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Celebrate Valentine’s Day with these six books about messed-up and complicated relationships

Author Ottessa Moshfegh poses for a portrait in the lush gardens surrounding her home.
(Jason Armond/Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Authors like Ottessa Moshfegh, Victor LaValle and Alissa Nutting show the messy side of love

Valentine’s Day is going to be something else this year.

At this point, we’re all just gelatinous blobs, oozing through the day, focusing on just keeping our sanity. Romance is probably the last thing on anybody’s mind. After a year of sweatpants, mask acne and what I refer to as the “pandemic schlub-up,” it’s going to take a powerful X-ray to find a romantic bone left in my body.

But just remember: it could always be worse. Compared to the relationships in some recent books, yours probably looks pretty good, even if you haven’t changed sweats in four days.

So to celebrate Valentine’s Day, here are six excellent books that feature messed-up relationships.

A Certain Hunger” by Chelsea G. Summers

Dorothy lives the dream: the famous food critic travels the world, wines and dines in the best restaurants, gets down with a bunch of foreign suitors, and demands a whopping $4,000 per column (man, fiction writers and their imaginations!). Oh, and she also has an appetite for human flesh. Written in the floral style of a modern food writer, it’s scary how easy it is to accept Dorothy’s cannibalism, especially when a prime cut of meat is described in the same fashion as one of Dorothy’s sliced-up ex-lovers. A lot of critics have compared this to “American Psycho,” but it’s way more witty and readable than Bret Easton Ellis’ disturbing tome.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh

Based on the title alone, I’m surprised this book wasn’t issued to everyone at the start of the pandemic. Moshfegh’s seemingly simple novel follows an unnamed woman who retreats from society after inheriting a large sum of money. She spends her days zonked out on painkillers and watching VHS tapes, only leaving her apartment for the occasional bodega run and to score new prescriptions from her quack of a psychiatrist. The only person who seems to care is Reva, an insecure hanger-on who’s constantly foiling the narrator’s plan to completely disassociate. Although the narrator treats Reva like trash — one could hardly even call it a friendship — it’s through their interactions that we get a sense of the underlying grief that fuels her self-destruction. Strongly recommended for anyone who’s felt isolated during the pandemic.

Made for Love” by Alissa Nutting

Every time I read something about Very Rich Couple Elon Musk and Grimes, I think of “Made For Love.” The book follows Hazel, who has escaped a loveless marriage — more of an imprisonment, really — after her ridiculously rich biotech mogul installed a mind-reading chip in her brain. Now back home with her dad and his blow-up doll girlfriend (yeah, it’s weird), she tries to free herself of his watchful eye. It’s bonkers and often prescient (remember Grimes’ experimental eye surgery? Or Musk’s brain implants?) but at its heart, the book is a troubling look at abusive cycles and the way men use money and power to control the people in their lives. “Made For Love” has also been made into a series for HBO Max, which is premiering this spring. I wonder if it’ll include the man who’s sexually attracted to dolphins (yeah, it’s really weird).

Preparation for the Next Life” by Atticus Lish

Zou Lei is a Chinese Muslim (Uighur) who’s just arrived illegally in the United States; Skinner is a veteran who has served three tours in Iraq and now suffers extreme PTSD, anxiety and hallucinations. Both outcast and shunned by society, the two fall in love. At first, it’s a honeymoon of a relationship: Skinner and Zou Lei against the world. They share moments of triumph in the graffitied, downtrodden streets of NYC, and find beauty in one-bedroom apartments and back alley gyms. But it doesn’t take long for external racism, Skinner’s increased alcoholism and violence to test their love. This is one of the most powerful and sad books about the American experience I’ve ever read.

The Changeling” by Victor LaValle

Six months after the birth of their child, Apollo’s wife Emma chains him to a chair, kills their baby and then disappears. It’s a gut-punch of a sequence, to say the least. But it happens only one-fourth of the way through LaValle’s horror-fairytale, so we know there’s more to the story. Apollo sets out to find his wife — a quest that’s initially fueled by his desire for revenge, but becomes a journey of forgiveness once Apollo learns the baby Emma killed may not have been their child after all. “The Changeling” is a hell of a read, but the book’s real terror comes from the idea of not truly knowing your significant other and what they’re capable of doing.

Stephen Florida” by Gabe Habash

There’s nothing Stephen Florida loves more than wrestling. And he’s great at it — easily the best college wrestler in North Dakota. Off the mat, he’s volatile and maybe a little deranged, but when he’s wrestling, he transcends. “I am only a giant collection of gas and light and will,” he says. But when he sustains an injury that keeps him from wrestling, Stephen’s life becomes an unhinged mess, and he tries to find something to fill the void left by wrestling, including a romantic relationship with Mary Beth, a stint as a stalker, and a few attempts at petty crime. Given Stephen’s tendency to be a disturbed (i.e. unreliable) narrator, we never know if he actually loves Mary Beth or if she just reminds him of his life as a wrestler, and the scenes between them never fail to be cringe-worthy. “Stephen Florida” is probably the best book about the worst type of guy: the kind who needs you as a crutch to satisfy his own emotional needs.


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