilliant essay on Cheers is about what the opposite can add up to: “For eleven long years, the friends at Cheers continue to age alongside their audience, which gives their relationship with one another and with us the weight of duration, and the irreplaceable intimacy that comes with low-quality, high quantity time.”
And so on.
Only one of the essays disappointed me. “How to Be Single,” intended as an amusing take on the matter, was fine, but it could have been written by a less talented author. Variations of it already have been.
Hard to Love joins the growing collection of contemporary memoirs and other nonfiction books on single life. Briallen Hopper’s contribution is in a class of its own, and not just because of the rightful recognition it affords to all the kinds of people who matter to us other than romantic partners. It is a book that compellingly illustrates some of the most important lessons of the science of single life but does so without any nods to research.
Unlike books such as Elyakim Kislev’s Happy Singlehood: The Rising Acceptance and Celebration of Solo Living, Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, or my own Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, in which arguments are built upon reams of data, Hopper makes her case with the stories of her life. Unlike other essays and memoirs by single women, Hard to Love includes no love letters to the joy of living alone or pursuing great solo adventures. Hopper prefers to live with other people and pursue her adventures with others, too. Hard to Love also stands out for its incisive analyses of literature and pop culture; just about every essay has something wise to say about a book, movie, TV show, or other cultural artifact.
Days after reading Hard to Love and thinking a lot about it, I couldn’t figure out the title. I realized it could have multiple meanings but kept focusing on the possible self-referential one and how profoundly wrong it seemed. Briallen Hopper struck me as a person who is easy to love. Finally, I asked her about the title (without revealing any of my own thoughts) and she graciously responded:
“I chose the phrase Hard to Love because I wanted to celebrate and delve into the difficulty of love. People are hard to love, and love is hard to do. That’s a universal truth. As the Supremes say, love don’t come easy! But beyond that, in a more meta way, some forms of love get less love than others, and I wanted to set aside the easier-to-love forms of romance and marriage in order to pay attention to relatively unglamorous relationships between friends, roommates, caregivers, and distant siblings.”
Hard to Love is easy to love. With it, friends, roommates, caregivers, and distant siblings are easier to love, too.
Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions
Bloomsbury Publishing, February 2019
Hardcover, 325 pages