12 Books That Tackle Way More Than Meets The Eye
As an avid reader, I'm constantly surprised how new novels can still knock off our socks in unexpected ways. Sometimes it's subtle: a small character change can resonate with you and give you a completely new sense of the story. Other times it's a brutal, jarring shift that leaves you confused and unsure of the plot that you were so sure you saw coming. Regardless of the shift, we often (and delightfully) can find ourselves completely taken aback at how emotional, psychological, or intense the novel we're reading has just become, leaving the question: How the heck did that just happen?
The books below all deliver more punch than one might think by simply reading a back-of-the-book summary. Traditionally, they're coming of age stories, meet-cutes, hidden affairs, murder plots. Cleverly and skillfully, the author opens up this conventional plot to reveal a truly complex narrative that hits you right in the feels. As book-lovers, we're always looking for excuses to read more, and being surprised by a great story is something to revere.
If you're looking for a book to challenge all the expectations you have of how stories and novels work, check out these picks below:
This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
This One Summer is a graphic narrative that follows teenager Rose through her family's summer vacation. Together with her friend Windy, Rose copes with all the frustrations and tension that come with family drama. Rose also finds herself observing another drama unfolding at the beach: the relationship between her summer crush (the local drugstore clerk) and his pregnant girlfriend. Through these common tropes we find a deeper, more meaningful discussion: the struggle of being a good daughter, the early exposure to adult situations, the feeling of being caught between child and young adult. In between pages of beautifully drawn landscape, there's a deeper, complex story that will leave you aching.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
The going-away-to-college experience is a story told time again. How does one cope with new friends, loneliness, and self-confidence, all while juggling classes? Fangirl complicates this premise further: How does one cope with all these new experiences when one is still deeply entrenched in fandom and would rather live in Simon Snow's world? Rainbow Rowell's novel has been praised for celebrating real, relatable characters that mirror today's world. Cath is a modern product of the internet and fandom culture. Her new college experience is less frat parties and more overcoming social anxiety. It follows real angst and human issues, showcasing that reveals that these "fandom" types are actually funny and smart and complex people beyond the surface level obsessions.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez
Maribel is a teenage girl suffering from a severe brain injury. She's also an illegal immigrant from Mexico, which makes healthcare and special education classes difficult to come by. Alma, Maribel's mother, quietly and determinedly navigates her family, even when they are faced with the overwhelming challenges of poverty, chronic illness, and deep loss. Maribel's story is one that is often overlooked or marginalized, but the bravery and power displayed in this novel will take your breath away. This is a novel that showcases the unwanted and unworthy and makes it beloved and important. You'll come to care about these two women and identify and sympathize with their struggle more than you could ever expect.
Juventud by Vanessa Blakeslee
Juventud is a novel all about trying to find the truth underneath the story that meets the eye. Growing up wealthy in Colombia, Mercedes life is all maids and private drivers until she falls in love with Manuel, a passionate activist. She begins to understand the suffering in her country and questions her own privileged upbringing. Through sudden, tense plot points, Mercedes comes to second guess everything she thought she knew about life in Colombia and creates a new life in the States. When she returns to Colombia, now an adult, she seeks out the truth of her adolescence, discovering that only more questions await. Mercedes' discovery is heavily rooted in questions of identity, culture, and religion. It's a deeply moving story that will leave you questioning your firmness in truth and reality.
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
What we know about Cadence, the main character in We Were Liars, is that she's been in an accident. She spends most of the book in a haze of amnesia, migraines and painkillers, attempting to piece together exactly what happened that one summer on her family's private Cape Cod island. We Were Liars has become known for its plot twists and unexpected reveals, but this book also tackles some seriously heavy issues: self-value, the dysfunctional family, and lying to protect the ones you love.
Asking for It by Louise O'Neill
Asking For It starts similarly to most YA books: it's high school, and there are parties, cliques, mean girls, and gossip. And Emma is the star – she has looks, brains, and social life to boot. Then she's left on her doorstep one night after a party, bruised and with no memory of the night before, left to discover a truth that everyone at school already knows. Even if Emma might have flirted, even if she uses her looks to her advantage, there's no excuse for what happens to her. O'Neill also thoughtfully follows the year of Emma's life past the incident, sharply noting that even long after the gossip stops, there is still real, lasting damage that is done.
Little Children by Tom Perrotta
Little Children is unavoidably a story about suburbia. There's Tom, a former-jock-turned-dad, who's sleeping with Sarah, a stay-at-home mom in a failing marriage. Yes, they have a quiet affair in a sleepy town where nothing seems to happen. And then a former child molester moves into the neighborhood, creating a general sense of unease. And Tom and Sarah's affair is pushed further, becomes darker. There's an immaturity in the adults that mirrors the immaturity of the children. And still, Perrotta is able to create sympathy for people we probably didn't think we could sympathize with. It's no wonder this book's film adaptation was Oscar nominated for some truly stunning and disturbing character portrayals.
Her by Harriet Lane
Her deals with an unlikely relationship between two distinctly different women: Emma, a very typical stay at home mom, and Nina, a polished, sophisticated career woman. A common "old couple" pairing, until Nina starts to develop a strange obsession with Emma. There's a growing unease as the book develops, diving into themes of female friendship and fears of parenthood. Her slowly becomes hauntingly discomfiting. There's a creeping sense of inevitability with payoff that defies every expectation.
Mislaid by Nell Zink
In Mislaid, a young college student has an affair with her professor, but there's a catch: she's a lesbian, and he's gay. The affair results in a pregnancy and marriage, and a decade of tension before Peggy finally runs off with their daughter. To complicate it even further, Peggy decides to change her identity, adopting an African American persona for her and her daughter. Zink's progressive novel takes a typical affair scenario — teacher and student — and challenges every notion you've ever had about that concept. And not to mention the discussion of sexual identity, race, and privilege. All of this with a sharp, comedic tone, and it's no wonder this book made the long-list for the National Book Award.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Auggie is a fifth grade boy born with a severe facial deformity, but he just wants to go to a normal school like everyone else. Not surprisingly, he endures bullies and taunts by the kids in his new school. The surprising thing about Wonder however is the multiple point of view shifts (no less than 8!) that showcase how the rest of the community is affected by Auggie. The result is a tender discussion about the struggle of showing empathy and acceptance, and the courage it sometimes takes to be a friend.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Everything I Never Told You starts with a very simple sentence: Lydia is dead. As the police try to unravel what happened to Lydia, the family uncovers the daughter and sister that they hardly knew. The revelation is especially troubling to Lydia's mother, who gave up medical school to raise her daughter, and who pressured Lydia to follow her forgotten dream. On the surface, it's a murder mystery surrounding the death of a 16-year-old girl. Underneath, it's about how tragedy and secrecy deeply affect the rest of the family's lives.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Big Little Lies focuses on three women, all of whom have children at the same preschool, and they way they bond over the struggles of motherhood. Oh yeah, and there's a witty narrator's voice who lets us know that someone will end up dead. Moriaty removes the surprise factor of murder from the novel and instead focuses on telling the story of these women, which is an unexpected plot move. The result reveals a deeper conversation past the inevitable murder: a discussion of domestic abuse, self-esteem, parenting, and of course, big lies.