Some of the Saddest Novels Ever

The other day I watched the Johnny Cash video of “Hurt,” the Nine Inch Nails song Cash covered to perfection. That under-four-minute masterpiece, filled with musings on mortality just months before the gravely ailing Cash died, might be the saddest music video ever made.

You probably know where I’m going: After watching “Hurt” — which you can see here, and from which the image atop this blog post was taken — I thought about the saddest novels I’ve read. Many VERY well worth the time, even cathartic in some cases, but heartbreaking nonetheless.

One such book is Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. The plot alone is poignant enough, but the beautifully crafted prose — touching on matters such as life’s fleeting moments of happiness — makes a nearby box of tissues an absolute necessity.

There’s also William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, which, as a novel with a Holocaust theme, is naturally going to be devastating. But when Sophie has to make that fateful choice promised by the title, the despair gets almost unbearable on a one-family level, too. Another sorrowful Holocaust novel, Erich Maria Remarque’s Spark of Life, takes an even more unsparing look at life in a concentration camp.

Albert Camus’ classic The Stranger, written during World War II, is also an almost total downer.

Going further back in time, I’d add Edith Wharton’s memorable The House of Mirth, which chronicles the dismal descent of a woman (Lily Bart) who is doomed because she has some integrity and is trapped in a patriarchal society. Maggie Tulliver’s limited choices and opportunities as a female make the masterful The Mill on the Floss perhaps George Eliot’s most melancholy novel. And the miserable mining milieu in Emile Zola’s Germinal leaves readers despondent even while admiring the novel’s power.

Obviously, dystopian and/or apocalyptic novels — like Mary Shelley’s The Last Man — can make readers completely disconsolate. I’ll also include George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four here, although that book has a few moments of joy before all hope is crushed.

Other very depressing novels? Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog, M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, George Sand’s Lelia, and Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, to name a few.

What are the saddest novels you’ve read?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which looks at signage, a subdivision, spinelessness, and resurfaced streets — is here.

Dealing With End-of-Reading Melancholy

I just finished reading my 13th Jack Reacher book, and am feeling kind of sad. Is it because Running Blind included several innocent people being killed? Is it because Jack’s girlfriend Jodie was in possible danger? Is it because Jack visited New York City’s doomed World Trade Center in the 2000 novel? Is it because the roaming Reacher was implausibly living in a house and even (gasp!) paying utility bills as the book began? Well, yes — but I’m also feeling sad because in a few months there will be no more Reacher novels for me to enjoy.

It wasn’t until 2014 that I began reading the 1997-launched series, after several commenters here enthusiastically recommended Lee Child’s thrillers. (Thank you!) Since then, I’ve polished off roughly one Reacher book a month (but not chronologically; I take out whichever titles my local library has at the time).

The sadness thing? Now that I’ve finished Running Blind, there are only seven of Child’s 20 novels left for me to read — at least until the 21st comes out! I’m so addicted to the series — reaching for Reacher every four or five books (while making sure I don’t neglect more literary fare) — that I’ll profoundly miss it. Rereading is a possibility, of course, but that’s not as satisfying as a first read.

All of this is a long-winded way of introducing today’s column theme: As wonderful as it is to read fiction, there’s also some melancholy when one completes every published book in a series. Or when one finishes every novel by a great deceased author who will obviously write no more. Or even when one finishes a very absorbing novel lengthy enough to be called a door stop. I’m going to talk about that melancholy, and about how to get over it.

I remember how unhappy I was when finishing the seventh and final Harry Potter book in 2007. That fantastic series was over! 😦 But at least there were three of the excellent HP movies still to come. Another silver lining was rereading J.K. Rowling’s series within a two-month span, which helped me see clues and connections more clearly than when I read each of the seven books as they were published a year or more apart.

A different silver lining arose after I read 11 out of Willa Cather’s 12 novels. Those 11 ranged from good to great (My Antonia being among the latter), and I was feeling downbeat about nearing the end of Cather’s fiction-book canon. Then I started reading her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, and found it to be such a dud that I suddenly had my psychological fill of that author’s longer works.

Still, I eventually satisfied my Cather craving by reading one of her excellent short-story collections — which is a way of easing the sadness of having none of a particular writer’s novels left to enjoy. I also turned to a Margaret Atwood short-story collection after reading all the great Atwood novels my local library stocked. In addition, one can turn to a writer’s poems, plays, nonfiction, and other works when the novels have all been perused.

With John Steinbeck, I found that reading three of his lesser novels (Cup of Gold, To a God Unknown, and Burning Bright) helped me move on to other authors despite the lingering glow from top Steinbeck books such as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden.

Long books? One example of a massive novel that felt sad to let go is James Clavell’s thousand-page Shogun, which wonderfully places a reader in another time and place (circa-1600 Japan) for many days. But my next book adventure — Fannie Flagg’s terrific Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe — soon had me immersed in another world.

Ultimately, the best way to escape the sadness of ending a particular literary “journey” is of course to start reading another great series, author canon, or novel. 🙂

Which series, author canons, and long books were you especially sorry to see end? How did you deal with that sad feeling?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

Two recent appearances:

This summer, I was filmed and interviewed for 20 or so minutes about my former life covering famous cartoonists and columnists for a magazine. I talked about Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”), Jim Davis (“Garfield”), Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), Stan Lee (“Spider-Man”), Ann Landers, “Dear Abby,” and others. The video, posted on Sept. 28, is from talented Canadian multimedia guy Dan St.Yves.

And last month I was taped for the “Robin’s Nest” show on Montclair, New Jersey’s TV34. The half-hour program began airing Oct. 2, and I appear in the first 10 minutes discussing my weekly “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column (which runs in The Montclair Times) and other topics. This literature blog is mentioned briefly on the show, which is hosted by the also-talented Robin Ehrlichman Woods.

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.