Melancholy Must-reads | Highly Recommended Sad Books

Recommending books can be a tricky thing—especially when the books are sad. It isn’t easy to explain to a friend that he or she simply must read a book because (or even though) it’s so marvelously depressing. Nevertheless, three of the best books I’ve read of late have, indeed, been less than uplifting. Grab some tissues and jump in.

The House on Fortune Street
Margot Livesey set herself a writerly challenge when she crafted The House on Fortune Street. Each of the four interlocking sections of her story is informed by the work and lives of the authors of classic literature—Keats, Carroll, Charlotte Bronte, and Dickens, respectively. It’s a device that could have easily overwhelmed Livesey’s story; instead, it quietly but persistently enriches the tale.

The structure and complexity of the story are a challenge to summarize succinctly. Arguably, it is Dara, whose story is detailed in the book’s third section, who is at the nexus of the novel. It is both her story and her dramatic action that tie together the stories of her friend Abigail, her father, and Abigail’s boyfriend Sean.

The other connecting thread, as is hinted at in the book’s title, is the role of fortune in our lives. Livesey lays bare the ways luck, good, and ill, can instantly and irrevocably change our lives. Her themes and influences are explicit, but her touch is light and her central characters never seem like mere vessels for her ideas.

Rather, each character—lonely Sean, troubled Cameron, sensitive Dara, and rapacious Abigail—feels real and recognizable, even in their most extreme moments. Notably, Livesey accomplishes all of this while maintaining a prose style that might be described as breezy and charming were the book’s story lighthearted.

Indeed, Livesey’s greatest accomplishment may well be the great readability of this sad, twisty novel. Once inside The House of Fortune Street, the reader is treated to an excellent novel that is highly recommended.

Beautiful Children
When I started Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was much on my mind. I had recently finished Sebold’s novel about a family coping with the loss of a child and knew that Bock’s book was built around a similar plot point. But Sebold’s novel—both lyrical and grounded in a sadness that is leavened with what might be deemed a whimsical, redemptive storyline—stands in tonal opposition to Bock’s debut effort, which is an aggressive, gritty, ambitious novel that is arguably grounded in unredeemed despair.

The book revolves around the disappearance of a churlish 12-year-old boy in Las Vegas. Eschewing a straightforward narrative, Bock takes his reader through the underside of both the city and his characters’ emotions as he shifts perspectives, manipulates time, undermines convention, and challenges readers.

The challenges are twofold, because in addition to the twists and turns of his structure, Bock is unblinking in his portrayal of the plight of runaways. He forces his audience to confront unpleasant realities, skillfully making the reader complicit in the dire situations he portrays with unflinching explicitness. This is a novel that holds all of us accountable for a hidden world we may fear but strive to ignore.

In that sense—as well as in a purely aesthetic sense, for the book is also beautiful—Beautiful Children truly earns a label I ascribe to books rarely and with caution: This is an important book.

The Scenic Route
Riding along with Sylvia and Henry, new lovers on the road in Europe, I felt like a third wheel. Since, as a general rule, no one likes to be the third wheel, I wasn’t at all sure I liked Binnie Kirshenbaum’s novel The Scenic Route. But while this road trip might get off to a bit of a stuttering start and the path might be unclear for much of the middle section, the final destination is impressive, indeed.

Sylvia is, in effect, a narrator doing double duty. She’s telling the story of her relationship with Henry, a married man with cash to burn, and she’s also telling stories to Henry. Like the loosely defined route the lovers take on their journey, Sylviastories have a rambling quality that often left me wondering where we were headed and if I cared to go.

What propelled me forward was Sylvia’s distinct voice. Kirshenbaum has accomplished something surprisingly rare, even among books written in the first person: She’s created a pattern of speech that uniquely belongs to her character. An intrusive, imagined second voice—that of Sylvia’s friend Ruby—provides deftly inserted commentary, as well.

Equally importantly, it is clear in retrospect that while the reader might not easily map out the book’s course, Kirshenbaum is in fact a skilled navigator. As the strands of the stories Sylvia has been telling start to intertwine into a meditation on regret, they lead inexorably to the book’s devastatingly effective closing passages. It’s a bravura performance and well worth the ride.

Visit the Index for more book reviews and articles about Iowa authors.