Hurts So Good (Part II of II)
By Rachel Meier

For years, people have been guessing around at why, as a species, we love to do things like watch hideously depressing movies or read paralyzingly sad books.

And while I’m sure your analyst could have a field day teasing apart just what, specifically, about your childhood led you to your particular sad-book propensity, I’m going to put forth a generally applicable theory and then leave you with a selection of titles that will make you hurt so good.

Books with only heart-breaking plot points, utterly unlikable characters, dysfunction piled atop dysfunction have no choice but to rely on the clarity of the prose and ingenuity of the structure to provide the book’s redemption.

In other words, when the content is all hideousness the form has got to be all brilliance. In other other words, it allows great writing to shine through unadulterated.

I’m plotting six books on a pain spectrum ranging from sociological angst to everybody is dead. For the first three, check out Hurts So Good, Part I of II. This week’s installment below.

death-in-the-family-coverThe opposite in basically every way possible from the previous three books, A Death in the Family is intimate, emotional, and profound. Jay is called away from his family late one night to tend to his ill father when he is killed unexpectedly in a car crash. James Agee calls forth a chorus of hopeful voices that resound with poetic tenderness, gentle humor, and terrifyingly raw emotion. Agee moves effortlessly along the spectrum between prose and poetry, endowing his reader with a form that is more like an expression of human feeling than any literary genre. It is impossible not to be moved by this book: I know more people who call A Death in the Family one of the most influential books of their lives than any other book (myself included).

year-of-magical-thinking-coverJoan Didion’s, The Year of Magical Thinking is stunning; there is no other word for it – except for heartbreaking. This autobiographical book describes the period around Christmas 2003 when Didion’s daughter is struck a with life-threatening medical condition. After coming home from the ICU, Didion and her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, are preparing dinner, when Dunne suffers a massive coronary and dies. This book is Didion’s vivid study of grief and mourning told through her personal narrative of John’s death and Quintana’s illness, and the result is a flawless meditation on both loss and the life from which it draws its power. It is also a portrait of an extraordinary marriage. As Didion writes, “Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time. For forty years I saw myself through John’s eyes. I did not age.” The pages of this book practically tremble with emotion, the prose leave you feeling raw. Didion’s deceptively simple prose get deep inside you, and her writing becomes unshakable. Intensely personal, utterly universal. This book changed the way I read.

book-thief-coverThere’s nothing like a book narrated by death, set during The Holocaust, to make you feel good about the world. But you will feel good (and terrible) because nobody’s told a story like this from a narrative voice so fresh and compelling. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak was sold in some parts of the world as a young adult book (though written and often sold as an adult book) and the forceful drive the colorful narrator provides is smart and funny and like nothing else you’ve ever read. Searing, sardonic, wry, and funny, you won’t soon forget young Liesel, her best friend Rudy, her adoptive parents, or the grim-reaper story teller who watches over them all.

So, get reading. A little heartache won’t kill you.

Leave a comment with your favorite paralyzingly sad book. When was the last time a book made you hurt so good?

Rachel Meier tries to tell as many people in as many places as possible what to read. These days, she is bossy about books at the Christian Science Monitor and on her blog.

  • Lynn

    The Vanishing Act of Esmee Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell exactly embodies your description of a wonderful sad book. It is so beautifully written that it takes your breath away and haunts the reader long after the last page.

  • Lynda Carter

    THE SNOW ANGEL by Glenn Beck is my most recent favorite paralyzingly sad book. It could have been my story – the story of an abused wife and mother. However in the book and in my real life, we emerged in victory as survivors!