Depressing Books

I enjoy depressing books.  Russian authors?  Bring them on!  Shakespeare’s tragedies?  Can’t get enough!  And my love of these books once led me to suggest them to others.  However, I quickly learned that other people, most of the people I know, don’t like to read depressing books.  Suddenly, I feel as if there’s something wrong with me.  But, I have a theory.

I had a strained and unhappy childhood.  There were happy moments.  I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me.  But, overall I had to deal with a lot of grownup crap that many people don’t.  My theory is that because of this melancholy childhood, I enjoy reading about people in novels that experience the sorrow and difficulties that I have experienced.  I enjoy reading novels that portray what I consider to be “real life,” and sometimes “real life” sucks.  It isn’t a fairy tale.  At least, it wasn’t for me.

One of these depressing books is Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh.  It is about the three women who are all married (at different times) to the same man, Mr. Kimble.  These women are compelling and strong.  They each face difficult challenges and react differently to Mr. Kimble’s fickle affections.  The first wife, the one with two young children, has difficulty getting out of bed after Mr. Kimble has left her.  She is young, uneducated, unemployed, and overwhelmed.  Her son at one point eats dog food because he is so hungry and his mother isn’t functioning. Eventually the neighbors step in and the children are fine.  (Stop panicking!)

I related to this young mother.  After having my first child, I sunk into a depression and had difficulty adjusting to life at home with a crying baby rather than life at work with my friends.  I had to realize that my shirt would look like several birds had attacked me with their excrement at some point during the day rather than wearing my perfectly pressed outfits from Banana Republic and Ann Taylor.  I had to wake up several times at night and allow a tiny, yet powerful mouth to bruise my body and continue to deprive me of much needed sleep.  I had to say goodbye to my husband every morning as he continued life as normal, while I contemplated all of the things I was probably missing.  Motherhood is a difficult transition, and I admire my friends and neighbors who seem to do it so effortlessly.  I did not do it effortlessly, but these years later I think I finally have the hang of it!

Anyway, I suggested Mrs. Kimble for a book club meeting several years ago in my neighborhood, around the same time I was first experiencing motherhood.  In my naïveté, I went to the meeting keyed up and excited for the discussion and expecting everybody to give it rave reviews. Well, the book certainly elicited discussion.  But to my extreme disappointment, the ladies mostly disliked the novel.  They criticized the young mother and declared the book to be depressing.  I earned a reputation for liking depressing books.

In a recent conversation with a student, he mentioned having read “the most depressing story ever” in his Introduction to Fiction class.  It was a short story by Isabel Allende that I had not read or heard of, but he seemed truly disturbed by it.  The plot involved rape and revenge.  Despite his intentions to major in English, he told me he does not like depressing literature.  Maybe he had an extremely happy childhood?  But because we had been discussing Anna Karenina a few moments before his analysis of Allende’s story, I backtracked and told him that he probably wouldn’t like Tolstoy after all.

Do people with happy childhoods hate depressing books, or is my theory wrong?  Despite many of my friends’ dislike of “depressing” books, I maintain that depressing books must be liked by more people than just me.  I admit that the end of Gone with the Wind disappointed me, but according to one of my favorite college professors, “Large numbers of people find the resolution to be satisfying.”  He applies this to all literature, and if large numbers of people didn’t find tragic resolutions satisfying, there wouldn’t be so many depressing books.