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Hard to Do: The Surprising, Feminist History of Breaking Up

by Kelli María Korducki

Breaking up might be hard to do, but it certainly isn’t hard to read about in Kelli María Korducki’s debut non-fiction title, the latest in Coach House Books’ Exploded Views series. Hard to Do turns an incisive eye on romantic entanglement and loss, looking specifically at how this relatively new history of “breaking up” has both influenced and been influenced by women’s burgeoning emancipation.

Using a significant mid-20s breakup of her own as a starting point, Korducki casts her cultural critic’s gaze backward in time, running breezily through the structure of marriage in Ancient Rome and early Christianity – a stern agreement that ensured economic sustainability and political clout. (“Roman life was hard, and the consensus seems to have been that marriage was too serious an endeavour to be muddled by the irrational demands of the heart.”)

Korducki then moves forward to consider one of the many indicators of the cultural shift to romantic love: the pairing of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It isn’t hard to love a book that slices so cleanly and so affectionately into Austen’s novel; the depth and clarity with which Korducki draws out the insights here and elsewhere is outrageously fun to follow.

She examines the rise of the love-marriage as a product of and rebellion against the economic realities of the rising middle class, alongside the persistent drudgery that often awaited a woman within the structures of a marriage, love-union or otherwise. At the same time, a yearning continued to grow as generation after generation of women crept toward economic, sexual, and personal freedom. It’s a testament to Korducki’s prose that the unspooling of this history feels at once hefty with research yet electric and alive.

Korducki does make use of a very western lens in exploring this history; what’s more, with the exception of a section on the history of Black slave marriages and another on queer marriages and pairings, the focus of Hard to Do remains more or less squarely within the realm of white, cisgender, heterosexual couples. At times it feels as though a more apt subtitle for the book would have been An Economic History of Breaking Up – the issues touched on in the book often underline financial freedom and privilege more than feminism itself, particularly the feminism that speaks to those women and female-identifying individuals who have yet to gain economic and cultural power. Further explorations of the ways western feminism has built itself on the backs of less fortunate women (who have, in turn, lost out on love) could have woven additional richness into the narrative. Notwithstanding this, Hard to Do is a tiny gem of a book, both careful and glorious in its revelations.