Have you ever been deep in a book, joyfully immersed in its pages and soaking up each word, then it's as if you hear the Jaws theme in your head and you realize that this is not going to end well. You have been led into a dark place where no happy ending can live. You've been betrayed by a book.
Usually, this realization smacks into me when I reach that vicious twist in the final pages. I still recall finishing the story The Lady, or the Tiger? and throwing the book against a wall. Sometimes, though, that sense of betrayal can creep up on you because the darkness begins at word one. You know the book is melancholy but the writing is so luminous or the tale so engaging that you are tricked into believing there must be light at the end of the tunnel. But no, hope really is lost and all you are left with is unrelenting sadness.
But if readers didn't get anything out of a tear-jerker, the last one published would have been Where the Red Fern Grows back in 1961. Inexplicably, we are drawn to heartbreak, even without the possibility of redemption.
Here are some books that have made me want to crawl back into bed and stay there:
- Bambi: A Life In the Woods - Yes, it's a children's book, but don't read this classic by Felix Salten if you want a dose of Disney magic.
- Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes - It teased me with the promise of miracles but only delivered tears.
- Swamplandia! by Karen Russell - Everything about it, from the exclamation point in the title to its off-beat humor and plucky teen aged heroine, fools you into leaving your tissues in the other room.
- A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness - I cried through nearly every page and somehow still loved it.
- The Road - Cormac McCarthy's writing is radiant. I read it twice but the relentless despair makes it hard to suggest this book to others.
- 1984 - George Orwell's bleak vision is politically powerful because it is so personally tragic.
- Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates - As a book or a film, it is equally devastating.
- City of Angels - billed as a date movie, back in the late '90s my date ranted at me for what felt like hours after being ambushed by the surprise ending.
- Awakenings - Starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, this film is amazing, but it's the emotional equivalent of Flowers for Algernon.
- Requiem for a Dream - I have it on good authority that this is not a film for the fragile psyche.
- Life is Beautiful (La Vita e Bella) - I challenge anyone to walk away unmoved.
So what is the appeal of the sad stuff? I don't know. All I know is that I am not alone in loving stories that break my heart. I guess sometimes it feels good to feel bad. Can it be that simple?
What makes you say, "I want to read (or watch) something that is going to make me cry until my eyes are puffy and my nose runs?"