Books

17 Truly Heartbreaking Books About Love & Loss

Grab a box of tissues. You’ll need them.

'An American Marriage,' 'This Is How You Lose The Time War,' and 'High as the Waters Rise' are among...
Courtesy
Updated: 
Originally Published: 

Rosy love stories are great and all, but they don’t always scratch that itch. You know, when you just need a tragic love story to completely obliterate your heart, rip it out of your chest, and stomp all over it. For many, this twisted ache began with a little heart-wrenching novel by Nicholas Sparks called The Notebook (ever heard of it?) and basically spiraled out of control from there. Sometimes you truly just need a good crying fit, and becoming emotionally attached to characters doomed with heartbreak and tragedy is a guaranteed ticket to get there.

If all of the general positivity and romantic mushiness in your reading material is just not doing it for you, ground yourself with one of these sad love books that will actually make you feel something. Exactly what makes a story good, after all, is a matter of opinion. Some people prefer tales where the heroes win, the lovers reunite, and everyone lives happily ever after in the end, while others would rather read about the darker side of life. When it comes to stories about love, there are plenty on both sides of the spectrum to keep every reader happy — even if that means the characters in the book might not be.

If you find yourself reveling in the catharsis of a good book-induced cry sesh, these stories are for you. From forbidden affairs to tragic deaths to fairy tales with less-than-happy endings, here are 17 heartbreaking romance books to uncontrollably sob over. Prepare for the ultimate book hangover.

We only include products that have been independently selected by Bustle's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

1

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

Two young people fall in love on the Italian Riviera in Call Me by Your Name, a heartrending novel set in the mid-1980s. At age 17, Elio is much younger than the object of his affections — Oliver, a 24-year-old med student living with Elio’s parents for the summer. The pair are drawn together for a few weeks of passion, but can they ever be more than a summer fling?

2

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

A finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Biography, poet Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir, The Light of the World, traces the bounds of love, grief, and recovery. The author explores her relationship with her teenage sons in the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death in 2012 at age 49, weaving a story that’s at once tender and beautiful — and sure to leave you feeling raw.

3

This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith

A recently divorced therapist and a man she’s consoling come together in this quiet romance novel. After inviting Emmett into her home, Tallie doesn’t tell him what she does for a living, and he doesn’t tell her why he planned to die by suicide. Although it’s often described as evoking a hygge-like coziness, This Close to Okay still manages to rip your heart out before the end.

4

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

How is it possible for a book to have a hopeful ending and be sad? Somehow, This Is How You Lose the Time War finds a way. In this epistolary romance, two time travelers on opposite sides of a cosmic war, known as Red and Blue, share messages in secret locations across the timeline. They slowly transition from enemies to lovers, but all’s fair in love and war… and this is both.

5

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage is a masterclass in tragedy. Tayari Jones’ NAACP Image Award-winning novel centers on Celestial and Roy: a married couple who are separated as newlyweds when Roy is wrongly convicted of a terrible crime. Five years later, Roy is unexpectedly released from prison, and Celestial should be overjoyed by their reunion — but she’s fallen for someone else in the time he’s been away.

6

High as the Waters Rise by Anja Kampmann

German poet Anja Kampmann’s debut novel follows Waclaw, an oil rig worker who’s caught in a spiral of grief when his companion and co-worker, Mátyás, is lost at sea. As he travels across Europe and Africa, stopping in Morocco, Hungary, Italy, and Germany, Waclaw traces the edges of his life — the parts of it he shared with Mátyás, and the void left behind by his death.

7

The Lucky Ones by Liz Lawson

In Liz Lawson’s powerful YA debut, a pair of teens are united by grief in the wake of a school shooting. The only survivor of a violent incident that killed her twin brother, May is struggling with survivor’s guilt when she meets Zach: the son of the shooter’s defense attorney, whose friends have all abandoned him. They’ve both lost much in the last few months, but what might they stand to gain from one another?

8

Kept Animals by Kate Milliken

In Kate Milliken’s deeply affective novel, a complex social network connects three teen girls in early ’90s California. Among them is Rory, a ranch hand who finds herself caught between two love interests: June, a wealthy ranch patron, and Vivian, the daughter of a Hollywood star. Narrated by Rory’s daughter in 2015, Kept Animals is a brooding story of love and loss.

9

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water centers on two unnamed, Black British creatives: a photographer and a dancer. There’s no doubt that the two fast friends are headed for romance, but the photographer struggles to open up to his partner — with whom he has so much in common — when it comes to matters of life and death. The pair’s relationship may just break under the strain.

10

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

Addie has lived through 300 years of historical events, but her participation was never recorded for posterity. That’s the price she paid to live forever: No one can remember her. Then she meets someone who knows exactly who she is, and the trajectory of her entire life shifts, in The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.

11

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

As a trans brujo, Yadriel faces opposition from his traditional family, who refuse to see him for the young man he is. To prove himself, he attempts to summon the ghost of his missing cousin... but winds up face-to-face with the spirit of Julian instead. This local bad boy has some business to attend to before he leaves this world behind, and Yadriel is just the right guy to help him. But what happens when a brujo can’t bear to exorcise a spirit that needs to cross over?

12

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

A BookTok favorite, The Song of Achilles is a gripping retelling of Homer’s The Iliad. The reimagined adventure infuses the legend of Achilles and the Trojan War with a page-turning love story. Achilles is the strong and beautiful son of sea goddess Thetis and King Peleus. In a chance encounter, he meets and bonds with Patroclus, an exiled young prince. Seeking glory, Achilles joins the heroes of Greece on their quest to invade Troy after Helen of Sparta is kidnapped. Out of love and fear, Patroclus follows him on his deadly pursuit.

13

Memorial by Brian Washington

Benson and Mike have been together for several years and live together in Houston — but they aren’t exactly a couple. Or are they? They love each other, but can’t seem to discuss and define what they are or where this relationship is going. Everything is tested when Mike discovers his father is dying and tells Benson he is going to go to Japan to be with him — just as his mother, Mitsuko, is set for an extended visit in Houston. Memorial is a make-you-laugh and cry story exploring all of the devastatingly real sides of a relationship.

14

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

A Place For Us follows an Indian-American Muslim family over the span of several decades. Narrated from the perspective of each member, the family gathers in their hometown in California for the wedding of the eldest daughter, Hadia. The youngest sibling, Amar, has made an appearance after three years of estrangement. A Place For Us catalogs the history and decisions of the family’s past that led to this moment. The children struggle to balance the traditions and faith of their parents with their new culture as they navigate what will bring them together — and what will ultimately drive them apart.

15

In Five Years by Rebecca Serle

Dannie Cohan is living life according to her plan, and it’s working out exactly as it’s supposed to. She nailed her life-changing interview at her dream law firm and just accepted her boyfriend’s proposal. She falls asleep knowing her life is exactly on track, but when she wakes up, she’s in a different apartment, has a different ring on her finger, and is looking at a man who is not her fiancé. It’s five years in the future and nothing is right. She spends exactly one hour here before waking up back in her apartment with her fiancé. For the next five years, Dannie does everything in her power to shake that fateful hour and keep life going according to her plan. This becomes exceedingly difficult when she unexpectedly meets the man she spent an hour with five years in the future.

16

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Louisa Clarke is hired as a caregiver for Will Traynor, a man who became paralyzed from the neck down in a motorcycle accident. Will had lived an extraordinary life of adventure before the accident and is now cynical with no desire to live. Louisa is determined to prove to Will that life is worth living and in doing so, discovers a spark she didn’t know she was missing in her own life.

17

A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks

When it comes to Nicholas Sparks, you’re pretty much guaranteed a devastatingly tragic love story, and A Walk to Remember is no exception. The high school romance between bad boy Landon Carter and the minister’s daughter, Jamie Sullivan, is unlikely, to say the least. As he falls for Jamie, Landon begins to turn his life around, but everything is thrown to the wayside when he discovers her heart-breaking secret.