I had a different book picked out for the "Most Heartbreaking" title, but I'll give it a shout-out at the end instead. This book snuck up on me - I read about a quarter of it and set it aside for almost a month. Not sure what made me pick it back up. I can't say I liked this book. "Like" is such a trite word to use for the wrenching experience I had. Especially since I might not have the strength to read it again. It was too hard on me. Maybe the same reason I haven't reread most of the books I'll mention here.
How it starts Beatrice is holding a funeral for the new pet gerbil, Goebbels. Her mother, who had wanted to name him Peaches, calls Bea a robot because she's not crying.
Quote Location 132 - my Kindle version doesn't have page numbers; maybe they've updated since I bought it.
In Ithaca I'd listened to the radio to fall asleep - the Bob Decker Show out of Albany, full of late-night conspiracy talk about the pyramids, alien invasions, shadow people, 9/11, clairvoyant spies, the Kennedy assassination, and on and on. Somehow the paranoia in the callers' voices soothed me. I guess I found it reassuring to know I wasn't the only one who felt a vague, hard-to-define anxiety and was looking for something to pin it on.
General premise Bea's family moves all the time. Now they're in a small town for her senior year, where everyone has known everyone else since kindergarten. Bea tells herself she doesn't care, until she meets Jonathan, who everyone else calls Ghost Boy. He's pale and quiet and very white. The class held a funeral for him once, complete with eulogy about how much they would have missed him if he'd ever said or done anything memorable, and after that they'd jump like they'd seen a ghost every time he walked into the room. Turns out Jonathan actually had a twin brother who had been in a car crash with their mother. Shortly after Beatrice meets him, he finds out his father has been lying to him for years, and his brother is alive and in a home for the mentally disabled. Jonathan decides he's going to rescue his brother, and things spiral from there.
This book has a desperate beauty to the friendship between Bea and Jonathan. The focus is definitely friendship, with dysfunctional families a close second. I don't think the friendship was a healthy one for Bea, but having a healthy friendship with someone as emotionally scarred as Jonathan would probably be impossible.
The characters were so real and so peculiar, in ways that didn't feel designed for their audience (whether that's the readers or the other people in the book). I don't think I'd particularly like Bea and Jonathan, or the things they did together. But I can understand wholehearted glee at something you connect with that just sounds weird when you try to describe it to other people (like the late night radio show they listened to), or dreading what everyone else is convinced will thrill you, and proving yourself right (like dating the most popular boy). A lot of stories about "weird" teens make them sound like they're rebelling for rebelling's sake. And lots of kids do. But in this case, it genuinely felt like Bea and Jonathan were being true to themselves, and were okay with being different because what everyone else liked would make them miserable.
This book made me cry. It was heart-wrenching.
Other sad books:
Fool's Fate by Robin Hobb
Fool's Fate was my original choice for this post. It's been so long since I read it, I don't even remember the plot, just the gut-punch of how it made me feel. The idea of reading it again to remind myself freaked me out a little. It's part of a much larger story starting with The Farseer Trilogy, where Fitz, an illegitimate son of the royal family, is raised almost from birth to be an assassin for the king.
The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
Genre: Science fiction
Jared Dirac is a member of a unique military unit called the Ghost Brigades, created from the DNA of dead recruits and then seriously genetically enhanced. Unlike the others, Jared was cloned from a living person, Charles Boutin, who has defected to the enemy with secrets the Colonial Defense Force is desperate to keep. At first Jared seems like a failed experiment as he has none of Boutin's memories, but slowly they start to filter into his brain, creating conflict between the viewpoint he inherited with his DNA, and the soldier he has to be.
My second choice for this post. It made me so sad I actually reread it hoping I'd missed something. I hadn't. I think it's safe to say this is the only SF I've read that made me sob like someone died.
A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick
Genre: historical fiction
Ralph Truitt places an ad for a "simple, honest" woman to be his wife, but the mysterious beauty who shows up is anything but. Her plan is to be a wealthy widow as soon as she can make it happen.
I think what made this book sad wasn't so much how it made me feel, as that the characters seemed to be living unhappy lives of their own making. Realistic and sad aren't necessarily synonymous, but both work as labels here.
Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
Oree Shoth, a blind artist, takes in a suicidal homeless man and finds herself engulfed in an epic struggle between gods.
Probably the most satisfying sad book I've ever read. I can confidently say I didn't feel that way about the other books I've profiled. For the others, I might have been happier (and relieved) if the characters had made different decisions. With this one, the characters would have had to make a completely different but not necessarily better journey to end up with a happier story.
I'm almost afraid to ask about other sad books that work well. I'm not sure I could take any more right now...