There are few things more annoying to me than feeling too stupid to understand a book. Time travel, hard science, stuff tied in with mathematics or physics…these are all subjects that I struggle with to begin with; add in a narrative and a cast of characters, and I’m reading at a snail’s pace and taking notes to keep everything straight. Then there are times when I can character- and plot-map to my heart’s desire and reread chapters on end, but still close the book wondering what I just read. And not in a disappointed in the book way — disappointed in myself for not grasping the full meaning.
Every single one of these books is a 4–5 star read for me. Almost all of them are on my Beautifully Written shelf on Goodreads; also my WTF Was That Ending shelf. I know that it is 100% possible to not fully understand a book but appreciate plot development, writing style, and character arcs.
I also want to acknowledge that I know not every book is meant for me, and sometimes, the lack of connection is a bigger point of the story. Books are sometimes meant to be that initial contact with a new POV, and it’s up to us to unpack the rest. As much as I hate the feeling of not understanding a book, I know that it is imperative in my continuing education about the world around me and the experiences of others.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Set in the days following the death of President Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, this book focuses on a chorus of the dead who are stuck between the earth and the beyond. When Lincoln visits the cemetery to say a final goodbye to his son, the rest of the cemetery’s inhabitants come “alive” to speak with each other. This book bamboozled the hell out of me. I’m so annoyed because I can tell this book is highly imaginative and smart. My brain just cannot compute.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
The morning after experiencing a dark and bloody nightmare, Yeong-hye suddenly decides to purge meat from her diet and embrace a plant-based lifestyle. Her decision is immediately frowned upon by everyone, especially her husband and her parents. Yeong-hye stands firm in her choice and seemingly starts to become one with the plants she eats. And yes, I have mentioned this book several times in previous lists, and I stand by my love of this book. But I will not lie and say I understood 100% of it.
This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
During an intense time of conflict, two warring factions have deployed time travel agents to help them win the war. But as the two agents begin communicating with each other, they begin to fall for each other. This is another book that I love with a passion — it is so beautifully written, and the story is immaculate. But the majority of the book went way over my head.
Comfort Me With Apples by Catherynne M. Valente
This short but not-so-sweet book focuses on Sophia and her relationship with her husband. She loves him endlessly, but he often leaves her alone for periods of time. She misses him so much that her mind begins to wander to some dark, weird things. Friends, I am so sad that I have absolutely no clue what happened in this book, because on paper, it’s everything I should love. I’ve read this twice now and have not been able to pick up on the underlying horror, and I am so sad about it.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Vuong is more widely known for his poetry, and he has brought his beautiful imagery and words into his debut novel. The book is an epistolary novel, with the main character writing a letter to his illiterate mother. This is Little Dog’s coming-of-age story and growing up in a Vietnamese refugee family. Gosh, this book is beautiful. The prose is so lovely, but it did not connect with me past the recognition that it was well-written. I’m determined to reread in the future and dive in deep.
Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh
An elderly widow, Vesta has a daily routine — and part of it is taking her dog for walks. One day Vesta discovers a note that reads, “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Needless to say, Vesta is shook and forms an unhealthy obsession with finding the truth. Moshfegh is known for her books walking the line between horror, suspense, black comedy, and absurdism. And maybe, as my first Moshfegh, there is a good chance this book will make more sense with a second read.
When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore
Best friends Miel and Sam primarily keep to themselves. Miel grows roses from her wrists, and she is hiding from a local coven of witches who is desperate for them. No one knows Sam’s story prior to coming to this town, but he has secrets he’s desperate to keep hidden. So when the Bonner sisters amp up their efforts to steal Miel’s roses, Sam risks becoming collateral damage in their attempt to get them. This book was one of my first forays into magical realism and it kicked my ass. I am so happy that after a few rereads, I have absolutely fallen in love with McLemore’s writing and have loved every single one of their books.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
When Hiram Walker escapes the plantation, he finds himself taking shelter at the headquarters of an underground resistance movement. Hiram himself is also harboring a secret: he was gifted with extraordinary powers when his mother was sold into slavery years ago. I’m still getting the swing of books rooted in realism with some supernatural elements, and this book, unfortunately, flew over my head. Coates is such a fantastic writer no matter the genre, and I am looking forward to diving into this book again in the future.
Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield
A survivor of a tragic deep-sea mission, Leah is finding it difficult to assimilate back into life on land. Her wife, Miri, is doing her best to help, but she still feels unable to connect to Leah. It feels like her wife is slipping away. For Leah, she is still underwater and she is definitely not the same. I want to understand and love this book so much because I’m already halfway there. I’m intrigued by the plot and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I just cannot say that I grasped any kind of meaning.
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
Yolanda and Verla awake in a strange place. They are then chained together with other women, dressed in unusual garb, and have their heads shaved. The girls know that they were all involved in a scandal, but the depth of their connection is unknown. The two jailers tasked with watching over them are also involved, but it also seems like they are part of the jailed crew instead of the antagonists. I know that everything is connected but could not tell you anything else.
What are some books you read and loved but know you didn’t completely understand it?
If you’re looking for books that will throw you for a loop, check out these books: