Before you read this post, please note that it contains spoilers for the novels I reference.
I look forward to opening my Christmas gift from my sister-in-law each year because I know the box will always contain books. She has a knack for picking out page turners that take me on emotional roller coaster rides that I usually need a tissue box by my side to get through. And I love every weepy word of it.
This year, she sent me a book on my wish list, “All the Bright Places” by Jennifer Niven, along with two others she thought I might enjoy. I dove into “All the Bright Places” first. I had put the novel on my wish list partly because Niven had created a character who suffers a similar kind of loss in her back story as the protagonist in the novel I’m writing. I wanted to study how Niven handled the character’s survival, grief, guilt, recovery and emotional growth in the wake of her tragedy. Within a few pages, I was all in, completely invested in the lives of her two main characters. The range of emotions Niven drew out of them resonated with me in a gut-wrenching way I wasn’t expecting. I ended up sobbing through the last quarter of the book, my throat tight and my bath water cold by the time I reached the end. Did I like the turn of events for her characters? No. Of course not. Like many people, I like happy endings, and this story, most certainly, doesn’t have a happy ending. However, it did end on enough of a hopeful note that I could dry my eyes, blow my nose and take a deep breath, satisfied that her character learned something because of her experience and would be okay – better, even.
Jennifer Brown’s “Torn Away,” one of the other books gifted from my sister-in-law, stirred a similar reaction in me. The protagonist in Brown’s story also suffers a great loss early in the tale and I found myself drawn into her broken world almost immediately. My heart ached with hers, the tears flowing openly for nearly 140 pages, as she got sucker punched and then mercilessly kicked while she was down, over and over. I found myself wondering how much more this poor girl could take. I just wanted her suffering to stop. I wanted to be that person to end her suffering for her. By the time she mustered the courage to pull herself out of her grief, I was exhausted, raw, and surrounded by soggy tissues. I knew, by the time I read the last page, however, that she had become stronger because of her ordeal. She, too, would be okay and go on to do good things in her world.
Studies show many health benefits, both physical and emotional, to “having a good cry.” So when a book makes me cry, perhaps I’m simply reacting to the high that comes after my tears have literally flushed the stress and other bad stuff out of my body. But I know it’s more than that. As a writer, I know how gifted you have to be to create characters that readers empathize with in such a vulnerable way. So when a book can connect me to its characters and rattle me so deeply like these two did, I can’t help but feel good by the time I’ve read the last page. What can I say? I love a book that lets me have a good cry.