For the heartbroken and heart-hungry, there’s no better book than The Regrets, Amy Bonnaffons’ debut novel of haunted love. Here, the author writes about the inspiration for this compelling story.
When I was in my 20s, living alone in New York, I spent a lot of time reading my own tarot cards. I used the Rider-Waite deck. Here are some cards I got a lot:
If you understand tarot, you might be able to guess that my romantic life wasn’t exactly calm and stable. I’d develop deep mutual infatuations with love-objects who were inaccessible in one way or another—because they lived across the country, because they were already in another relationship, because they were battling extreme trauma or mental illness—and it would be great for a while, for the time when there was enough distance between me and the person for our mutual fantasies to thrive, for a gauzy web of dreams to spin between us. Then, one of two things would happen. The distance between us would stretch too thin, and the gauzy threads would unravel, and we’d drift apart. Or we’d come too close to each other, bump up against the hard reality of the other person and turn away in disappointment. Each time, I found myself grieving as though a marriage had died.
I read my own tarot to try and find a way through this murky emotional territory. Over and over, it told me the same thing: Fantasy (the seven of cups) combined with imprecise or inscrutable intuition (the moon) would lead to heartbreak (the three of swords). But I always had the ability to walk away, to cut my losses and venture into new territory (the five and eight of cups).
At least, that’s how I see it now. But at the time, full of fantasy and fear, I’d pull these cards and just hear one message: doom, doom, doom. All I could see was an endless cycle of heartbreak and loss. Eventually I stopped doing readings for myself—which was a good thing, because I’d grown too dependent on the idea that they carried some kind of outside wisdom. What I needed was to learn directly from my own experience.
During this time, I started writing The Regrets. The story is about a young woman named Rachel who lives a rich interior life suffused with books and daydreams while finding actual real-life romance consistently underwhelming. At the beginning of the novel, Rachel meets a handsome man named Thomas with whom she shares an exciting, electric connection. The only problem is that he happens to be a ghost. Rachel, dreamer and storyteller that she is, bravely tries to make it work anyway. As you can imagine, complications ensue.
As I wrote the book, I articulated to myself what love felt like for me. Rachel says, “There is a danger to daydreaming. It’s not that the daydream bears too little relationship to reality. It’s the opposite: the daydream can create reality. It can become so powerful that it transforms the face of the world, then encounters its own image and falls in love with itself. This is not what psychologists call ‘projection.’ It is not a delusion of the brain. It is real as rocks, as teeth, as nerve endings. I have fallen in love with my own daydreams and then they have gone out into the world and returned to me embodied as men.”
I also articulated to myself what it felt like to love someone who was only partly “there”—and then be haunted by a love that hadn’t worked out. In this case, since the lover is a ghost, both the partial there-ness and the haunting are literal.
I can say, without giving anything away, that Rachel finds herself in a different place at the end from where she started. The same happened to me, partly through the writing of the book. I learned to face some hard facts about what I was (unconsciously) refusing and what I was (unconsciously) choosing. This allowed me to choose something different.
By the time I turned in the final draft of the book, I’d moved from New York to Georgia (no offense to New York, which I’ll always love fiercely, but this was the best decision I ever made) and was living with the man I’m now planning to marry. This man is similar in some ways to the lovers of my 20s. Like several of them, he’s a Leo who plays in a band; like many of them, he is goofy and sweet. But he is wildly different, too, in ways that are absolutely crucial. He’s open, honest, willing to be vulnerable, unwilling to be scared away (by conflict, by moments of boredom, by hard truth). In other words, as they say, “available.” And he is interested in seeing me accurately as the complex person I am, not as a screen for his fantasies.
But this isn’t a fairy tale about finding the right man (the book isn’t, and neither is my life). I love my partner, and I’m deeply grateful for him. It seems like a miracle that he’s still here. But being with him is a choice I made, one that came out of a deep clarity about what I actually needed, not about what I fantasized about needing. It’s hard-won clarity, the kind that can only be wrung out of previous heartbreak, tender solitude and the long, slow process of becoming a friend and ally to oneself. It looks like this (the two of cups—the meeting of lovers):
But really, it feels like this, the freedom to be oneself at home in the world, not because someone loves you but because you know yourself:
And none of it could have happened without this, the introspection of the hermit:
Or the fool—the willingness to jump in and make mistakes:
Tarot isn’t linear; we become the fool again and again. As I approach marriage, which both excites and terrifies me—after all, it’s not the end of the story but a different kind of beginning, with its own joys and hard-earned rewards and steep risks—I feel again like the fool, like someone leaping into something she has absolutely no idea about. But that’s what it means to participate in life. And now I feel like I’m actually participating. That—not marriage or partnership itself—is the real reward of this journey.
I couldn’t have gotten here without writing the book. I have such affection for the characters, whom I think of as teachers, and for the book itself—the companion and guide of a transformative time in my life. But it feels like a different person wrote it. My hope is that it goes out into the world and finds its way into the hands of people wrestling with similar vulnerabilities. If this is you, here is what I would say to you, something I often repeat in different forms to myself: We, like Thomas, may live our lives trying not to incur regrets—but we are always incurring experience. If we surrender to the lessons of our experience, there is ultimately nothing to regret.
Author photo by Brittainy Lauback