Short and (Bitter)Sweet: 6 One-Sitting Tearjerkers

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Christine Ro

Staff Writer

Christine writes about books for Literary Hub, VICE, and the Ploughshares blog. She occasionally writes about other topics, because someone once told her (although it seemed implausible) that there’s life outside of books. Blog:

Some emotionally demanding books need to be read in small doses, to allow some recovery time in between shattering revelations. Other devastating books, if they’re short enough and manageable enough, work well as single gulps. Here are some suggestions for piercing works that can be read (and cried over) in single sittings.

Looking for a tearjerker of a read? These six books will make you cry -- and they're short reads, too. book lists | sad books | tearjerker books | books to make you cry | short books | short books to make you cry | one-sitting books

The Embassy of Cambodia, by Zadie SmithThe Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith

Smith writes often about Willesden, an unremarkable neighborhood in North London. This short story, originally published in the New Yorker but now available as a slim book, follows a Willesden resident named Fatou. Fatou is a domestic worker who’s seen as not entirely human by her employers. For instance, there’s a telling detail about them addressing her by looking at a space around, but not at, her face. Fatou’s halting experiences of romance, and the casual way that a family exploits her, are painful.

Cover of Victoria by Knut HamsunVictoria by Knut Hamsun

Victoria has a familiar premise: a rich girl and a poor boy fall in love, which is socially unacceptable. But the unadorned way Hamsun describes their fumbling attempts to be together leads to exquisite heartbreak.

Cover of Dept. of Speculation by Jenny OffillDept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

This introspective novel is a brief series of reflections on a failing marriage. The sparseness of the language makes the emotional devastation all the more stark.

Cover of Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro TatsumiAbandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

This collection of short manga stories features disillusioned people at the end of their tether. The sex in the stories is always tawdry, the jobs are always soul-crushing, the families are always nooses. That sounds horribly depressing, yes, but Tatsumi’s work is animated by a deep compassion for his characters, even when they’re massively flawed.

Cover of Autobiography of Red by Anne CarsonAutobiography of Red by Anne Carson

This beautifully written novel in verse turns the stuff of Greek mythology into a wrenching story of abuse, love, and self-discovery. With its mythical trappings, it could easily have become irritatingly twee. But this short book is instead fiercely revealing. 

Cover of Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O'NeillLong Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill

With their doomed, disappointed protagonists, a lot of O’Neill plays could have made the list. Long Day’s Journey into Night is one of his most personal and most painful. It’s brutal to watch how one member of a family can derail everyone else, and just how merciless addiction can be.