Photo: Courtesy of Dutton Penguin.
There are some books you pick up because you know they’ll be tear-jerkers, and you’re not opposed to a good cry. Then there are the books that sucker-punch you with a tragic plot twist that leaves you dribbling tears and snot onto the pages. You’ll find both types here.
The very best reads have the ability to elicit a full range of emotions, even if that entails a little heartbreak. Whether it’s the death of Dumbledore in
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, or the tales of abject poverty in Angela’s Ashes, the impulse to feel loss is very, very powerful. It overwhelms us whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, a weighty dramatic tome or a beloved children’s classic.
With that in mind, we’ve rounded up a selection of reads guaranteed to make you whimper. Expect your chin to wobble at the very least. It’s cathartic, right?
Spoiler alert: We will be discussing some very sad endings to books you may not have read yet. Proceed at your own risk!
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In Every Moment We Are Still Alive
Author: Tom Malmquist
Summary: In this autobiographical novel, Swedish writer Tom Malmquist recalls the tragedy that radically changed his life. Karin, Malmquist’s partner, was pregnant and healthy — until she wasn’t. Karin became ill. The doctors were able to save her daughter, but not Karin. Just like that, Malmquist lost his partner, and became a father. Soon after, Malmquist’s own father dies, leaving him adrift.
Why You’ll Cry: Stories about tragedies are common in literature, but the relatively new autobiographical novel genre is an especially effective medium for tearing your heart out. We know the story is real, but it’s fictionalized enough to make it realer – by not needing to stick to the exact, fact-checked truth, Malmquist can capture the truth of the experience.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 6
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Author: Milan Kundera
Summary: The book tracks a couple of different romantic relationships. First, there’s the tormented relationship between Tomas, a Czech doctor, and Tereza, the waitress he met on a visit to the country. They get married, but Tomas can’t stop cheating on her with other women, like the artist Sabina, whose story we get. Kundera is interested in the pieces of our past that made us who we are. He wants to know what parts of us are fundamental, and will hurt us during our journey to what everyone wants — love.
Why You’ll Cry: Complete satisfaction in a relationship is impossible!
Tissue Index (Out of 5): 2, because it’s so beautiful
Author: R.J. Palacios
Summary: August Pullman looks different than just about everyone he knows. Auggie was born with craniofacial conditions, and has had 27 surgeries over the course of his 11 years. Now, he’s starting school, and faces his greatest challenge yet.
Why You’ll Cry: Kids can be so mean. At the same time, though, kids can be so kind. You’ll cry because Wonder ‘s message is to be kind above all else; you’ll cry because your heart is melting. That’s the feeling of becoming a person more conscious of her actions’ impact on others, the feeling of becoming a better person.
Issue Index (Out of 5): 4
(2012) Me Before You
Author: Jojo Moyes
Summary: When former playboy, world traveler, and adrenaline-junkie Will Traynor is left a quadriplegic after an accident, he just wants to die. Instead, his mother hires Louisa Clark to be his companion, and they strike up a relationship that neither one expects to feel so deeply.
Why You’ll Cry: Despite his love for Lou, Will still wants to die.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 5 Photo: Courtesy of Pamela Dorman Books/Viking.
(1943) The Little Prince
Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Summary: A pilot crash-lands in the desert. There, he meets a mysterious little boy who claims to be a prince. Over the course of the next eight days, while the pilot repairs his plane, the Little Prince tells the pilot the story of his life. He was born on an asteroid. He was friends with a fox. He loved a rose. The boy still sees the world the way that children do. By reading the The Little Prince, you will too.
Why You’ll Cry: Because you, like the pilot, are no longer a child. Gone is the wonder with which you once drunk in the world. Briefly, The Little Prince will restore you to your old days. No one remains like the little prince forever.
Tissue Index (Out of 5): 3
(2015) A Little Life
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Summary: Malcolm, JB, Jude, and Willem meet in college, and later move to New York City. As they all progress in their careers and become quote successful, Jude, a brilliant lawyer, is more and more haunted by demons from his past.
Why You’ll Cry: Jude’s past. Oh, and then Jude’s present, because sometimes life just keeps knocking people down, even when they’ve already suffered more than anyone ever should.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 5 Photo: Courtesy of Doubleday.
(2013) We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Author: Karen Joy Fowler
Summary: Rosemary’s lament for her lost sister Fern takes on new complexity when you realize that Fern isn’t actually a human being.
Why You’ll Cry: Because it doesn’t really matter that Fern isn’t a person.
Tissue Index (Out of 5): 3 Image: Courtesy of Serpent’s Tail.
(2016) When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Summary: Neurosurgical resident Kalanithi sadly died while writing this mediation on life, death, and purpose inspired by his terminal cancer diagnosis and informed by his work as a doctor. It’s since become one of the year’s most acclaimed bestselling novels.
Why You’ll Cry: Kalanithi’s looming death, and our own, feels so unfair.
Tissue Index (Out of 5): 5 Image: Courtesy of Penguin Random House.
(2005) Stuart: A Life Backwards
Author: Alexander Masters
Summary: There’s no happy ending for Stuart, the career criminal who battles homelessness and mental illness in this unconventional biography written by his friend, the writer, illustrator, and homeless advocate Alexander Masters.
Why You’ll Cry: Stuart’s story is just so, so bleak, and there’s far from a happy ending.
Tissue Index (Out of 5): 5 Image: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
(2010) The Confession
Author: John Grisham
Summary: A Black man due to be executed for a murder he didn’t commit looks to be saved after the real culprit confesses.
Why You’ll Cry: Justice isn’t served, and it’s heartbreaking.
Tissue Index (Out of 5): 4 Photo: Courtesy of Double Day.
(2014) All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Summary: The lives of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl escaping the Nazi invasion of France, and Werner, a German orphan, intertwine in this Pulitzer-winning novel about war, communication, and the tiniest glimpses of hope.
Why You’ll Cry: Abandonment, illness, death. Take your pick.
Tissue Index (Out of 5): 3 Photo: Courtesy of Scribner.
(2006) When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa
Author: Peter Godwin
Summary: This follow-up to Godwin’s Mukiwa will induce tears on both a global and personal level as it recounts the journalist’s investigation into Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe’s regime of terror as well as the death of his own father.
Why You’ll Cry: Big picture: You’ll be horrified about what’s happening in Zimbabwe. Small picture: You’ll want to hug your dad immediately.
Tissue Index (Out of 5): 4 Photo: Courtesy of Picador.
(1880) Little Women
Author: Louisa May Alcott
Summary: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March live with their mother while their father is off fighting in the Civil War. We watch them grow up, learning about their individual personalities, mostly through the eyes of Jo, Alcott’s surrogate in the story.
Why You’ll Cry: Beth dies.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 3 Photo: Courtesy of Roberts Brothers.
(1908) Anne of Green Gables
Author: Lucy Maud Montgomery
Summary: When siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert decide to take in an orphan boy to help them out on their farm, they’re mistakenly sent a lively, redheaded girl named Anne Shirley. The Cuthberts decide that Anne can stay, and she soon charms everyone on Avonlea, especially Matthew.
Why You’ll Cry: Uncle Matthew doesn’t make it to the end of the book. Why, L.M. Montgomery, why?!
Tissue Index (Out of 5): 3 Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Classics.
(1961) Where the Red Fern Grows
Author: Wilson Rawls
Summary: Billy saves money to buy two coonhounds, Old Dan and Little Ann, and raises them to be champion hunters. One night, they tree a mountain lion, and Old Dan gets badly injured helping Little Ann defend Billy from the lion. Old Dan dies from his injuries, and Little Ann dies from a broken heart.
Why You’ll Cry: A boy losing his devoted dogs? Good luck keeping it together.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 3 Photo: Courtesy of Doubleday.
(1966) Flowers for Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes
Summary: After two researchers successfully increase the intelligence of a mouse named Algernon, Charlie Gordon, who has an IQ of 68, volunteers to be their human test subject for the same procedure.
Why You’ll Cry: As Charlie’s IQ increases, so does his understanding of how people act toward those with mental disabilities.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 1 Photo: Courtesy of Mariner Books.
(1967) The Outsiders
Summary: In Oklahoma, the members of two rival teen gangs, the Greasers and the Socials, keep meeting tragic ends.
Why You’ll Cry: Ponyboy Curtis has to say farewell to too many of his brothers, especially Johnny. “Stay gold, Ponyboy.”
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 1 Photo: Courtesy of Laurel-Leaf Contemporary Fiction.
(1977) Bridge to Terabithia
Author: Katherine Paterson
Summary: Jesse and Leslie create a sanctuary they call Terabithia, where they play and roam freely, away from bullies and the other kids at school.
Why You’ll Cry: One day, Jesse goes to the art museum with his favorite teacher and doesn’t tell Leslie or his parents. When he returns, he finds out that Leslie tried to visit Terabithia without him, only to drown when the rope swing they use to get there broke.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 3 Photo: Courtesy of HarperCollins.
(1989) The Joy Luck Club
Author: Amy Tan
Summary: Four mothers who came to America from China meet in San Francisco and set up a mah-jongg group called the Joy Luck Club. The novel consists of four sections that tell the stories of the women and their daughters.
Why You’ll Cry: Those stories.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 2 Photo: Courtesy of Penguin.
(1989) A Prayer for Owen Meany
Author: John Irving
Summary: John Wheelwright reflects on the miraculous life of his friend Owen Meany, who sacrifices himself to save a bunch of children from a grenade.
Why You’ll Cry: Owen Meany’s marvelous life.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 3 Photo: Courtesy of William Morrow.
(1992) She’s Come Undone
Author: Wally Lamb
Summary: After Dolores Price is raped as a teenager, she starts binge-eating to mask her feelings. Then, her mother dies. She tries to go to college, but ends up attempting suicide. After some time in a mental institution, Dolores tracks down the object of her affection and marries him, but he cheats on her. They divorce, and Dolores finally finds a comforting community of friends and a loving partner for the first time in her life.
Why You’ll Cry: See above.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 2 Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
(1994) Walk Two Moons
Author: Sharon Creech
Summary: After her beloved mother mysteriously disappears, and her father relocates the family from their farm to a boring, suburban town, Salamanca Hiddle goes on a cross-country trip with her eccentric grandparents to find out what made her mother run away.
Why You’ll Cry: Sal’s mom didn’t run away…
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 2 Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
(1995), Northern Lights (1997), The Subtle Knife (2000) The Amber Spyglass
Author: Philip Pullman
Summary: Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy takes place in a fantastical world where all humans are accompanied by demons.
Why You’ll Cry: Because Lyra and Will are forced to return to their parallel worlds, and they can never be together.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 2 Photo: Courtesy of Scholastic.
(2005) Never Let Me Go
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Summary: Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy meet at Hailsham, a boarding school for clones who’ve been created for the express purpose of providing their organs to humans through a process they call “donating.” When the clones die from too many donations, it’s called “completion.” Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy are desperate to prove that they’re just like humans, though, and that they’re not like the “garbage” (read: prostitutes and junkies) who they believe served as their templates.
Why You’ll Cry: Even though they’re clones, the Hailsham students are human beings. They’re full of life, emotions, and feelings, which range from jealousy to love. When one of them eventually has to watch the others complete, it’s heartbreaking.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 2 Photo: Courtesy of Doubleday.
Author: John Williams
Summary: William Stoner lives an unremarkable life. This is the account of that life — his days growing up on a farm, the refuge he seeks in literature, his ascent as a college professor, his great love and his great failures.
Why You’ll Cry: The quiet bravery of a person who tries to uphold principles, even as they go awry. You’ll cry because of the dignity Williams affords to a normal person, to whom nothing extraordinary happens.
Tissue Index (Out of 5): 2
(2004) The Namesake
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Summary: Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli emigrate from Calcutta, India, to Cambridge, MA, where they have a son. Without any elder relatives around to name their child (as per Indian custom), they temporarily name him Gogol, after the Russian author whose story, “The Overcoat,” Ashoke had been reading when he was involved in a train accident as a child.
Why You’ll Cry: Gogol resents his name (which becomes permanent when his relative’s letter containing his official name is lost in transit) and culture growing up, but eventually learns to accept both his heritage and his namesake once his father tells him the story of how he came to be called Gogol.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 2 Photo: Courtesy of Mariner Books.
(1996) Angela’s Ashes
Author: Frank McCourt
Summary: McCourt’s memoir about his bleak childhood in Limerick, Ireland.
Why You’ll Cry: McCourt’s father spends all of the family’s money on alcohol, meaning they have to go on the dole and live an extremely impoverished existence. Also, several of McCourt’s younger siblings pass away.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 3 Photo: Courtesy of Scribner.
(1999) The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Author: Stephen Chbosky
Summary: Written as a series of letters from the titular wallflower, Charlie, to an anonymous recipient, the book chronicles Charlie’s freshman year of high school. As he slowly breaks out of his shell with the help of two new friends and an English teacher who encourages Charlie’s interest in reading and writing, it seems like Charlie might be able to recover from two tragedies that previously defined him: his friend Michael’s suicide and the death of his aunt Helen.
Why You’ll Cry: Even though Charlie loved Aunt Helen, she had an inappropriate relationship with him that he’s been repressing since her death.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 4 Photo: Courtesy of Pocket Books.
Author: Ian McEwan
Summary: Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old aspiring writer with an overactive imagination, misconstrues a sexual liaison between her sister Cecilia and her lover Robbie as rape, when in fact it is consensual.
Why You’ll Cry: This sets off a series of events that sends Robbie to prison, ruining both his and Cecilia’s lives. Briony doesn’t feel remorse for her actions until it’s entirely too late.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 2 Photo: Courtesy of Anchor.
(2003) The Five People You Meet in Heaven
Author: Mitch Albom
Summary: An amusement park maintenance man named Eddie dies on his 83rd birthday, while trying to save a little girl from a deadly ride. When he reaches heaven, he discovers that it’s not so much a place where you spend the afterlife, but one where five people you knew when you were alive explain the reason you existed.
Why You’ll Cry: Eddie feels that his time on Earth had no meaning, but as he reconnects with five different people from various points in his life, he stands very much corrected.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 4 Photo: Courtesy of Hachette Books.
(2004) My Sister’s Keeper
Author: Jodi Picoult
Summary: Kate Fitzgerald suffers from acute promyelocytic leukemia, so her parents have another child, Anna, in order to have a ready source of bone marrow and blood on hand. When Anna turns 13, she sues her parents for medical emancipation rather than donating a kidney to Kate like they ask her to. Anna’s parents are shocked, but it turns out that Kate orchestrated the whole thing, because she doesn’t want Anna to give up any more of her organs if Kate is going to die anyway.
Why You’ll Cry: Anna wins her legal battle, but she’s involved in a fatal car accident on the way home from the trial. She’s pronounced brain dead at the hospital, and the lawyer who now has power of attorney over her medical decisions gives Kate her kidney after all.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 4
(2005) The Year of Magical Thinking
Author: Joan Didion
Summary: Days before her husband passes away in 2003, Joan Didion’s daughter Quintana goes into septic shock, meaning that she’s unconscious when her father dies. As Didion spends the next year mourning her husband, she also acts as her daughter’s caretaker.
Why You’ll Cry: Quintana’s failing health further complicates Didion’s grieving process for her husband of almost 40 years.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 4 Photo: Courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf.
(2005) The Book Thief
Author: Marcus Zusak
Summary: Liesel Meminger is a 9-year-old girl living in Germany during World War II. She’s taken in by Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who teach her to read and try to shelter her from the atrocities being committed right outside their door.
Why You’ll Cry: The book is narrated by Death. Death!
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 3 Photo: Courtesy of Black Swan.
(2006) The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Summary: A father and his son journey through a post-apocalyptic landscape after a disaster has wiped out most life on Earth. They encounter cannibals and other dangers along the way. The father is also coughing up blood and clearly dying. He tells his son that after he’s gone, his son can continue to communicate with him through prayer.
Why You’ll Cry: The post-disaster world McCarthy has created is bleak and quite literally dog-eat-dog (a.k.a. human-eat-human).
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 3 Photo: Courtesy of Picador.
(2007) A Thousand Splendid Suns
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Summary: Two Afghan women, Laila and Mariam, bond over their shared experience of being married to an abusive man named Rasheed.
Why You’ll Cry: Mariam gives her life to save Laila’s.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 5 Photo: Courtesy of Riverhead Books.
Author: Emma Donoghue
Summary: This haunting story is told from the perspective of 5-year-old Jack, who’s lived in Room his entire life. He was born in Room, where he lives with his mother, so it’s his entire world. What Jack doesn’t know is that Room is actually a garden shed where his mother was placed after being kidnapped seven years ago, and she’s been desperate to escape ever since.
Why You’ll Cry: Imagine a 5-year-old who thinks the entire world consists of four walls suddenly learning about trees, dogs, blue skies, clouds, and open spaces. Just picture it.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 4 Photo: Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.
(2012) The Fault in Our Stars
Author: John Green
Summary: Hazel Grace Lancaster meets Augustus Waters in a cancer patient support group, and pretty soon they’re in love. He uses his last wish to fly Hazel to Amsterdam to meet Peter Van Houten, the author of her favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction, so Hazel can ask why the book ends so suddenly. She’s dismayed to find out that Van Houten is an angry drunk, and even more upset to learn that Gus’ cancer has returned.
Why You’ll Cry: Since everyone and their mother has either read the book or seen the movie, we’re probably not spoiling anything when we say that Gus dies.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 5 Photo: Courtesy of Dutton Books.
(2012) Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar
Author: Cheryl Strayed
Summary: A collection of Strayed’s Dear Sugar advice columns, published anonymously on The Rumpus. The title comes from one of them.
Why You’ll Cry: Strayed’s advice is blunt but eloquent, and her responses, which she always tries to ground in love and understanding, come from lessons learned in her own life.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 1 Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
(2013) Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Summary: Two 16-year-olds who feel completely out of place in their Omaha neighborhood fall in love against all odds.
Why You’ll Cry: Eleanor and Park are so beautifully crafted that their love feels so REAL.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 2 Photo: Courtesy of St. Martin’s Griffin.
(2014) We Were Liars
Author: E. Lockhart
Summary: Cadence comes from an old-money family that spends every summer on a private island. When she’s 15, something happens to her on that island that causes her to wake up on the beach in her underwear, suffering from amnesia. From then on, Cadence suffers from migraines and pain. Doctors can’t figure out what’s wrong with her. More important, though, is figuring out what’s wrong with Cadence’s family that could have caused this to happen.
Why You’ll Cry: Deep, dark family secrets that get revealed.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 2 Photo: Courtesy of Delacorte Press.
(2015) All the Bright Places
Author: Jennifer Niven
Summary: Finch is a talented, creative, and charismatic boy who exists on the periphery of high school society. When he meets Violet, a popular girl who lost her sister in a car accident last year, she’s up on the roof of the school, maybe or maybe not contemplating jumping. Mental illness plays a key role in this YA novel, but so does love. It’s about how two teenagers cope with each, and author Jennifer Niven tells the tale beautifully.
Why You’ll Cry: The story of love, loss, mania, and depression.
Tissue Index (Out Of 5): 5 Photo: Courtesy of Knopf Publishing Group.
(1995) A Fine Balance
Author: Rohinton Mistry
Summary: It’s India in the 1970s, and four people from wildly diverse backgrounds seek refuge from social and political upheaval in a small (and I mean, really small) apartment. If only for a short while, the four characters reach the type of respect and understanding severely lacking from the corrupt, cutthroat, and fast-paced world on the outside. This Dickensian novel, bursting with life and supporting characters, takes a sad turn as each character is set on a track towards his or her demise (without his or her consent).
Why You’ll Cry: Seeing the lives of four beloved individuals crushed by the unfeeling machine of economic and political forces is nothing short of devastating.
Tissue Index (Out of 5): 4 Image: Courtesy of Vintage International.
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