A reader and/or writer’s favorite thing to do with words is take them in, soak them up and let them take over their emotions. A truly immersed reader will ache for their favorite characters and envision their own endings in their heads when they turn the last page.
Indeed, a novel is not a true masterpiece unless it makes you feel something that matches that level of greatness, and while everyone enjoys a pleasant love story, nothing is more raw and emotionally powerful than a realistic romance, one that maybe has an unsatisfying ending, but is perfect because of it.
So, as they are sometimes hard to find, here are five of my favorite heartbreaking novels that are so painfully realistic that they have seared their place in my heart and mind forever.
1. “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger
This novel is a love story between Clare Abshire, a beautiful young artist, and Henry de Tamble, a young boy, adult and elderly man who shifts back and forth in time with no control.
Having experienced a deep childhood trauma and suffered throughout his life because of his “gift,” de Tamble struggles to find his place in the world when he is in a particular moment in time. He falls in love with Abshire, and from there the novel takes us through their journey together, and what it is like to be in love with a man who can disappear suddenly, at the snap of a finger.
To spare the ending, I will only say that this novel brought as much joy as it did pain, but I would recommend it and reread it a thousand times over. If you are looking for a whimsical romance, this is for you.
2. “Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes
Louisa Clarke and William Traynor are two young people existing in the same small town in England, living very different lives. However, their paths cross when Traynor has a tragic motorcycle accident and is severely injured, becoming a quadriplegic. While struggling with the task of financially supporting her family, Clarke takes an opportunity to be Traynor’s caretaker and transforms his bitter exterior into one that shows his true, caring self.
However, Clarke’s desire to foster a romantic relationship with Traynor is put to the test when she discovers that he means to travel to Switzerland to receive aid in a highly controversial matter. The question remains: Does Traynor love Clarke enough to change his plans for his future? What are the moral realities of the polarized issue that the novel revolves around?
Again, to spare the ending I will leave these questions open to answer when the book concludes, but will recommend keeping and open mind when exploring the themes put forth and the unconventional romance narrative.
3. “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green
Ah, a personal favorite. This one broke me the most, yet also has climbed to one of the most special places in my heart.
Hazel Grace Lancaster takes us through her journey battling stage 4 thyroid cancer and meeting, befriending and falling in love with one Augustus Waters. Lancaster meets Waters through a mutual friend at a support group meeting, and the two quickly grow inseparable. Waters becomes Lancaster’s light at the end of the tunnel, and the two fall deeply in love with each other despite what they have suffered in life.
However, a great tragedy befalls one member of the pair, making their relationship bend and threaten to break. This novel is a difficult read, and one that I had to get through about two or three times to really appreciate. John Green is notorious for his beautiful writing and humor, but what he is best at is offering the most realistic young adult novels you will ever read. Green morphs fantasy, love and adventure into a real-life experience that any of his readers can imagine themselves living.
Read this one with an open heart, an open mind and perhaps an open pint of ice-cream … and a box of tissues.
4. “Dear John” by Nicholas Sparks
While Nicholas Sparks can be notorious for cheesy love stories with cliché endings, many readers have a certain lust for the kind of blissful love story his writing offers. Sparks’ “Dear John” is, of course, just that, but it also offers a plot that turns this idealistic narrative into a realistic love story that many have experienced in some form themselves.
John Tyree is an army grunt visiting his elderly father in Wilmington, North Carolina, when he meets Savannah Curtis. She is staying briefly with a group of college kids who have rented out a beach house while they build homes for the needy through their church organization. After he jumps in the ocean to save a bag Curtis dropped off the pier, the two begin to talk, become friends and quickly fall in love, as one might suspect.
However, the couple must realize that Tyree only has a short amount of time before he must return to Germany, and Curtis will return to college soon to complete her degree in special education. After a few weekends together, the two are not ready to end their relationship, and begin their long-distance romance. As can be expected, Tyree and Curtis’ relationship struggles with the thousands of miles between them and is put to the test when a number of pivotal events occur that leave the two shaken.
What makes Sparks’ novel so rare is how bittersweet and authentic the ending is. If you enjoy a good love story, but don’t want to suffer through a cliché, this book may be the perfect solution for you.
5. “Burnt Shadows” by Kamila Shamsie
A novel I read last semester in my American Novel 1914-Present class, this story contains not only a romance or two, but also forces the reader to grapple with the dropping of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II, and its global consequences.
The novel begins in Nagasaki in 1945, and travels to Delhi, Pakistan, New York and Afghanistan in the years following the war, all while switching back and forth between different narrators. The heart of the narrative is one of the main characters, Hiroko Tanaka, who survived the second bombing and must now come to terms with her place in the world and her scars from the tragedy she endured.
While burdened by these pretexts, Tanaka experiences great loss and love through a veil of pain. This novel is not meant to sway the reader to a specific side of the issue, but exists to offer a holistic and honest account of what the effects the United States’ decision to drop the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki during WWII had on the rest of the world.
As we often are only fed American perspectives in our classes in the U.S., Shamsie asks readers to think with an open mind and ask ourselves: Was a second bomb necessary? What are the effects of this kind of power?
“Burnt Shadows” is one of the most heartbreaking, educational and enlightening books I’ve ever read, and I would recommend it to everyone. One of the greatest things an author can do is make you question your own opinions by reading their words, and that is exactly what Shamsie does.