Utterly terrifying in its mundanity, Revolutionary Road is a novel about a young married couple who have all the outer trappings of success but can’t shake the growing feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration at the failed potential of their relationships, careers, intellects, and dreams. Yates’ ability to capture the depth and variance of the ennui that most everyone experiences at one point or another is what carries this novel.
The Man Who Loved Children
The Man Who Loved Children is an unsparing and disturbing psychological portrait of a family in crisis. The story engulfs the reader, dragging them down with the Pollitts into a suffocating world of dysfunction, horror, and manipulation. If you liked The Corrections or anything by Flannery O’Connor, Christina Stead is for you.
The Vet's Daughter
Nothing quite ticks the way it should in this astounding, precise novel by Barbara Comyns. You think you understand how sentences work, how people work, how morality works? You don’t, at least not yet. A startling look at a young woman who is subtly but irrevocably divorced from the world around her, it’s unforgettable in the ways it portrays distance and isolation.
A Death in the Family
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’s 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).
The Year of Magical Thinking
Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is stunning; there is no other word for it—except for perhaps heartbreaking. The memoir is Didion’s vivid study of grief and mourning told through her personal narrative of her husband’s death and her daughter’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 Book Thief
There’s nothing like a book narrated by death to do you in. The Book Thief 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 like nothing else you’ve ever read. Searing, sardonic and wry, you won’t soon forget young Liesel, her best friend Rudy, her adoptive parents, or the grim-reaper storyteller who watches over them all during the Holocaust.
For years, people have been guessing at why, as a species, we love to do things like watch hideously depressing movies and read sad books. While I’m sure our therapists could have a field day teasing apart just what about our childhoods led us to our sad-book propensities, I’m going to put forth a generally applicable theory: books with only heartbreaking plot points, utterly unlikable characters, and dysfunction piled on dysfunction have no choice but to rely on the clarity of prose and ingenuity of structure to provide the book’s redemption.
I’m plotting six books on a pain spectrum ranging from mild angst to secondhand despair. These reads hurt oh so good.
Featured Image: @hongchanok.joms/Twenty20