The best novels about characters dealing with grief

Who am I?

My first novel, The Dogs of Babel, grew out of a couple of intersecting ideas. I was interested in the deep connection that people have with their pets and wondered what the range and limits of human communication with animals might be. In addition, I was interested in exploring the lengths to which a grief-stricken character might go in order to find answers about their loss. In addition to being a fundamental human experience, I think that grief can serve as an interesting plot element: in the depths of loss, a character might consider actions that would seem impossible under normal circumstances.

I wrote...

The Dogs of Babel

By Carolyn Parkhurst,

Book cover of The Dogs of Babel

What is my book about?

A poignant and beautiful debut novel explores a man's quest to unravel the mystery of his wife's death with the help of the only witness -- their Rhodesian ridgeback, Lorelei.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders,

Book cover of Lincoln in the Bardo

Why this book?

George Saunders is the kind of author who makes his readers believe that anything is possible, and I would follow him anywhere. This strange and lyrical novel grew out of a small kernel of historical fact: in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was in the White House and the country was in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln lost his 11-year-old son Willie to typhoid fever, and he was so devastated that he visited the cemetery where the boy had been laid to rest, to hold the child in his arms one last time. The story is told in bits and pieces, from a chorus of narrators, including (most prominently) a number of ghosts who have lingered in the cemetery, unable to move on to whatever comes next.

The Immortalists

By Chloe Benjamin,

Book cover of The Immortalists

Why this book?

This is a novel that approaches grief from a different direction: what if you were told the exact date you were going to die and had to live the rest of your life with that knowledge? In 1969 New York, four siblings visit a traveling psychic who gives each of them this information. The rest of the novel unfolds from that moment, as they try to figure out how to move on from there. A lyrical and sprawling novel, spun from a question that most of us have considered, but few of us would really want answered.

The Virgin Suicides

By Jeffrey Eugenides,

Book cover of The Virgin Suicides

Why this book?

This book has been on my list of all-time favorites since it was first published in 1993. The premise can be a tough sell; it’s the story of a family with five daughters, all of whom commit suicide over the course of a year. But the book’s greatest strength lies in the way the story is told: narrated by the collective voice of the neighborhood boys, who admired and wondered about the Lisbon girls from afar, the novel has one of the most unusual and compelling narrative voices of any book I know.

The Friend

By Sigrid Nunez,

Book cover of The Friend

Why this book?

This short, beautiful novel is about a woman whose life changes in two major ways as the result of one event: her closest friend dies, and she inherits the enormous dog he has left behind. She doesn’t want the dog, and his presence raises a number of problems for her; in addition, both dog and human are reeling with the fallout of sudden grief and their mutual change of circumstances. But as time goes on, and she struggles to make sense of what has happened, she begins to find solace in the unexpected companionship. The book is at once moving and funny, lyrical, and heart-rending.

We Were Liars

By E. Lockhart,

Book cover of We Were Liars

Why this book?

I picked up this slim YA novel, which one of my kids had brought into the house, without knowing anything about it, and that may be the best way to read it. It’s about a teenage girl named Cadence who spends her summers on her family’s private island with a close-knit group of friends and cousins. But during the summer when she’s fifteen, Cadence is involved in a catastrophic event that remains hazy and fragmented in her mind. A riveting book, beautifully written and utterly compelling.

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