TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January/February 2021

TOP TEN

Torrey Peters

Photo: Natasha Gornik

Torrey Peters is a writer who splits her time between Brooklyn, New York, and rural Vermont. Her first novel, Detransition, Baby, was published by One World in January. Peters is also the author of the novellas The Masker and Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones (both 2016).

I DEDICATED MY FIRST NOVEL, Detransition, Baby, to divorced cis women. While working on the book, I found a model for how to live as a trans woman in the writings of divorced cis women. Think about it: Divorced cis women must start over at a point in adulthood when they’re supposed to be established; they must give up on the illusions that led to failure; they must avoid bitterness and self-pity; and they frequently even change their names to match the new self they must narrativize into being. It’s easy to look at the current place of trans women in society and think that we’re witnessing a moment of something liberating. But for me that same liberation was daunting—I wanted a map. In works by and about divorced cis women, I eventually discovered one. To that end, here are my top ten divorce-related and divorcée-adjacent texts for life after gender transition.

  1. ELENA FERRANTE’S NEAPOLITAN NOVELS (EUROPA EDITIONS) READ OUT OF ORDER

    The correct order in which to read the sequence, as I see it, is as follows:

    The Story of a New Name (2013), book two, which covers young adulthood.
    Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), book three, on marriage and divorce.
    My Brilliant Friend (2012), book one, on childhood.
    The Story of the Lost Child (2015), book four, on middle age.

    This order simulates a life cycle—you blunder through fuckups and passion for the first half of adult consciousness, eventually returning to your previously opaque childhood via therapy to uncover the mystery of why you are how you are. Then, finally, you try to chill out and simply not hurt anyone further.

    Cover of Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions, 2015). Cover of Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions, 2015).
  2. MARY McCARTHY, THE GROUP (HARCOURT, BRACE & WORLD, 1963)

    It’s tempting to include the television shows Sex and the City and Girls, or any number of single-women-in-NYC-related narratives. But McCarthy’s novel pioneered the easy-to-imitate voice now ubiquitous in this genre. Nothing since quite reaches its humor, acidity, and unintentional but representative myopia.

    Cover of Mary McCarthy’s The Group (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963). Cover of Mary McCarthy’s The Group (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963).
  3. TONI MORRISON, SULA (ALFRED A. KNOPF, 1973)

    Every divorce story that really guided me has also, equally, been an account of female friendship. And when it comes to the ferocity of the bonds of this type of friendship—with all the jealousy, competition, and simmering eroticism they entail—I can’t mention Ferrante while neglecting Morrison. In both authors’ works, the ultimate shape of women’s lives—as embodied by Lila and Lenù in the former’s and Sula and Nel in the latter’s—is defined not by their men but by their relationships with each other.

    Toni Morrison, New York, October 18, 1977. Photo: J. Michael Dombroski/Newsday RM/Getty Images. Toni Morrison, New York, October 18, 1977. Photo: J. Michael Dombroski/Newsday RM/Getty Images.
  4. SARAH SCHULMAN, AFTER DELORES (E. P. DUTTON, 1988)

    Heterosexual divorces can be messy, but an ’80s noir lesbian breakup is next level. Schulman is an institution, and in this novel, you get an early glimpse of the crucial themes that eventually found their way into the writer’s 2016 book, Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair, which offers important insights for the distraught divorcée. In this tale, you get them in hard-boiled prose.

    Cover of Sarah Schulman’s After Delores (E. P. Dutton, 1988). Cover of Sarah Schulman’s After Delores (E. P. Dutton, 1988).
  5. RACHEL CUSK’S OUTLINE TRILOGY (PICADOR)

    Like Ferrante’s, Cusk’s series takes on the emotional cycle of a major life event: healing after a divorce. Read these books in order:

    Outline (2015): The narrator, a British author whom we know only as Faye, departs cleanly from her past after the dissolution of her marriage. (The trilogy also marks a departure from Cusk’s prose style, according to several interviews the writer has given.) She’s fragile, adrift, and so observant she borders on vigilant.

    Transit (2017): Faye begins to put herself back together, returning to the mundanity of daily life and rediscovering the existence of humor. 

    Kudos (2018): Our protagonist has remarried and fully reintegrated into herself. Here, she borders on being overconfident, smug, and judgmental: The temptation of constant self-congratulation is real for those of us whose divorces went a little too smoothly.

    Cover of the 2016 edition of Rachel Cusk’s 2015 Outline (Picador, 2016). Cover of the 2016 edition of Rachel Cusk’s 2015 Outline (Picador, 2016).
  6. PAUL MAZURSKY’S AN UNMARRIED WOMAN (1978), WHICH STARS THE INCOMPARABLE JILL CLAYBURGH

    I simply quote Janet Maslin’s 2010 appraisal of the film from the New York Times: “The unaffected nature of [Clayburgh’s] performance became its most distinctive feature. She didn’t have the tics of Diane Keaton, the steel of Jane Fonda, the feistiness of Sally Field, the uncanny adaptability of Meryl Streep. She simply had the gift of resembling a real person undergoing life-altering change.”

    Paul Mazursky, An Unmarried Woman, 1978, 35 mm, color, sound, 124 minutes. Erica (Jill Clayburgh). Paul Mazursky, An Unmarried Woman, 1978, 35 mm, color, sound, 124 minutes. Erica (Jill Clayburgh).
  7. TRUCKSLUTS MAGAZINE

    Do you ever feel weird about your body? Me too, sometimes. Why not do like the punk queer sluts do and display your body on a truck? All the affirmation that comes from posting a thirst trap, with a fraction of the vulnerability. You are a goddess of the truck! The male gaze cannot touch you.

    Tiffany Saint Bunny, Trouble, 2019, ink-jet print. Tiffany Saint Bunny, Trouble, 2019, ink-jet print.
  8. SARAH BAKEWELL, AT THE EXISTENTIALIST CAFÉ: FREEDOM, BEING, AND APRICOT COCKTAILS WITH JEAN-PAUL SARTRE, SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR, ALBERT CAMUS, MARTIN HEIDEGGER, MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY AND OTHERS (OTHER PRESS, 2016)

    It’s been a long time since the word freedom has evoked anything but screaming bald eagles clawing American flags. However, there was a time and place—midcentury Paris—when a quest for capital-F Freedom was a method of examining one’s own choices. You could read Sartre, of course. But everything I got from him I received with more pleasure from Bakewell’s biography on Sartre and company, which also offers plenty of dishy relationship gossip.

    Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre at the Porte d’Orléans fairground, Paris, June 1929. Photo: Jazz Editions/Gamma-Rapho. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre at the Porte d’Orléans fairground, Paris, June 1929. Photo: Jazz Editions/Gamma-Rapho.
  9. THE ESSAY “ALWAYS BE OPTIMIZING,” FROM JIA TOLENTINO’S TRICK MIRROR: REFLECTIONS ON SELF DELUSION (RANDOM HOUSE, 2019)

    Getting in shape is a post-divorce cliché. This essay on overpriced salads and suffering through barre workouts reproduces in its argument the ambivalence of trying to make yourself into a desirable woman. Fitness classes for women are infantilizing and humiliating but useful for becoming an effective subject under late capitalism. Tolentino’s compromises are illustrative for the newly divorced because, unfortunately, you, too, will be forced to compromise.

    Jia Tolentino, 2019. Photo: Andrew Jacobs. Jia Tolentino, 2019. Photo: Andrew Jacobs.
  10. LARS MYTTING, NORWEGIAN WOOD: CHOPPING, STACKING, AND DRYING WOOD THE SCANDINAVIAN WAY (ABRAMS IMAGE, 2015)

    This best seller in Scandinavia is exactly what it purports to be: a practical guide to using wood for heat, sprinkled with anecdotes so wise and colorful that the book is as gripping as a thriller. There are few activities that involve a truly generational time line, but chopping firewood is one of them. According to Mytting, forty years may pass between the felling of a tree and when your children should harvest the new one you’ve planted in its place. Your heart will break many times over these decades, but you don’t necessarily have to depend on anyone else to build you a fire. Grab a chain saw and take the long view.

    Woodpile photograph from Lars Mytting’s Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way (Abrams Image, 2015). Photo: Christopher MacLehose. Woodpile photograph from Lars Mytting’s Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way (Abrams Image, 2015). Photo: Christopher MacLehose.