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8 Cathartic Books That Had Us Crying By Chapter One

April 15 2021
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Sometimes a good cry is just what the doctor ordered, and is there a better way to get cathartic than through books? While at times devastating, there is no better feeling than when you’re invested in the plight of characters. Whether you’re looking for a sob session or are more geared towards a book that’ll inspire tears of joy, here are eight books that made us grab the tissues by chapter one.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Nicole’s Pick: I’m not normally a big reading crier. Movies? Yes. Commercials with tiny animals? You bet. TikToks with babies AND tiny animals? Absolutely. It’s truly a feat to get me to cry over a book, and yet somehow ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE managed to do it multiple times. Not one of the numerous recommendations I got could have prepared me for this beautiful story about two teenage boys trying to learn deep truths about themselves. The writing is absolutely gorgeous, and it was easy to fall in love with both Aristotle and Dante. I don’t want to spoil any of the plot, but by the end of the first chapter, I knew this story of queerness and love and friendship would wreck me. The sequel, ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DIVE INTO THE WATERS OF THE WORLD publishes later this year, and I can’t wait to see how Benjamin Alire Sáenz makes me cry this time.

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
Benjamin Alire Saenz

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison and Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common, but as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime.

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Faye, Faraway
by Helen Fisher

Anne’s Pick #1: I’ll be honest: I was crying even before the first chapter of this one. The first line had me: “The loss of my mother is like a missing tooth: an absence I can feel at all times, but one I can hide as long as I keep my mouth shut.” I mean, can you just . . . The whole book is tender and surprising (!). Faye time-travels from her comfortable life with a husband and two kids to meet her mother as a young woman. But as she develops a bond with her mother as an adult, she’s more and more tempted to keep going back in time and risk the current life she has. This book bowled me over. Sobbing in the best way.

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Faye, Faraway
Helen Fisher

A heartfelt, spellbinding, and irresistible debut novel for fans of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Outlander that movingly examines loss, faith, and love as it follows a grown woman who travels back in time to be reunited with the mother she lost when she was a child.

Faye is a thirty-seven-year-old happily married mother of two young daughters. Every night, before she puts them to bed, she whispers to them: “You are good, you are kind, you are clever, you are funny.” She’s determined that they never doubt for a minute that their mother loves them unconditionally. After all, her own mother Jeanie had died when she was only seven years old and Faye has never gotten over that intense pain of losing her.

But one day, her life is turned upside down when she finds herself in 1977, the year before her mother died. Suddenly, she has the chance to reconnect with her long-lost mother, and even meets her own younger self, a little girl she can barely remember. Jeanie doesn’t recognize Faye as her daughter, of course, even though there is something eerily familiar about her...

As the two women become close friends, they share many secrets—but Faye is terrified of revealing the truth about her identity. Will it prevent her from returning to her own time and her beloved husband and daughters? What if she’s doomed to remain in the past forever? Faye knows that eventually she will have to choose between those she loves in the past and those she loves in the here and now, and that knowledge presents her with an impossible choice.

Emotionally gripping and ineffably sweet Faye, Faraway is a brilliant exploration of the grief associated with unimaginable loss and the magic of being healed by love.

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The World That We Knew
by Alice Hoffman

Allie’s Pick: The moment I started reading THE WORLD THAT WE KNEW for the first time, I knew it was going to be one of my lifelong favorites. The novel opens with Hanni Kohn, recently widowed and witnessing the beginning of Berlin’s descent into Nazi control. It is horribly sad, and Alice Hoffman captures the emotions so perfectly. What follows this first chapter is an incredible story of love and endurance, as Hanni goes to extreme measures to get her daughter out of Berlin and to safety before the Nazis come for them. I found myself crying quietly throughout the opening pages, and, to be honest, throughout the entirety of the book. Alice Hoffman has a magical touch with words, and I am constantly recommending this book to historical fiction readers of all kinds.

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The World That We Knew
Alice Hoffman

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER * LONGLISTED FOR THE ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL

On the brink of World War II, with the Nazis tightening their grip on Berlin, a mother’s act of courage and love offers her daughter a chance of survival.

“[A] hymn to the power of resistance, perseverance, and enduring love in dark times…gravely beautiful…Hoffman the storyteller continues to dazzle.” —THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

At the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. Her desperation leads her to Ettie, the daughter of a rabbi whose years spent eavesdropping on her father enables her to create a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Hanni’s daughter, Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never-ending.

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Dancing at the Pity Party
by Tyler Feder

Molly’s Pick: When reading a book with the subtitle A DEAD MOM GRAPHIC MEMOIR, you expect to cry. You know it’s coming, you’ve braced yourself for it—you’re reading this book for a reason. And I did. I cried a lot while reading Tyler Feder’s DANCING AT THE PITY PARTY, a poignant and moving graphic memoir about her mother’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent death. There were also parts that made me laugh out loud, like the “Should I pick up the phone?” flowchart and the “My mom died young” reaction bingo card. It’s those honest depictions of such an experience, along with her vivid illustrations, that make this book such a standout. But what impressed me most was Tyler’s ability to capture who her mom was. As a reader—because Tyler so beautifully described and illustrated her mom in the first chapter and throughout—I felt like I knew her. I felt the loss of her specifically, a truly beautiful achievement.

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Dancing at the Pity Party
Tyler Feder

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Aftershocks
by Nadia Owusu

Emily’s Pick: AFTERSHOCKS is Nadia Owusu’s powerful memoir that journeys through time and form to explore her upbringing, which was constantly shifting between culture and country, as well as the effects of assimilation, colonialism, depression, and more. As the title suggests, this narrative weaves in an earthquake motif throughout, and Nadia’s journey carries these emotional tremors through every chapter. The first chapter, however, is one of the most impactful, showing the joy and consequent pain that occurs when Nadia’s mother—who abandoned her at age two—visits her in Rome when Nadia is just seven years old. This chapter, entitled “First Earthquake,” packs in so much, giving the reader a sense of the aftershocks and foreshocks to come.

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Aftershocks
Nadia Owusu

In the tradition of The Glass Castle, a deeply felt memoir from Whiting Award–winner Nadia Owusu about the push and pull of belonging, the seismic emotional toll of family secrets, and the heart it takes to pull through.

Young Nadia Owusu followed her father, a United Nations official, from Europe to Africa and back again. Just as she and her family settled into a new home, her father would tell them it was time to say their goodbyes. The instability wrought by Nadia’s nomadic childhood was deepened by family secrets and fractures, both lived and inherited. Her Armenian American mother, who abandoned Nadia when she was two, would periodically reappear, only to vanish again. Her father, a Ghanaian, the great hero of her life, died when she was thirteen. After his passing, Nadia’s stepmother weighed her down with a revelation that was either a bombshell secret or a lie, rife with shaming innuendo.

With these and other ruptures, Nadia arrived in New York as a young woman feeling stateless, motherless, and uncertain about her future, yet eager to find her own identity. What followed, however, were periods of depression in which she struggled to hold herself and her siblings together.

Aftershocks is the way she hauled herself from the wreckage of her life’s perpetual quaking, the means by which she has finally come to understand that the only ground firm enough to count on is the one written into existence by her own hand.

Heralding a dazzling new writer, Aftershocks joins the likes of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and William Styron’s Darkness Visible, and does for race identity what Maggie Nelson does for gender identity in The Argonauts.

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When We Were Vikings
by Andrew David MacDonald

Anne’s Pick #2: From the moment the book opens, the honest, supportive sister-brother relationship between Zelda and Gert is front and center. Though their life isn’t always pretty or tidy, the way they support each other had me happy-crying from the jump. Zelda has fetal alcohol syndrome, and Gert has taken on the role of her caretaker. As Zelda gains more independence (a job, a boyfriend), she becomes more aware of the risks Gert is taking in his own life. I’ll admit, at points in the book, it became ugly-crying—but reading Zelda’s story was 100 percent worth the tears.

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When We Were Vikings
Andrew David MacDonald

Indie Next Pick for February 2020
Book of the Month January 2020
LibraryReads January 2020 Pick
Bookreporter New Release Spotlight
New York Post “Best Books of the Week”
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The Saturday Evening Post “10 Books for the New Year”
PopSugar “Best Books in January”
Book Riot Best Winter New Releases

“Zelda is a marvel, a living, breathing three-dimensional character with a voice so distinctive she leaps off the page.” —The New York Times

“Heartwarming and unforgettable.” —People

For Zelda, a twenty-one-year-old Viking enthusiast who lives with her older brother, Gert, life is best lived with some basic rules:

1. A smile means “thank you for doing something small that I liked.”
2. Fist bumps and dabs = respect.
3. Strange people are not appreciated in her home.
4. Tomatoes must go in the middle of the sandwich and not get the bread wet.
5. Sometimes the most important things don’t fit on lists.

But when Zelda finds out that Gert has resorted to some questionable—and dangerous—methods to make enough money to keep them afloat, Zelda decides to launch her own quest. Her mission: to be legendary. It isn’t long before Zelda finds herself in a battle that tests the reach of her heroism, her love for her brother, and the depth of her Viking strength.

“A most welcome and wonderful debut” (Tyrell Johnson, author of The Wolves of Winter), When We Were Vikings is an uplifting debut about an unlikely heroine whose journey will leave you wanting to embark on a quest of your own, because after all...we are all legends of our own making.

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On a Sunbeam
by Tillie Walden

Sharon’s Pick: When my brother’s fiancée highly recommended to me the queer space opera she had just finished, I knew I had to read it. ON A SUNBEAM follows two timelines: the present follows our protagonist, Mia, as she joins a crew in charge of restoring historic buildings, and flashes back to Mia’s boarding school years as she falls in love with her mysterious classmate, Grace. This utterly wholesome graphic novel, with its unforgettable characters and unbelievable art, is a cinnamon bun in book form, and it made me cry happy tears from the beginning.

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On a Sunbeam
Tillie Walden

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Love and Other Words
by Christina Lauren

Heather’s Pick: I can’t remember the last time a book made me cry like LOVE AND OTHER WORDS did. Let’s just say my eyes were swollen for hours afterward. But you know what? The tears were totally worth it, because Macy and Elliott’s story will stick with me forever as a poignant reminder of how love can help us overcome even the cruelest twists of fate. This emotional, romantic novel from Christina Lauren centers on Macy Sorensen and Elliot Petropoulos, who grow up as next-door neighbors during the summer months and end up falling in love as bookish teens. Their straightforward path to a Happily Ever After becomes impossibly complicated, however, when a sudden tragedy wrenches them apart and leads to years of painful separation. What exactly happened? And can Elliot and Macy finally find their way back to each other? The mystery will propel you through the pages even as your sniffles get more and more frequent. (Note: Maybe don’t read this one in public!)

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Love and Other Words
Christina Lauren

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Photo credit: istock / Emilija Randjelovic

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