Sometimes, when you’re in the mood to cry and really be in your feelings, only a sad book will do. Like with sad songs and sad movies, there’s a quiet, heartbreaking beauty in sad books; they’re so much more than just sad. They find small ways to inspire you and break the tension with a laugh. Just when it feels like all is lost, a glimmer of hope manages to break through the darkness. On days when funny just won’t do, pick up one of these sad books. Some have tragic endings, and some have bittersweet endings, but they all have one thing in common: They’re guaranteed to make you ugly cry.
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
If you ask anyone the saddest book they’ve read in the last decade, there’s a strong chance they’ll say A Little Life. It tells the heartbreaking story of Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude, four friends who meet in college. The story unfolds from there, following how their lives develop, flashing back to earlier childhood traumas, and showing the struggles each one faces. It’s a dark, depressing, and often traumatic book, but the pain is so powerful and worth the read.
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
Celie is a young Black girl born into the segregated world of the early 1900s. As the novel unfolds through letters she writes to God and her sister, you learn that Celie is beaten and raped by the man she thinks is her father, has her children taken from her, loses her mother, and is separated from her family. The abuse Celie endures is unthinkable, but her unbreakable spirit makes her one of the strongest literary characters of all time.
Blue Nights, by Joan Didion
Joan Didion lost both her husband, John, and her daughter, Quintana, in less than two years’ time. In Blue Nights, she opens up about the unimaginable pain of losing a child and examines her lingering thoughts and fears about motherhood and old age with impressive clarity. It’s a quick read, but every word is heartbreakingly poetic.
If You Could Be Mine, by Sara Farizan
Sahar and Nasrin are best friends. They’ve been in love since they were kids, kissing when nobody is looking and daydreaming about romantic plans for the future. But they live in Iran, where their relationship must remain a secret. Until one day, Sahar decides she’ll do anything for love—including changing her true self with sex reassignment surgery.
Stay with Me, by Ayobami Adebayo
Yejide has been having trouble getting pregnant; no fertility doctor, healer, or herbal remedy has proven helpful. She and her husband, Akin, always said polygamy was not for them, despite it being culturally acceptable. But after four years of unsuccessfully trying, when Akin takes a second wife, Yejide vows to get pregnant by any means necessary.
Once More We Saw Stars: A Memoir of Life and Love After Unimaginable Loss, by Jayson Greene
When Jayson Greene’s daughter Greta was two, a brick crumbled off a windowsill and struck her unconscious. She tragically did not survive the accident, and Greene’s tender memoir recounts how he and his wife Stacy picked up the pieces, kept moving forward, and managed to heal after such a terribly tragedy.
The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai
The Great Believers is told across two timelines: In Chicago in the 1980s, Yale loses his close friends to the AIDS epidemic. In Paris in 2015, Fiona, the sister of one of those friends, arrives to save her daughter from a cult. While she’s there, Fiona stays with an old friend who documented the AIDS crisis in photographs and reflects on how the epidemic affected her life—and her relationship with her daughter.
Goodbye, Vitamin, by Rachel Khong
When Ruth goes home to help her mother take care of her father, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, she sees it as a break from her own broken life. But the longer she stays, and the more his memory deteriorates, the more she realizes about herself. Goodbye, Vitamin is a heartbreakingly honest testament to how cruel this disease is.
When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
When Paul Kalanithi was 36, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. And everything he’d worked for in life—a future with his wife, a family, a career as a neurosurgeon—was snatched away. Kalanithi spent his remaining days contemplating what makes life worth living, confronting his own mortality, and writing this book.
My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult
Anna is a 13-year-old whose purpose in life is to keep her sister Kate, who is fighting leukemia, alive; their parents conceived Anna to be Kate’s perfect bone marrow match. When Kate needs a kidney, Anna reaches her breaking point and seeks medical emancipation. It’s a compelling but disturbing novel that poses many interesting ethical and moral questions.
The Fault in Our Stars, by John Greene
Hazel is a teenager with terminal thyroid cancer. Illness aside, she lives a pretty normal life. But when she meets Augustus at a cancer support group, he turns her world upside down. Every moment of their love story is filled with sweetness, giggles, and tenderness. You’ll cry tears of joy, sorrow, and love all the way through.
Men We Reaped: A Memoir, by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward lost five men in her life in five years. As tragedy kept striking, she kept asking herself: Why is this happening? When she put pen to paper to process these losses, she realized how much her community fails Black men in every way, setting them up for lives of pain and struggle.
Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
Lydia was the favorite child, and she had her whole life ahead of her. But when her body is found in a lake, her parents come undone as they struggle to cope with her death. It’s a painfully heartbreaking family tragedy.
Human Acts, by Han Kang
In Human Acts, Han Kang writes a fictional tribute to the tragic true events surrounding the Gwangju Uprising in South Korea in 1980. She goes into great, gruesome detail about the deaths and the massacre, showing how one tragic event can have lasting, haunting effects on people, families, and entire communities for generations.
The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein
The Art of Racing in the Rain is written from the perspective of a very good dog named Enzo. And while it’s plenty charming, Enzo’s witty observations and sharp musings on life—especially as he reaches the end of his own—will also make you sob your face off.
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