“I do it so it feels real,” Sylvia Plath once wrote, “I do it so it feels like hell.” That’s the best way to describe Joyce Carol Oates’ widowhood memoir A Widow’s Story. Upon the passing of her husband, Raymond Smith, Oates immediately descends into a state of simultaneous hyper-awareness and detachment, a state in which every whisper, every passing breeze, every found artifact within her home seems to indicate that she, herself, should force herself to follow suit. For an author who projects such a powerful sense of self into every one of her works (see: Foxfire), catching a glimpse of Oates this vulnerable, this broken, is disarming. The reader works through the loss at the same pace Oates herself does; which is to say that by the end, we’re still there.
Room by Emma Donoghue,
Kidnapping. Rape. Isolation. No, not Joy Division songs, but the light, happy themes that pervade Emma Donoghue’s incredible novel Room. Jack is a five-year-old boy whose entire existence is a 11×11 room that he lives in with his mother. Attempting to absorb, fully and consciously, the entire scope of Room is to grapple emotionally with crushing fear and loneliness, and that’s why the novel is a testament to Donoghue’s skill that, while it’s definitely a tearful read, it’s also a compelling and at times even fun page-turner.
Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway
The first of Hemingway’s posthumously-published work, Islands in the Stream is one of the saddest things Papa put to paper. As we work our way through the deaths of all of stoic Thomas Hudson’s children, we’re also left with the embittered feeling of the futility of war. Life is transient and temporary, sure, but Islands in the Stream makes it feel all the more futile to even try.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Didion’s haunting meditation on loss and grief is by far one of her finest works — and that’s saying a lot, as all of her writing is veritably essential. This book, which details the death of her husband from cardiac arrest, her daughter’s illness and her resulting attempt less to make sense of her life in the aftermath and more to simply detail it, to lay it down in the plainspoken, matter-of-fact prose that Didion’s perfected in her lifetime. It’s impossible to read the aforementioned A Widow’s Story without feeling haunted by the shade of The Year of Magical Thinking — not because they’re both widow memoirs by strong female writers, but because, while Oates is paralyzed by her overwhelming feelings, Didion actively maneuvers, both in her life and her writing, to avoid feeling anything at all. They’re two sides of a coin, and many a college essay could (and should) be written comparing/contrasting the two as paragons of the modern grief memoir.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Every horrible thing you think may happen at the start of The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic tour-de-force, does, in fact, happen. That’s not the upsetting part, though: what gets us is the fact that this annihilated reality could actually come to pass in our lifetime. There’s also the whole “the lengths a father/son bond will extend even throughout the most horrific situations” bit, too. With The Road, Cormac McCarthy made the threat of nuclear annihilation a family issue.
Is There No Place On Earth For Me? by Susan Sheehan
Within the first chapter of Is There No Place On Earth For Me?, Sylvia Frumkin, the veiled identity of a schizophrenic reporter Susan Sheehan spent a year getting to know, the protagonist has attempted to dye her hair with mouthwash, decided she was both a mermaid and Paul McCartney’s wife, split her head open and ended up in a psychiatric center. For the rest of the book, Sheehan spares no detail as she chronicles Frumkin’s journey from ward to ward and medication to medication, and after spending a great deal of time juxtaposing Frumkin’s infuriating present with her tragic past, Is There No Place On Earth For Me? ends, ultimately, with the reader thinking, “Thank God that’s not me”.
She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb
Before the Oprah hype, there was just Wally Lamb’s first novel, She’s Come Undone, a book that plumbs the depths of being a sad, awkward teenager that turns into a sad, awkward adult. Lamb’s Dolores Prices loves painfully, intensely and often, and it’s a testament to Lamb’s ability to transcend generations and gender that She’s Come Undone was embraced by so many readers, not to mention celebrities (Oprah, Tori Amos, the list goes on) who found common experience, and catharsis, in Price’s unraveling. Lamb’s gone on to pen other works that demand a tissue box nearby, but none have been this good.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
When we polled our officemates for suggestions of titles for this list, no book was suggested more than Ian McEwan’s Atonement. The triptych of Briony Tallis, Robbie Turner and World War II ends with a now well-documented stab in the throat for any reader with a functioning heart. If you don’t know, we won’t spoil it, but suffice to say: read Atonement and you’ll never again assume any action is without consequence.
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore
Nothing ever works out properly. That’s the overarching message behind what’s arguably Moore’s best work, the brief, razor-sharp Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? The reason Moore’s writing fails at novels (please do not ever read A Gate at the Stairs, ever) is the same reason it absolutely devastates here — she creates characters that are all of us, fills them with tiny little fragments, blood and bones and guts, that everyone can relate to, and then she slowly dismantles them in a way that’s so like day to day trials and tribulations that it becomes impossible to emotionally recover. Sneaking into bars, smoking, summer jobs, screwed-up love; all of it is the clay with which Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? molds the loss of innocence.
Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro
If it’s true that you can never go home again, is it possible to return to lapsed friendships from a life left behind? Never Let Me Go examines that question, as “special” students at a secluded school grow up and explore the worlds of love and loss. In a master brushstroke by Ishiguro (who also wrote The Remains of the Day), it’s only at the book’s conclusion that the full futility of the characters’ interactions is truly realized.