Is it weird I occasionally love a sad story? I used to hesitate recommending books that left a tear in my eye, thinking something must be inherently wrong with me if I sometimes enjoyed a drama or tragedy that pulled on my heartstrings.
However, over the past few years I’ve realized that these types of stories serve as a catharsis – something for me to fix my emotions on and connect with in a deep way, similar to a moving piece of art or a compelling film. Can you think of a better feeling than being completely immersed in a character’s story, whether it’s happy or sad? Although I love comedic and light hearted stories just as much, often they don’t move me or motivate me as much as stories with gravitas do. Thus, sad stories continue to reign my reading stacks!
This summer I ran through a series of serious-minded stories, and most of them were fantastic reads. Here are a few I recommmend (have your Kleenex handy):
Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò
Set in Nigeria and written in flashbacks between the 1980’s and present day, this riveting novel revolves around the marriage of Yejide and Akin, a couple who fell in college and were happily married – yet are having trouble conceiving their first child. Which is why one day Akin’s mother shows up with a young woman – a young woman selected to be Akin’s second wife.
Cultural dynamics and generational difference play a major role in this story – Akin and Yejide were not interested in the old customs of their ancestors, yet the stress of their infertility has put a strain on their marriage. Yejide knows the only solution to their situation is to get pregnant – but at what cost?
This novel is narrated by both Yejide and Akin in rotating turns, and the time frames moves back and forth as well, but somehow I never got confused by the changing permutations. This book reminded me a LOT of “Fates and Furies” by Lauren Groff, at least stylistically, since we get to see the interior of a seemingly perfect marriage. However, you get the added dimension of the political strife and cultural changes going on in Nigeria during this story – a country which, I am ashamed to say, I knew very little about until this book, though now I want to find more books about the history of this vibrant country.
This book is brimming with humor, love, desperation, and a little mystery – I am still thinking about this novel weeks later. Please, do yourself a favor and read this book.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
I know every talk show host and self-help guru has recommended this book, but it’s not without good reason – the hype is well deserved.
Paul Kalanithi has a seemingly perfect life – he is wrapping up his education as a neurosurgeon, has a beautiful wife, has won a collection of awards and honors. And then, he gets diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, and his world falls apart.
This beautiful memoir wrestles with the concepts of life and fate, how to respond to the fact of imminent death, of whether or not there is an afterlife. There’s also the matter of Paul’s pregnant wife Lucy – how does one bring a new life into this world as you are leaving it? How do you leave your legacy?
Needless to say, I was an absolute mess reading this book. And you will too. But this book is important – read it. And then get to living.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Oh Lord, this book.
So, as many of y’all have seen in my past posts (here and here), I have a love of India. My dad is actually headed back to the country tomorrow (I’m so jealous!), and I’ve been dreaming of the sights, sounds, and smells (good and bad)of that chaotic, vibrant, gorgeous country.
Reading this book also takes me back to India.
The book is set in 1969, in a section of India called Kerala. Two twins, Esthappen and Rahel, strive to create joy out of their lonely, isolated lives. Their mother fled an abusive marriage to raise them in safety, yet due to the sexist practices of their culture, she is considered a slut. They now live with their blind grandmother and other eclectic, manipulative relatives. When their uncle, his new white wife, and her daughter from a previous marriage arrive for a visit, what appears as a fun summer with cousins turns into a deadly adventure.
Y’all, everything bad that you can imagine happening in this story…happens. Plus some. There’s issues of caste divides, gender roles, police brutality, and family dysfunction. Moreover, this is a story of how everything can be turned upside down in a heartbeat, how the small things truly make all the difference.
The writing is lush and lyrical – Ms. Roy is a complete master at the written word. Despite the dark and dreary premise, I was captivated with this story from page one, and my heart broke for the twins and other characters as bad luck came their way. One of the best books I’ve read in years, and one I keep thinking back on.
Sing Unburied, Sing! by Jesmyn Ward
I’ve already written a review of this outstanding book here, so I won’t risk redundancy by rehashing the plotline in this post, but just trust me when I say that you need to read this book if you have any interest in the South, race relations, or family dramas. Absolutely riveting novel.
The End We Start From
This book is coming out next month, and is an incredibly brief read (more of a novella than a true novel). However, don’t underestimate this story by its length – it packs more than enough punch.
As a sudden massive flood hits London, a woman gives birth to her first child, named Z. Soon her family must escape the environmental crisis to safety – and the unknown. As they wander from homes to shelters, evading mobs and violence, this book hits a little too close to home with our increasingly erratic weather patterns and natural disasters (Hello, global warming. We hear you loud and clear). This is a clear post-apocalyptic novel, a modern re-telling of Noah and the flood, a story of danger and survival. For those of you who enjoy books like Station Eleven or Gold Fame Citrus, this will settle right into your wheelhouse. I gobbled this book up like candy. PS – it’s gonna be a movie with Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company.
P.S. To cheer yourself up during all these sad books, let me recommend some comfort food — Thomas Keller of French Laundry fame has a ridiculously easy roasted chicken recipe. It’s whole 30 approved, it’s delicious, it’s perfect. Get the recipe here and pair it with this Balsamic Brussel Sprouts dish.