12 Books to Make You Ugly Cry
Hello, my name is Susie, and I’m obsessed with books that completely emotionally wreck me. Some people seek out books with uplifting themes and tidy, happy endings. I seek out books about death and grief and loss and heartbreak and tragedy. I don’t know why I’m like this. But if you also can’t resist a cathartic crying session through a devastatingly beautiful book, then I see you, I feel you, and, well, I’ve got some recommendations. While I can’t make any guarantees — after all, people find themselves moved by very different things — this list is full of books to make you ugly cry. We’re not talking a dainty little tear here. We’re talking red faced, snotty, better make sure you have a second box of tissues kind of crying.
Beware of reading these books in public, because you might catch some weird looks. Although crying over a book in front of strangers isn’t always a bad thing. I finished A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara on a plane. This book is so emotionally crushing that it’s been called trauma porn, and you better believe I was downright sobbing at 30,000 feet. But the flight attendant either thought I was really going through something or had read A Little Life herself, because she gave me free drinks for the duration of the flight. Consider this a free tip from me to you: crying over books in public might get you sympathy drinks.
Fiction Books to Make You Ugly Cry
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng
Twelve year old Bird has limited memories of his mother, a Chinese American poet who went missing three years ago. But he’s not the only person wondering what happened to a loved one after a law was passed encouraging Americans to report their neighbors for “unpatriotic ideas,” particularly those of Asian descent. When Bird receives a curious drawing he believes is from his mother, he goes on a dangerous journey to find her. Children being separated from their parents during political upheaval is some surefire crying material for me. The last few chapters of this book have some of the most beautiful and heartbreaking writing I’ve read in a decade.
Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune
When readers start Under the Whispering Door, its protagonist, Wallace Price, is already dead. The worst is over, yes? No. Wallace wasn’t such a great person in life, but as two strangers escort him to a strange tea shop where he’ll cross over to the other side, he sees he might have a chance to do better in death. Wallace has seven days to learn that there’s more to life than money and success. This book’s reflections on life, death, loss, and purpose are incredibly moving and will quite possibly make you ugly cry. But the good news is that it’s ultimately a hopeful, sweet, and uplifting story that won’t leave you miserable.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Leave it to poets to get readers all up in their feels. Ocean Vuong’s poetry is stunning and also liable to make you cry (see Time is a Mother), but his debut novel is what we’re crying over here today. This alone is enough to get you started: the story is told through a series of letters from a son called Little Dog to his mother who can’t read. In shifting timelines, Little Dog explores his youth, his family history rooted in Vietnam, his queer identity, and so much more. It’s hard to describe this book, but trust me, it’s absolutely stunning and will break your heart before sewing it right back together.
The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan
Thanks to an unsatisfying career and a cheating husband, Frida is having a rough time. The only bright spot is her daughter Harriet, who sees Frida as perfect. But a government program on the lookout for bad mothers disagrees. One bad day could lead to Harriet being taken to a reform school while Frida is taken into custody until she proves she can be a good mother. Yet again, children being forcibly separated from their parents and parents being made to feel inadequate hits hard. This may be set in a dystopian world, but it’s going to turn you into a human puddle in this world right here.
Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
You might think a sci-fi/fantasy novel about violins and a donut shop owned by an intergalactic spaceship captain couldn’t possibly make you cry. But if you give it a read, you’ll probably prove yourself wrong. In order to save herself from eternal damnation, Shizuka made a deal with the devil to deliver the souls of seven other violin prodigies. She only needs one more, and she’s certain a young trans runaway named Katrina Nguyen is her key to breaking her curse. But Shizuka’s plans go awry when she’s charmed by retired starship captain Lan. Light from Uncommon Stars is a delightful and unexpected adventure, but it’s also a moving tale of finding belonging in a hostile world. Pick up an extra box of tissues before you settle down to read it, is all I’m saying.
Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow
The women of the North family have had more than their share of tragedy — violent men, racism, and lynching, to name a few. But they also have incredible gifts. Some can heal through nursing. August has a singing voice that can blow people away. And Joan’s paintings might just change the world. Following three generations of the North family, this book is a love letter to Memphis and to the resilience and passion of Black women. And if you thought you were crying before, wait until you realize this novel is based on the author’s real family history.
Afterlife by Julia Alvarez
Antonia Vega expects peace and quiet after retiring from her job as an English professor. But then her husband dies, her sister disappears, and a pregnant, undocumented teen shows up on her doorstep. In an increasingly distrustful world, Antonia’s plight explores what we owe to our families, and how wide the net of family extends. Who is Antonia without her beloved? How can she gather the pieces of her life without him? How can she grapple with the mental illness of someone she loves? This book had a stop-drop-and-cry moment for me, where I had to put it down to let out all the tears. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Nonfiction Books to Make You Ugly Cry
From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke
This book gets the prize for quickest start-to-crying time. I think I was audibly sobbing by, like, page 30. Actress Tembi Locke met her husband, professional chef Saro, while traveling in Sicily. His family didn’t approve of their marriage, but they built a beautiful life together in Los Angeles anyway and adopted their beloved daughter, Zoela. But then Saro was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that took his life far too quickly. Saro’s death finally brought his parents closer to Tembi. In this memoir, Locke tells the story of their love, Saro’s loss, and her journey to Sicily to introduce Zoela to her father’s family, homeland, and favorite foods. Hot tip: this book is now streaming as a TV series on Netflix starring Zoe Saldaña, so read it and then watch it to cry twice as much!
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
I mean, come on, crying is right there in the name! This memoir by Michelle Zauner, also known as the musical artist Japanese Breakfast, isn’t your typical musician’s memoir. It talks a little about her music career, but is primarily focused on losing her mother to cancer, her relationship to her Korean heritage, and the food that tied it all together. It’s a vulnerable, emotional, and deeply human story of grief and its impact on identity. Read it and you’ll never look at your old family recipes the same way again.
Diary of a Misfit: A Memoir and a Mystery by Casey Parks
“Unwelcome” is an understatement for how Casey Parks felt in her home state of Louisiana after coming out as a lesbian. Not only did her family reject her; her pastor outright asked God to kill her. But then her grandmother pulled her aside with a fascinating secret: “I grew up across the street from a woman who lived as a man.” He sang country music under the name Roy Hudgins. Casey’s questions about Roy brought her back to rural Louisiana for a decade of research about him. In this nuanced memoir and journalistic exploration of Roy Hudgins’s life, Casey Parks examines how her acceptance of her own queer identity became wrapped up in the story of a stranger. It’s a beautiful tale of family, belonging, and self-acceptance.
Savor: A Chef’s Hunger for More by Fatima Ali
It’s probably pretty obvious that the biography of someone who died of cancer at the age of 29 will be a tearjerker. But Pakistani chef Fatima Ali’s story is so much more than just her death, and the stunning way her story is told here had me downright sobbing. Top Chef fan favorite Fatima Ali’s star was only beginning to rise when she was given a terminal cancer diagnosis. She was determined to complete her bucket list in her last year, traveling the world and eating all the delicious food she’d always dreamed of trying. This memoir includes writing by Ali, writer Tarajia Morrell who she hired to help record her story, and interludes by her mother. The way their voices are woven together creates a complex and poignant portrait of a beautiful life cut far too short.
This is Not a Pity Memoir by Abi Morgan
Abi Morgan may not be asking for pity, but her story will likely give you some very big feelings. Abi Morgan’s life was upended one day when she found her partner Jacob unconscious in their home. She spent a hellish six months trying to hold their family together as Jacob was in a coma, with doctors desperately trying to find out what had gone wrong and how to save him. When Jacob finally woke up, it seemed like their family had been granted a second chance — until they realized Jacob didn’t recognize Abi and was convinced she was an imposter.
We hope this list of books to make you ugly cry helped provide you a little catharsis! If you’re looking for more emotional reads to kickstart the waterworks, check out these lists:
13 LGBT Books That Will Make You Cry