Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bring Him Back: Ten Books That Make Me Cry

Remember how I said this would be a week to celebrate sad books? Well, here it is. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the ways art emotionally affects me. I can easily sit in a movie theater and be the only dry eye in the place, or I can be the girl crying when no one else is. The difference comes in the way emotion is handled by the writer or director or artist. Basically, there is nothing I hate more in art than being emotionally manipulated. If it seems like a scene has been constructed solely to make me weep, I resist it as much as possible. I want my emotion to come from some deep and honest place. I want tear-jerking scenes to come from unexpected moments that make sense to the characters and the plot. Basically, I want to feel something based on what I imagine the characters actually feel as people rather than constructions. I don't like it when the author seems to make me want to feel something. I'd rather that not be his intent at all. I rather like to think my crying might surprise a writer.

Anyway, these are the ten books that make me cry because they are well-constructed, nicely written, and true to their characters' emotional cores. And I might add that, because I cry so rarely over art, if a book really gets me choked up, it tends to automatically become one of my favorites.

Bring Him Back: Top Ten Books Books That Make Me Cry

1. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving: This one gets me every time, and it's also where we get the title for this list (it comes from the final line, which makes me bawl just by glancing at it). You know from the book's very beginning that the titular character of Owen Meany, the narrator best friend, is doomed. But that still doesn't keep me from crying the entire way through the last 80 pages. In fact, when I read the last chapter for the first time, I was crying so hard in public that a woman stopped to ask me if I was okay. It's not Owen's death or life or otherworldliness that makes me cry. It's the way the narrator, John, is completely unable to overcome his grief even twenty years later. Dead best friends tend to me my #1 fuel for tears, and this book is the primary example.

2. The Road Back, by Erich Maria Remarque: I still remember the first time I read this book. It was a couple weeks for Christmas and I was stuck at home on a snowday from high school. The entire day became a marathon to finish this book. I read the last 200 pages in five hours, and I leaked about 200 tears along the way. The narrator's inability to cope with the fallout of fighting for the German army in World War One is haunting and painful to experience as a reader, and by the time the book comes to an end, you feel like you were right there with him and his former comrades.

3. The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien: War books in general tend to make me pretty emotional (part of that whole dead-best-friend thing). But it's not the many deaths or cruelty of warfare that gets me in O'Brien's autobiographical stories. It's the idea that Tim - the narrator and the writer - is using writing to heal his wounds years later. At the end of the book, Tim talks about a childhood friend who died when he was very young and how he made up stories to keep her alive, the same thing he is doing now as a veteran. The book ends with a simple but heartbreaking statement that can make me weep for hours.

4. Gilead and Home, by Marilynne Robinson: I won't keep you too long on this two-for-one. Robinsons' quiet and uneventful writing makes me cry as much as the profound sadness of her characters' lives does. When I read Gilead for the first time this summer, I tear-soaked the library's copy. Then, a couple months later, the final few pages of Home did the same thing. Robinson never manipulates her readers. She's as brutally honest and simple as they come.

5. Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona, by Ryan Harty: This story collection, the first book from a writer who I think has been extremely overlooked in the last decade, might just be my favorite set of short stories out there. Every single story in here is so carefully put together and realistic. I feel like I know everyone in this book. Which is why even the smallest things in it can make me cry. But his most famous short story, the much-anthologized "Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down," is the saddest of them all. If you have ever put even a moment of thought into parent-child relationships OR robots, expect this one to cut you deep.

6. Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane: Trust me, the book is way better than the movie (although I was actually a fan of the movie version). I can make it through the movie in one piece, but when Lehane gets to the big reveal at the end of his novel, I can't help but break down. He does an excellent job of showing how childhood trauma cuts so deep that it can completely destroy the present and future. Great plot, great characters, and a great emotional climax.

7. Atonement, by Ian McEwan: Both the film version (which I actually saw first) and the book make me cry equally as hard. Like The Things They Carried, McEwan's well-loved novel really explores what it means to be a storyteller dealing with tragedy. When I finally cry at the end, it's not because of what happens to doomed lovers Robbie and Cecelia. Rather, it's what happens to little Briony Tallis, who grows up and writes a book that cannot take away from her own horrible guilt. The fact that she can absolve everyone but herself in fictional form is really the emotional core of this book.

8. The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton: Another dead-best-friend book. Admittedly, Hinton is a little bit emotionally manipulative in this book, what with the Robert Frost-quoting and all. But that doesn't take away from how it feels to be a 12-year-old reading the book for the first time and having your stomach pulled out through your eyeballs because of the emotional rollercoaster the book provides.

9. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman: The other kind of well-worn theme that makes me verklempt is the "child grows up" story. At the end of Gaiman's fantastic children's novel, Bod becomes a kind of "real boy," forced to leave behind everyone he loves and face the world for the first time. Meanwhile the reader realizes that his guardian Silas, a vampire who really shouldn't feel much of anything, is as torn about the leaving as Bod is. Gaiman makes really grown-up emotions accessible to everyone in just a few short pages.

10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling: Yep, I'm one of those suckers who cried all the way through the battle at Hogwarts. Especially when certain characters die (*cough*FredLupinTonks*cough*). I'm only human, people.


  1. I was stunned with all the deaths in HP7. But I only cried over HP6. I think I was too stunned to cry for 7.

  2. The death that gets me in Harry Potter is Colin Creevy and it's only like two lines. I also loved the part in The Graveyard Book that you mention. I also love every other part of that book that you didn't mention.