15 sad books to read when you really need a good cry
Read the trigger warnings before diving in
It’s just one of those days when nothing seems to be going your way. As you’re scrubbing burnt split milk from the corners of the gas stove, you hear the crash and smash of the vase your mother-in-law gifted you on your first anniversary. Rahul was practising his football kicks in the living room again. There’s only so much you can control a 5-year-old, after all. You feel the frustration burn in your neck like acidity after one too many samosas. Before you can open your mouth to scold him, your eyes dart to the ticking hands on the wall clock, indicating that you have all of 30 minutes to drop him off at school, make your way across town to the office, and, oh, your husband forgot his dabba on the dining table, so you’ll have to drop that off too.
A few deep breaths later, you pacify yourself knowing exactly how you will end your day to make yourself feel better. It’s not an intimate date night with a partner but rather a date with yourself. Everything is planned. Tissue box loaded up, a warm blanket at the ready. You’ve already picked out the title from your collection of sad books you’ll read tonight to have a good, cathartic cry.
Even scientists can’t figure out why we do this to ourselves. You’d think human nature would have us inclined towards media that sparks joy. But as our morbid interest in true crime illustrates, we have a propensity for choosing depressing movies and sad books. Scientists have theorised two broad reasons why we pick sad books and films over more uplifting content: firstly, to feel better about ourselves and our circumstances by comparison, and the second, in order to find meaning and connection in our own lives.
Sure, a good laugh can help release some happy hormones into your system when you’re feeling down. But feeling sad or angry enough that your eyes cannot hold back the flood of tears any longer can liberate emotions and help you feel a lot better. Reading sad books also helps us in our search for a better understanding of certain experiences or situations we can’t put down in words ourselves.
It doesn’t matter if you’re male, female, trans or non-binary. As humans, we’ve been taught to put a lid on it when it comes to emotional expression, especially when you grow up in a traditional society. Whether it’s at work after a condescending client call or tearing up in frustration when everything seems to be out of control — many occasions call for tears, but it’s only when dealing with grief and loss that crying is deemed socially acceptable. And on those occasions, if hot salty tears don’t stream down your face, you are questioned for being ‘cold’ and ‘heartless’.
Reading sad books can release you from the emotional whirlpool swirling around inside. Crying is a natural painkiller triggering oxytocin and endorphins, happy and pain-relieving hormones in our bodies. Would they rather you pop pills? If anyone questions you, you can tell them you’re doing it for your eyes. Crying keeps bacteria out and our eyes lubricated and clean, thanks to the antimicrobial fluid lysozyme that is in our tears. So if nothing else, do it for your health.
Whether you want to get in touch with your emotions, need an outlet to cry rather than get into a fight with your neighbour, or could use a good eye cleanse – grab some tissues and prepare yourself for this selection of sad books that will make you cry in the best way possible. They won’t just induce tears of sadness but some life-affirming sobs as well, and that’s not an eyewash. We’re still trying to get over Marley & Me.
15 sad books to read when you need a good cry
The Whale by Samuel D Hunter
Samuel D Hunter’s play The Whale alternates between being absolutely devastating and humorous. Our protagonist is a morbidly obese man, living an isolated life cut off from everyone he loves (other than the care of a nurse) as he eats himself to death.
As he faces his mortality, he reconnects with his estranged teenage daughter to create some meaningful connection before it’s too late. Abandoned by both her parents, his daughter isn’t having any of her father’s excuses. The play is now a film by Darren Aronofsky, that’s currently doing the rounds on the awards circuit, and stars every ’90s kids childhood crush, Brendan Fraser, as the lead. It’s a heartbreaking look at parental guilt, saviour complex, toxic relationships and a search for redemption. This short and quick read will nevertheless stay with you long after that final page is turned.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
This is one of those sad books that makes you feel almost every human emotion at least once throughout the course of reading it. The premise centres on a coffee shop where you can travel back in time. That is, if you sit in one particular chair, you can have one last conversation with a loved one as long as you follow a set of strict rules. You can’t change the future and can only talk to this person until your coffee starts going cold.
This book is more of a dissection of human behaviour rather than an overwhelming burst of emotions. We follow different characters who come to the coffee shop in pursuit of time travel. Such as a mother who travels back in time to talk to the daughter she never got to know, and a lady getting a letter from her husband right before he’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It’s simple, minimal, and incredibly moving. After reading this book, you’ll find yourself asking this of everyone you know – would you visit the past to have a conversation with someone even when you know that there is nothing that you can change? Is it pointless to even try?
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
This book is narrated by a dog called Enzo, who is a ‘philosopher with a nearly human soul’. Enzo’s human is a race car driver called Denny Swift, and through him, he learns the lessons of life with all its twists and turns.
Author Stein was a racer himself and quit after a terrible crash (while racing in the rain). He based a lot of Denny’s experiences on his own. This story is about tragedy, grief and complex family relations. It’s not so much about Enzo and his life but how he has watched his favourite people’s lives unfold and get torn apart.
Animal lovers can confirm that dogs know more about compassion and love than we could ever dream of — this book reaffirms that a dog is most definitely man’s best friend and wisest companion. Heart-wrenching as much as it is uplifting, all you’ll want by the end is a dog to cuddle.
Almond by Sohn Won-Pyung and Joosun Lee (Translator)
This book makes the reader feel many emotions in a story about a boy with no emotions. Yunjae is our protagonist, who has a condition called Alexithymia. His pleasant enough life is destroyed when an attack on his caregivers leaves him alone in the world. Derided at school for not ‘feeling’ anything after losing family members, he strikes a friendship with Gon, who is initially his bully. In Gon, he sees what he lacks – a plethora of emotions that he is unable to contain.
The book toes the line between being sad and hopeful as Yunjae navigates life’s complexities along with this new friend, describing their experiences, his lack of emotional reaction, and how he tries to understand those who feel it all. You’ll gain a new appreciation for your ability to well up with tears.
Lust for Life by Irving Stone
There’s an episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor brings van Gogh to Paris in 2010 using the Tardis. Rejected in his life, tormented and exhausted, van Gogh is a man who never felt a day’s appreciation for his art in his lifetime. The Doctor brings him to the Musée d’Orsay, a museum housing some of the ‘greatest paintings in history’, where Van Gogh sees his art on the walls, admired, adored and loved. He is completely overwhelmed.
Van Gogh’s life fascinates and saddens us, knowing that this man never came close to knowing how his work would impact the world. Lust for Life is a fictionalised biography of the painter that Stone says is largely based on letters Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo. You feel his longing for acceptance, his struggle with illness, and you want to scream at him through the pages that his legacy is magnificent, hoping that he hears you, wherever he may be now.
As Dr Black tells the Doctor in the show, “Van Gogh is the finest painter of them all. Certainly, the most popular great painter of all time, the most beloved. His command of colour, the most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world… no one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again.”
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Miller retells the classic story of Greece’s greatest hero with a twist or two. This time the tale is told from the point of view of Patroclus, his companion and ‘friend’. In this story, also his lover. This is one of those sad books that wrecks you lyrically. Miller builds up the beautifully raw romance, love, and passion between the two.
There’s pain and sorrow as Patroclus is tangled up in wanting the man he loves to achieve his desire for greatness but not at the cost of his humanity and life. He dreads the day the prophecy comes true and how he’s going to face it all, but the universe has other plans in mind.
One of the most quoted lines from the book is, “And perhaps it is the greater grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.” Need we say more?
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
With a dystopian tilt, this book reminds us yet again why Kazuo Ishiguro won a Nobel Prize for literature. We meet a set of four friends at a boarding school set in the idyllic English countryside. They’re being taught about art, literature and more but little about the outside world. Something seems off right from the beginning when you get into this novel.
As it’s told in a disjointed fashion, it takes some time for the reader to put together the pieces. But when you do, you finally realise the truth about what the boarding school, it comes with scathing criticisms of society, exploitation, love, relationships, and memories. Honestly, the less you know about this book going in, the better.
Beartown by Fredrik Backman
Beartown has a robust cast of characters and you get to read the story from all their perspectives in bits and pieces. The story is based in a small town in Sweden. Down on their luck, the townsfolk are struggling to get by, with declining tourism and dipping industrial work taking a toll on the economy. But what keeps their spirits alive is hockey.
When the junior hockey team has a chance at a big win, all the town’s hopes get put onto their young shoulders. It becomes a lot to deal with, especially when a horrifying incident traumatises a young girl. Tensions flare as questions of morality and justice are pushed to the back seat as the town’s need to succeed starts to take priority. This book begins with a plethora of trigger warnings.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
When this book was published in 2013, the hearts of readers around the world collectively broke. Especially in the South Asian community, but more on that later. The story begins in peaceful Afghanistan in 1975. Boys Amir and Hassan are friends – the former the son of a wealthy merchant, the latter his cleft-lipped sidekick, forever loyal and a worker in his household. There’s friendship as much as there is competition between the two. They’re thick as thieves until one day, after a game of kite fighting, an incident changes their relationship forever.
As war takes over the country, Amir’s family flees and an adult Amir decides to return home in search of something he should have done a long time ago – seek redemption in the eyes of his long-lost friend. The characters touched a particular nerve for desi communities because there was an element of relatability in their unequal friendship. Dai ma turns into a second mother and Chotu becomes your best friend as you run through the neighbourhood park and play cricket. This book made many of us face the nature of our own relationships, and the class difference that separates and dictates the power dynamics, no matter how much we care for each other.
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
Matt Haig’s book doesn’t really belong in a list of sad books. However, it is one that will likely make you shed a tear of joy or simply out of knowing that you’re not alone. In this memoir, he details his struggle with depression and how he overcame it. But unlike some self-help books filled with empty platitudes and positive affirmations, Haig charts out every detail of good days and the really bad ones as he learns to understand his own illness and how to cope with it, all while trying to maintain healthy relationships with the people who love and support him through it.
A strain of humour runs through his frankness, the book is encouraging and relatable for anyone who has or is struggling with depression. You’ll be nodding along as he talks about staring out the window, wanting to be like others and connect with them without actually having to deal with them. The frightening thoughts of suicide as well as the hopeful days of finding joy in spending time with his parents. He lays out all the cards of his experience for readers to take in, and it can be an eye-opening read for caregivers as well.
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
The pages of Wave are filled with pain. Deraniyagala doesn’t hold back when she opens up about the tragic loss of the people she held the closest to her heart – all in one devastating day. December 26, 2004, a tsunami hit the southern coast of Sri Lanka, and she lost her parents, husband, and two young sons in one go. How do you recover from that, especially when you’re the only one who survives?
It’s a question Deraniyagala asks herself a lot in this engrossing, beautiful and sometimes hard-to-read book. Given the past two years, this can be a painful yet cathartic read for anyone who has had to face such tremendous loss and grief. Deraniyagala’s writing raises many questions for readers about how to let go, move on and balance this new life they’ve been given while holding on to and honouring her memories with her family.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain is a profoundly moving depiction of a working-class family living in 1980s Glasgow, Scotland. The period was plagued by high unemployment and its consequences – poverty, violence, drugs, prostitution, and alcoholism.
Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain is a young boy who adores his mother, Agnes. But as an alcoholic making one terrible choice after another, she’s unable to give Shuggie the care he needs and deserves. Instead, Stuart paints a bleak portrait of Shuggie caring for his mother, often helping her dress and finding ways to keep his stomach from rumbling when she drinks away any money that comes in.
It’s a wrenching read with vivid characters – some who you will hate with every fibre of your being and others you want to protect at all costs, and your heart breaks when you cannot.
Beautiful Boy by David Sheff
Beautiful Boy has been turned into a film with Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, but we suggest first giving the book a read, along with the companion book Tweak. We get to read about a real father-and-son relationship as the son is struggling with a deep addiction to methamphetamines. In this book, you get to experience this series of unfortunate events from the father’s perspective, and in Tweak, you step into the son’s shoes.
There are some really hard moments to read – of parental guilt, enabling behaviour and trying to figure out where you draw the line when it comes to helping your child who thwarts any attempts you make.
The book is filled with anger and confusion, the experience of watching your once bright and accomplished child seemingly throw their life away and wondering about the potential role you potentially played. But mostly, trying to understand why they went down the path they did.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
We’re introduced to four friends after they graduate from college. You watch their friendship evolve, their coming of age and growth over the decades. You fall in love with them, care about them – and then Yanagihara decides to rip your heart out from your chest. This book is not for the faint of heart. Not only because of the subject matter but also because of its imposing length. But this is exactly what makes you get to know the characters at an intimate level. You immerse yourself in their lives, and you feel like you’re watching close friends.
This tops many people’s lists of not just sad books, but possibly the most depressing book you can read. We see it a little differently. While the author goes into detail about traumatic pasts, abuse, and torment of every kind a person can face without any sentimentality in her words, you also get to read about kindness, friendship, and the power of compassion. If you’re looking for a book with a happy ending, this one isn’t it. While our characters fight for change, sometimes it doesn’t always come, at least not in the way that you want or need.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
You may know John Boyne from the book (and subsequent film) that did a sneak attack and destroyed us all, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
This one is the life story of a character named Cyril Avery, told from his childhood, born out of wedlock in the 1940s, until his old age. A gay man, living in Ireland at a time of rigid conservatism, Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorist bombings, homophobia and sexism.
Cyril’s search for meaning in life and identity takes him from Ireland to a more liberal Amsterdam, where he finally falls in love. But with a further move to America, he comes face to face with the AIDS crisis. This one of the sad books that will have you chuckling at parts and reaching for a tissue box by the very next page.