In reading Florence Williams’ edifying and entertaining Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey, it’s clear her expedition into the heart of romantic darkness helped her discover strength she didn’t know she possessed.
When Williams’ husband abruptly ended their 25-year marriage, she decided she was going to make some changes, fast. You see, Williams has an eternally curious mind and a career as an accomplished science writer, with the books Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History and The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, as well as work for Outside, National Geographic and more. Her approach to something that piques her curiosity—or, in this case, upends her world—is to research it, study it, interview experts and share what she’s learned so that others might benefit. “I set out to experiment on myself, to see if I could understand the way heartbreak changes our neurons, our bodies, and our sense of ourselves,” she writes.
Suddenly single, the author felt “completely, existentially freaked.” Physically, Williams says she felt “like my body had been plugged into a faulty electrical socket.” In search of relief and clarity, she traveled the U.S. and abroad, meeting scientists and researchers in a variety of fields. She learned about broken-heart syndrome, a type of heart failure, and discovered that prairie voles are “helpfully elucidating the neurochemistry of love, attachment, and monogamy.” She even underwent health assessments and procedures herself, including hallucinogen-assisted therapy and an electrical-shock experiment.
Through it all, Williams is disarmingly open about her loneliness, embarrassment (forays into dating, oh my!) and vulnerability. She teaches, confides and encourages—and offers a thrilling account of her debut solo whitewater rafting trip, too. Hilariously, both a portable toilet and a parasol figure prominently in said trip, as well as an action movie’s worth of unpredictable rapids, self-recrimination and stunning vistas. It’s a perfect metaphor for her fascinating, memorable quest to survive and thrive in an often-heartbreaking world.