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Okay, listen. I am a sucker for HEAs (happy ever afters) as much as the next reader. Do I get angry if a book doesn’t have a happy ending? Oh, sure. And that has happened a fair amount of times. But in the end, I am a Millennial. And I am plagued with unhappiness. Thus, the hunt for books with sad endings.
Just like some love to listen to sad music (that’s also me), there are plenty of us out here who love to enjoy a good cathartic book cry. You’ve got your classic sad book sandwich, that starts happy, has a sad middle, and then has a happy ending. You’ve got the books that are just a sad ride the entire way and the book ends the same way. And, of course, there are the books that are deceivingly happy, and then BAM.
The point is, there is a difference between a sad book and a sad ending. Sometimes they are both, sometimes everything is hunky dory until it’s not. I mean, Romeo and Juliet was a great time until the Friar fucked everything up, right? Right?
So behold, 11 fantastic books with heart-wrenching endings for the days we all just want to wallow in our sadness a little longer. I’ve got YA and I’ve got adult. I’ve got sci-fi, historical romance, lit fic, and even a little body horror. I hope you find the next book that devastates your soul. Happy reading! (Vague spoilers ahead!)
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
One night after an unsettling nightmare, Yeong-hye suddenly decides to cut out meat from her diet and begins a plant-based lifestyle. But in a culture where conformity is the norm (and vegetarianism isn’t exactly common), her choice is seen as an act of rebellion. This is a book where the ending can be left up to interpretation, but no matter how you slice it, it’s not pretty. Also, be prepared for a little body horror.
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The Giver by Lois Lowry
Our narrator, Jonas, lives in a utopian society where there is no pain. When he turns 12, he’s chosen to become the next Receiver from (you guessed it) the Giver. The Giver holds all of the painful memories of the past so that the townspeople can live in peace. Jonas and the Giver make plans to return these memories to the people, but that requires Jonas to venture outside the community. This whole book feels like a punch to the gut but that ending?! I read this book in 6th grade and I’m STILL upset.
History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera
Griffin is heartbroken when he hears about the death of his ex-boyfriend and first love, Theo. As he grieves and heals, the only person Griffin finds solace in is Jackson, who was in a relationship with Theo at the time of his death. When people think of sad Adam Silvera books, most immediately go to They Both Die At the End. But this one felt like one gut punch after another, and then, when you’re gasping for breath, it ends.
Flowers by Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Told through a series of progress reports, we meet Charlie, the first human recipient of an experimental operation to increase intelligence. Starting with an IQ of 68, the operation is successful and Charlie’s IQ triples. This opens up the world in ways Charlie never knew possible before — but the effects are short-lived, and his newfound intelligence begins to regress. The first-person narrative makes every note so personal and real. This was another book I read way too young and it has left a permanent mark. A mark of complete sadness.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
This sci-fi novel is set in a dystopian version of late ’90s England, where Kathy and her friends are students at the very secluded and exclusive, boarding school. At Hailsham, its students are expected to adhere to strict and unusual rules. It is also universally understood amongst the students that Hailsham is only a stop on their journey and eventually they will all be required to leave. But they don’t know why. Personally, the “twist” wasn’t shocking or disturbing. But the acceptance? That left me feeling so sad and empty.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
The Lee family is rocked when middle child, Olivia, is found dead. For parents James and Marilyn, Olivia was the child they put all their hopes and dreams on. Her death absolutely devastates the family and secrets come to light. This book is full of family dynamics and overarching themes of generational trauma and race. The general public seemed to tend to turn to Little Fires Everywhere for an initial recommendation, but in terms of hitting that final emotional note, Ng’s debut takes the top spot for me.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Siobhan Dowd, and Jim Kay
Ever since Conor found out his mother was sick, he has been plagued by strange nightmares. And now that she has stopped responding to treatments, the dreams are feeling more and more real. One night, Conor is awakened by the presence of a mysterious visitor. A monster. Not quite a graphic novel, the illustrations add an extra level of devastation. This book breaks your heart, minorly heals it, and then by the end it’s completely shattered. Also, a note that this book is often marketed as a middle grade because the main character is younger, but the themes are definitely dark and should be approached with caution.
My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
Sisters Anna and Kate are close, but not for the reasons they should be. After Kate was diagnosed with leukemia, Anna was purposefully conceived to be a bone marrow match for her sister. Now 13, Anna is tired of not having agency, and she decides to sue her parents for legal rights to her own body. If you’ve just seen the movie, I am begging you to pick up the book. Because the ending is 100x more tragic.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
This book follows four college friends, Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude over the course of their adult lives. I am not exaggerating when I say that every single horrible thing that could ever happen to a human being happens to Jude. The entire time you are just itching to reach through the pages and give the poor guy a hug. Cliché choice for this list? Expected choice? Yes. But this is one of two books that I’d feel incompetent as a writer for not including on a list of books with devastating endings — but most importantly, I’d feel incompetent without leaving the caveat to please please PLEASE look up trigger warnings before picking this one up.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Even if you are not big on Greek mythology, I recommend taking this book for a spin. A combination of historical fiction and romance, Madeline Miller’s writing is so lyrical and gorgeous. This story centers on the lifelong friendship between Achilles (yes, that Achilles) and Patroclus, how they grew up together and developed an inseparable bond. This is the second title that needs to be included on every book list about devastating endings. Just have tissues ready: you’ve been warned.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Following up on the success of The Kite Runner, Hosseini’s sophomore release is a multigenerational story centering on two Afghan women. Mariam and Laila were born into two different times, but their lives become intertwined and they are forced to marry the same man. Just like his debut, Hosseini knows how to hit you with brilliant prose and this ending is equally heartbreaking and uplifting.
If you can’t get enough books with sad endings or have read everything on the list and want something more obscure, the bibliologists at TBR are here to regale you with recommendations. Check out Tailored Book Recommendations, Book Riot’s book subscription service!