There’s something so intriguing and special to me about sad stories.
Sometimes I am in need of a happy ending, but honestly those aren’t the stories that stick with me the longest. As I have spent many occasions cradling a book, tears splashing on to the final pages, I have been asked why I do this to myself. That’s a great question…
I’m a truly empathetic creature and I think the most important reason I read is to make me feel something. It feels like a kind of magic that I can pick up a novel and see the world from a perspective that, in this lifetime, I may never have even imagined, that may never have touched my heart otherwise. It can hurt to feel myself reflected in these heart-breaking books just as much as it can to see reflections of people I’ve never pictured before. Even when I escape my reality through reading only to fall into an infinitely more complicated or painful one, I am grateful. I am reminded that the world, history, and the act of living are so much bigger than myself; endless narratives are unfolding in people and places everywhere all the time. And that’s so poignant and beautiful and it makes me feel less alone and more connected in this universe full of stories.
So here is a list, in no particular order, of some novels that have made me cry or feel deeply or have forced me to sit in a thoughtful silence after I turned the last page. (Explained to the best of my ability with no spoilers!) Also included one memorable quote from each book.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs, or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”
This story follows several generations of characters living against an unforgiving backdrop. It chronicles thirty years of volatile Afghan history as we are swept away with war and suffering, but also boundless love. I find it so interesting in books when the arch of two characters from different existences meet and the threads of their lives become slowly intertwined in unforeseen ways. This was the case for the resilient women of this story. Women who are friends and mothers and givers and endured too much, but found space in their hearts to love anyway. To find compassion anyway. To pluck hope from the world like a flower growing defiantly on parched earth. The story had me on the edge of my seat rooting for the characters that I had grown to love. I felt sorrow for the cruelty they faced, tenderness for the bonds they created, and I ached for the sacrifices they made.
Red at The Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
“She felt red at the bone– like there was something inside of her undone and bleeding.”
That’s how reading this book can feel, like being undone and it does so masterfully in so few pages. The story centers on two Black families brought together by an unexpected child. The narrative jumps around in time and shifts points of view among five characters, each with a unique voice and who span three generations. In this way, it brings back the past and sets the pieces in front of us to look at. Recollections and remembrances float around to create a whole, to connect to the moment we have now. Woodson isn’t afraid to go where it hurts– where characters’ fears and regrets and secrets and longing for forgiveness lie. The characters of this story are so real and convincing that they seem to lift off the page and become people standing in front of me, bearing their wounds.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
“She and I were bound together at the border between life and death.”
Reading this book feels like a consistent dull ache in my chest, like being submerged into a hazy, ethereal world that I might at any moment wake up from. Our main character, Toru, enters into young adulthood with a life that has been marked by death and isolation and, now, the elusiveness and confusion of love. It is somehow about the dimness of memory but, simultaneously, the sweeping power of it. How we can be pulled into some other place where we can recall the past as though we could reach out and touch it. And we never know when it might happen because of the way we hide nostalgia in the summer heat or the melodies of songs. Murakami’s novels are filled with mysterious melancholy and this is much more than a love story.
The Space Between Us by Thirty Umrigar
“You felt a deep sorrow, the kind of melancholy you feel when you’re in a beautiful place and the sun is going down.”
The shattering that occurred in me upon finishing this book was the kind of sadness that is also filled with indignation. The story illustrates the lives of women who exist in different worlds of the caste system in India. We see through the life of a wealthy woman and her servant that people can be bound by heart aches and secrets and time, but that the space between remains. This is the story of that invisible, yet undeniable and tangibly painful, space and the consequences that reverberated from it. I felt thrust not only into the heartaches and memories of these tenacious women, but also into their surroundings. The intricacy of the prose was so beautiful and powerful, even when describing the ugliness of slums or the pain of loss, that I couldn’t stop reading.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
“So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”
I have read quite a few stories set during the time period of World War II that have always pulled at my heartstrings, but this one stuck with me in a different way. The novel is of parallel stories of two children growing up during the war. One is Marie-Laure; she is an inquisitive girl, fascinated by nature, growing up in France with her father. She goes blind at the age of six. The other is of Werner– an orphaned German boy who excels at fixing radios and dreams of being a scientist. He finds himself at the center of the Hitler Youth. This book offered perspectives on people impacted by war that I hadn’t imagined before. It truly does cast a light on all the stories we could not see.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
“Grief was what you owed the dead for the necessary crime of living on without them.”
This book finished with a heartbreak that I truly wasn’t expecting, which is sometimes the most memorable kind. The novel features two different Muslim families living in Britain and how their fates become inextricably linked. It pits love against loyalty, personal against political, with suspenseful and tragic consequences. The reason the book makes this list is because after finishing I was stuck thinking about the ending, wondering how much I would sacrifice for love.
The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
“But safety is not about never having bad things happen to you. It’s about knowing that the bad things can’t separate us from each other.”
This book is two perfectly intertwined stories. One of Nour, a Syrian American girl whose family moves back to Syria just as the civil war is unraveling. They are struck by tragedy, forced to flee as refugees, and make a harrowing journey across seven countries to seek safety. The other tale is of Rawiya, the heroine in Nour’s favorite story; the one her father used to tell her before he passed away. She battled mythical creatures on an adventure along the very same path as Nour, but 800 years earlier. I became so entranced by the achingly beautiful writing of this book and was left in tears at the end.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
“History has failed us, but no matter.”
This is a historical saga set in Korea and Japan throughout the 20th century. It follows four generations of a Korean family through Japanese colonization, hardships of war, seeking better life in Japan, searching for the meaning of home and identity, and so much more. Every character arch spirals with joy, suffering, and resilience. It is jarring tragedy mixed in with the simple banality of life unfolding over time in a way that makes the emotion and the characters so tangible. Just like the game of pachinko itself, life is shaped by both skill and luck, kindness and cruelty, and we must experience it all. The story, the sheer scale of it, lingered with me for a long time.