Book Review
“Acknowledgments in Essay Form:” Briallen Hopper’s <em>Hard to Love</em>

“Acknowledgments in Essay Form:” Briallen Hopper’s Hard to Love

I agreed to review Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions a week before my long-time boyfriend broke up with me out of the blue one otherwise completely normal Wednesday afternoon. Needless to say, my copy of Briallen Hopper’s heartfelt and nourishing essays arrived at exactly the right time. Her collected musings — examining love, life, and the power of our shared bonds – are the perfect antidote to 2019 so far, regardless of one’s relationship status.

Book jacket. (Bloomsbury Press)

Hopper teaches creative nonfiction at Queens College, CUNY, and has published widely in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York Magazine, and beyond. After completing a doctorate in literature at Princeton, she attended divinity school and taught writing courses at Yale. (Full disclosure: we overlapped in New Haven and share some mutual acquaintances, but to my recollection, we have never met in person and have never interacted beyond occasionally liking each other’s tweets.) Hard to Love is her first book, but I’m already impatient for her second.

Hopper says in her acknowledgments, “Really this entire book is just acknowledgments in essay form,” and I would say that this is the most accurate possible summary.1 It is clearly a labor of love, about love and related conditions. The collection features 21 short pieces, but in this review I will focus on just a few of them and leave the rest for readers to discover completely fresh. (You’ll love them all, I promise.)

Ever the historian, I was first drawn to “The Foundling Museum,” a short essay featuring the London institution of the same name that haunts the author’s memory. While she admits that “there is all the difference in the world between the agony of losing a child and the ache of never having one,” Hopper, who was “balancing babies on [her] hips before [she] had hips,” uses the museum’s collections as a jumping-off point for reflecting on her desire for motherhood, her mother’s experiences, and her own pseudo-mothering and sistering in the meantime.2

The Foundling Museum, Bloomsbury. (Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons)

She beautifully interweaves the story of Hagar from the book of Genesis into her recollections of the museum’s collections, including a painting of the biblical figure with her son Ishmael. Transfixed by the hundreds of years old tokens left by women who hoped one day to reclaim the children they could not raise in those desperate moments, Hopper powerfully shows the multiple ways that “maternity is thwarted by circumstance.”3

“Waveforms and the Women’s March” is one for fans of Nursing Clio’s Protest: Past and Present series. Here, Hopper combines her firsthand account of the 2017 Inauguration Day protests with a sprinkle of feminist literary criticism. Reflections on protest in general and the Women’s March in particular frame a thoughtful review of the anthology Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women, published just one month after the election of Donald Trump in 2016. The essays in the collection and their subjects matter, she says, “because they help to put the march’s euphoric wave of feeling in a broader and longer perspective.”4

Hopper’s essay, in turn, will live on to help us remember and better understand this political moment, thanks to her colorful descriptions. “Of course, the line for the women’s restroom was insane, per usual,” she reports.5 The iconic pussy hat, worn by the author without the embarrassment she expected, is described as “kitschy, winky, and blandly obscene.”6

Iconic pussy hat. (Thirty Two/Wikimedia Commons)

The hilarious “How to Be Single” departs from the typical essay format, written more like a very good McSweeney’s list but with more to chew on. The satirical guidance, including advice on how to try — and fail — at online dating to appease your coupled-up friends, is depressingly relatable, but in the way that has you giggling out loud as you read it in Panera, to the consternation of the too-serious businessman sitting across from you. (Whoops.) Should you be stuck somehow actually having dates, Hopper suggests warding off suitors by texting GIFs of Miss Havisham afterwards, which is totally my style. And remember: don’t forget to always “gaze raptly into the middle distance” in your day-to-day life, avoiding all eye contact, for best results.7

I don’t want to end with a terrible pun about how this book is in fact very easy to love, but it’s hard not to. Being serious for a moment, it would make a perfect self-care treat or Galentine’s Day present. This February, inspired by Hopper and the collected essays of Hard to Love, I am celebrating all of my relationships — those with my family, the always-there graduate cohort members, the Nursing Clio crew, my Twitter people, and everyone in between. But first I must build my indoor newspaper fort and track down some feral raccoons to fill it to repel any future love interests — after all, that is Hopper’s step 4 of being single.


  1. Briallen Hopper, Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), 315. Return to text.
  2. Hopper, Hard to Love, 257, 255. Return to text.
  3. Hopper, Hard to Love, 260. Return to text.
  4. Hopper, Hard to Love, 274. Return to text.
  5. Hopper, Hard to Love, 265. Return to text.
  6. Hopper, Hard to Love, 268. Return to text.
  7. Hopper, Hard to Love, 35. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Briallen Hopper. (Courtesy Hopper’s professional website)

Kelly O’Donnell is a historian of medicine and gender in the United States, focusing on women's complex relationships to the medical profession. She received her PhD from Yale University’s Program in the History of Science and Medicine. After graduate school, she spent a year working at a women's health advocacy non-profit. She currently teaches in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Thomas Jefferson University in her hometown of Philadelphia.