Ten Books That Will Make You Cry But Also Look Smart

Let’s be real, I lost it when Fred Weasley died (and don’t even get me started on the dark cloud of despair that descended over my heart when Sirius Black falls behind that fluttering veil), but sometimes a girl wants to cry over a book while still looking adorably intellectual at her favorite independent coffee shop. I know: #poser. If you, too, are completely swayed by aesthetics, but long for your cold, dead heart to feel again, I’ve compiled this list of ten incredible books just for you. They’re a little more highbrow than your average guilty read, but still passionate and perceptive enough to wrench a tear from the most dry-eyed of Voldemorts.

1. Home, by Marilynne Robinson

If you have a father, brother, or sister—even if you’ve watched an old man rise shakily from his chair on a cool Sunday morning—this book will tear your heart out with its sensitive, subtle fingers and then make dumplings out of it, but dumplings so fraught with significance—I’m already weeping/getting carried away. Home is the story of a dying pastor whose prodigal son has returned home after 20 years. Glory, the youngest sister, has also come home to care for both of them while struggling with her own secret heartbreak. If you’re an existential twenty-something like me, this book will make you long for your cozy childhood bed and your lost innocence, while your soul cries something like this: LIFE IS FLEETING, WHEN DID I GROW UP, CAN EVERYONE JUST BE HAPPY?

2. Of Love and Other Demons, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Boring summary: a 12-year-old girl contracts rabies and gets locked away in a convent because everyone thinks she’s demon-possessed and then a priest who’s struggling with his own religion falls in love with her and tries to save her from being exorcised. NO BIG DEAL. If you think that doesn’t sound heart-wrenchingly romantic, you probably haven’t read Lolita. Some authors can make the creepiest things really beautiful. The NYT describes this book as “grotesque, terrible, glinting and gloomy,” so get your pedo-priest jokes out of the way before cracking it open—this slim novel is a masterpiece (and, incidentally, my favorite Marquez).

3. Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie [recommended by Meriwether Clarke]

Can you hear the phrase “lives torn apart by war” without tearing up? This novel tells the story of two twin sisters, their lives torn apart (sob!) by the terrible Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s. There’s loyalty and betrayal. There’s a massacre, and someone sleeps with her sister’s boyfriend. There will be tears.

4. Atonement, by Ian McEwan [recommended by every girl friend I own]

Like the previous book, this novel walks the fine and sob-inducing line between a sweeping historical drama and an intimate portrait of guilt, love, and artistic struggle. If you thought Romeo and Juliet were star-crossed lovers, you haven’t met Robbie and Cecelia. (Oh, and rumor says it’s so much better than the movie. Keira Knightly is great, I guess, but sometimes you don’t want to see her teeth ever again.)

5. Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a story set after a war. Don’t draw a shaky breath of relief yet, though, because you will probably still cry. Have you ever known a man who’s desperately in love with someone, but never has the chance or the heart to say it? LIKE HUGH JACKMAN TO ME? This is the story of Stevens, a heartbreakingly faithful, laconic butler who has dedicated his life to this silent duty. One of his employees, Miss Kenton, is totally his soulmate. But being a butler means squashing down your feelings sometimes, even when the love of your life is walking out the door. (It also means providing handkerchiefs and hot rum toddies to emotional ladies who weep over novels.)

6. The Captain’s Verses, by Pablo Neruda

Neruda wrote these impassioned verses for his lover, Matilde, while exiled on the island of Capri. If that sounds like the setting for an immortal romance, just wait till you read the poems—sensuous and explosive, angry and tender, gorgeously direct (meaning you don’t have to, like, “get” poetry to love them). Pore over the poems under a full ocean moon or read them aloud in bed with your lover. Just don’t give the audiobook version to your dad for Christmas. Like I did.

7. Blonde, by Joyce Carol Oates

Everything about Marilyn Monroe’s brief, tragic life makes me want to cry. Her over-utilized sexuality, her often-mocked passion for reading, her perpetual aloneness, her pitiful little poems, the fact that nobody really knew her—I just want to be her best friend and let her cry on my shoulder and maybe borrow some of her dresses. Blonde is fiction, but it clings closely to Marilyn’s actual life, focusing on the parade of men—referred to simply as the Ex-Athlete, the Playwright, etc.—who held her, used her, left her, and ultimately lost her.

8. The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

This is an exquisite work of fiction. I think you can tell that it’s also really, really sad based on the title alone, which is composed of two really weighty words and one small boring word. So let’s talk about the writing itself: it’s intricate, it’s lyrical, it’s poetic. IT IS ALL ADJECTIVES THAT ARE GOOD. Except “crispy.” If you were ever a young girl struggling with her burgeoning sexuality, or a young boy struggling with his burgeoning stalkerlike obsession with the neighborhood hottie (jk—sorta), this book will play you like a harp. If you were never a young person, that’s super weird, but you’ll love it anyway.

9. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken [recommended by my amazing fiction professor, Anna Keesey]

If nonfiction is your scene, lucky you—you’ve got a host of tearjerkers to choose from. AND DEAR LORD THE SAD THINGS ACTUALLY HAPPENED TO REAL PEOPLE. This heartbreaking account of a stillbirth, written by the mother, is told in intimate, devastating, crystal prose.

10. “Ebb,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay [a favorite of mine and Lisa Hiton’s]

This is not a book. This is a poem. A poem so tiny that you can read it right this second. And then you will want to cry.

I know what my heart is like
Since your love died:
It is like a hollow ledge
Holding a little pool
Left there by the tide,
A little tepid pool,
Drying inward from the edge.

(…you know what? Forget what I said about coffee shops. You probably want to read these books in a dark garrett, listening to the rats and the rain, only pausing to gasp for air and cry, “WHY IS EVERYTHING FALLEN?”)

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3 thoughts on “Ten Books That Will Make You Cry But Also Look Smart

  1. I just started getting into Jeffrey Eugenides. I’m almost done with Marriage Plot and I plan on buying Middle Sex after that and then The Virgin Suicides. I went to his reading in Houston and fell in love with his writing.

You are truly great.

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