What to Read If You’re in the Mood for a Tearjerker

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Written By Pinang Driod

When someone claims that a book will break my heart, I’m skeptical. Literature can certainly inspire outsize reactions, but there is a difference between evoking real emotion and exploiting readers’ feelings: Getting a rise out of the audience by resorting to melodramatic plot twists isn’t hard. Representing life on the page so faithfully that the reader forms a genuine attachment to the characters and can’t help but weep takes more skill. So does articulating an experience a reader previously believed was theirs alone, prompting tears of relief.

Despite my wariness of easy provocation, I cry so frequently when reading that I had trouble narrowing down this list. The following seven titles made me cry for a wide range of reasons; some choices may feel surprising or even counterintuitive. They prove that art can summon strong sentiment in a multitude of ways, and that the effect is more authentic—and cathartic—when the writer earns it.


Bloomsbury

Girlhood, by Melissa Febos

In Girlhood, Febos describes her process of undoing the decades-long “indoctrination” that taught her and other young women “to privilege the feelings, comfort, perceptions, and power of others over [their] own.” She blends memoir, criticism, and interviews to expose the seemingly normal parts of growing up as a girl that are actually forms of conditioning. The way Febos describes her prepubescent self and the unfiltered pleasure she once took in her own physicality is poignant. “Before I learned about beauty, I delighted in my body,” she writes of finding joy in climbing trees, burying her face in hunks of watermelon, and all the little things that connected her to her animal self. By puberty, animal is a bad word. Classmates’ comments and media representations of women discipline her into heartbreaking shame and self-hatred. But the book stimulates tears of vicarious relief. Finally, someone has named the many invisible ways young women are minimized—and, what’s more, we get to see her renounce them.

Girlhood
By Melissa Febos
The Year of Magical Thinking
Vintage

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

Culturally, we expect grief to be linear: The idea is that things are worst in the immediate aftermath of loss but that, day by day, “a certain forward movement will prevail,” Didion notes. Her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking demonstrates how unrealistic that expectation is, even for someone who made cool, detached rationality her entire persona. In 2003, Didion’s husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack in their apartment. During their 40-year marriage, they worked from home; he was her first reader; they never spent long apart. The loss is compounded by the fact that when Dunne died, their daughter, Quintana, was in a coma, and she would pass away between the book’s completion and publication. The most wrenching moments mirror grief’s surprising eruptions—such as Didion’s struggle to finish her first piece of writing without Dunne to read it, and when she can’t bring herself to get rid of his footwear because she irrationally worries about him returning to a house with no shoes in it. Equally devastating is Didion’s inability to square her famous precision with the vulnerability of mourning. “I am a writer,” she laments in a moment when she longs to conjure her husband’s voice. “Imagining what someone would say or do comes to me as naturally as breathing.” Yet Dunne is silent.

The Year Of Magical Thinking
By Joan Didion
It
Scribner

It, by Stephen King

If you spend more than 1,000 pages immersed in the world of a novel, its ending naturally occasions a sense of loss. That’s even truer when the book itself is about loss, as King’s horror epic is—the end of childhood innocence, its magic and its friendships. In It, a malevolent force haunts the town of Derry, Maine, surfacing every 27 years. The shape-shifting entity lives in the sewers, hunts children, and takes the form of various nightmares—most infamously, a horrifying clown. The story alternates between two timelines: the first in 1958, after the clown lures an unsuspecting boy toward a storm drain, and the second in 1985, when the cycle begins again, and the kids who fought “It” before reassemble to end the creature’s reign. The novel is bloody, terrifying, and several hundred pages too long, but it has an unabashed sentimental streak that catches you off guard amid the carnage. By the end, the greatest tragedy (and terror) of the novel is inescapable: Time passes. The pathos comes from how things change over nearly three decades; we see these misfit kids grow up, grow apart, and come back together, their bonds frayed and changed, their adult lives nothing like the ones they thought they would eventually lead.

It – A Novel
By Stephen King
The Round House
Harper Perennial

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

Erdrich’s National Book Award–winning novel opens in 1988, on a reservation in North Dakota. In the first 10 pages, Geraldine Coutts—the mother of the narrator, Joe—is raped. She escapes alive but initially refuses to reveal any details about her attacker to the police, her son, or her husband, who is a tribal-court judge. The crime fractures their tight-knit family; traumatized, Geraldine stays in her room and refuses to eat or speak. Thirteen-year-old Joe is motivated to seek a justice he feels the law is incapable of delivering. As he and his friends try to determine the assailant’s identity, the reader is embedded in the reservation’s sprawling community. Joe investigates various characters whom he suspects might be connected to the crime, such as Father Travis, the ex-Marine priest, and Linda Wishkob, abandoned by her parents and adopted onto the reservation. As Joe’s amateur sleuthing gradually exposes secrets, the ties among people become more complex. When the novel culminates in a spree of interrelated violence, readers feel the tragedies more deeply because they understand their impact on the entire population.

The Round House – A Novel
By Louise Erdrich

They're Going to Love You
Anchor

They’re Going to Love You, by Meg Howrey

As a child, Howrey’s protagonist, Carlisle Martin, aspires to be a professional ballet dancer. She has no shortage of models: Her mother is a former Balanchine ballerina; her father was also a dancer, although she sees him only for a few weeks each year. The mentor she’s most influenced by is James, a dance teacher and her father’s live-in partner. During summers in their Greenwich Village apartment, Carlisle receives a formative education in artistic excellence. She is in thrall to James; years later, she reflects on how “there was a time when looking up to this man was the greatest pleasure of [her] life.” But mentorship can be a volatile bond: When Carlisle does something her father perceives as a betrayal of James, parent and child become estranged for years. She returns to the beloved home only as an adult, when her father is very sick. The novel oscillates between past and present, showing us Carlisle as a young dancer full of ambition and as a woman whose career didn’t pan out exactly as she’d hoped. The two kinds of loss—of time with a loved one and of creative potential—are intertwined in a way that can shatter the reader. This, too, is one of James’s lessons: An artist may perpetually live with “a general sense of having come just short of greatness.”

They’re Going To Love You – A Novel
By Meg Howrey
Brutalities
W. W. Norton and Company

Brutalities, by Margo Steines

“The problem with habitual pain is that you quickly become habituated to it,” Steines writes in this memoir of physical extremes. “What at first feels shocking and world-altering becomes routine.” All her life, Steines has been attracted to various forms of violence—as a dominatrix, as an ironworker, as someone addicted to exercise—and one of the book’s many triumphs is how it never lets the reader get too comfortable. Steines writes with unrelenting clarity about visceral bodily experiences—the self-annihilating agony of being flogged; the snap of a fractured heel bone; the shock of a red-hot welding rod sizzling against skin. But she writes with equal power about deeply tender things, such as feeling her body swell and change in pregnancy, and the love she has for her partner. Because the reader is already primed to register any sensation intensely, these moments of vulnerability hit hard. In between the episodes of pain, Steines learns to let herself feel softness; with great skill and control, she makes the reader submit to the same trajectory. The moments of gentleness feel like a caress that follows a slap, and their intensity is enough to make you break down.

Brutalities – A Love Story
By Margo Steines

The Corrections
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen

Franzen’s 2001 novel is known for a lot of things: Fixing him in the literary firmament. Blending so-called serious literature with absorptive, pleasurable reading. Sparking his (since resolved) feud with Oprah. I move to add “making you weep” to the list; I still well up when I think of the simple, hopeful, futile last line of this novel. The narrative action is motivated by a relatively straightforward impulse, as Enid, matriarch of the Lambert family, wants to bring her adult children together for one last Christmas at home. But Chip has recently lost a tenure-track professorship for an indiscretion with a student; Gary is struggling with his mental health; Denise, a chef, is sleeping with her boss’s wife; and their father, Alfred, is in decline from dementia. The novel brings us into the Lamberts’ dynamics with unbearable intimacy. We experience their dysfunctions and resentments as if they were our own relatives hashing out conflicts. By the time Christmas dinner finally rolls around, the tensions are high enough to prompt misty eyes, a signal that—maybe without realizing it and definitely without wanting to—you’ve become part of the family.

The Corrections – A Novel
By Jonathan Franzen


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