I’ve been craving feel-good books recently, which has lead me to contemplate that age-old question: is there such thing as feel-good literary fiction? I think there is, although it can be hard to find. What is slightly less hard to find, it turns out, is happy literary fiction.
These novels are not what I’d call feel-good books. Many of them deal with hard and painful subjects—sexual assault, homophobia, police brutality, suicide, domestic abuse, racism. But while they’re not breezy, these are not books that leave you feeling like the world is a dumpster fire and humans are trash and there’s no hope for any of us so let’s all just hide under rocks forever. These books have uplifting endings. Happy endings. Hopeful endings.
There’s a lot of literary fiction out there that does not end like this. I can think of a dozen novels offhand that end with death and destruction and hopelessness, books that track a downward spiral and leave a reader there. There’s nothing wrong with books like that. But sometimes I want to read a hefty novel, one that tackles hard things, that puts me through the wringer and then leads me out. That’s what these books do.
I would not classify every one of these endings as unequivocally happy (though some of them are). But every one of these books left me feeling hopeful and refreshed. When I was trying to articulate what I meant by literary fiction with happy endings, a fellow Rioter used the word “cathartic”, and I think that’s right. These books have cathartic endings. They’re redemptive. They allow for the possibility of future joy. They’re satisfying. They’ll make you smile, and if they make you cry, they’ll be tears of relief, not desperation.
So, whatever you want to call it—happy literary fiction, cathartic literary fiction, literary fiction with happy endings: here are 20 must-read novels that won’t leave you feeling sad as hell.
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Patsy leaves Jamaica for America hoping to reconnect with her best friend and first love. She finds a country full of unexpected challenges and heartbreak—as well as unexpected joys. Back in Jamaica, Patsy’s daughter struggles to make sense of her life and her mother’s decision to leave her behind. Told over the course of a decade, this is a novel about the complexities of motherhood, womanhood, and family. It will make you cry, but it will leave you smiling.
Circe by Madeline Miller
My friends and family are probably tired of listening to me scream about this book. I’ve read it three times in the past two years; that’s how much I love it. It tells the story of the goddess Circe, daughter of Helios (God of the Sun), who is exiled to the island of Aiaia, where she builds a life for herself. It’s a gorgeous, complicated, heartbreaking, and deeply moving exploration of all the joys and terrors of womanhood. The ending makes me weep every time—not out sadness, but out of cathartic release.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Evelyn Hugo is one of my favorite bisexual characters in fiction, and this book is like the best fictional biopic—a lush and sprawling portrait of her life. Beginning with her rise to fame as a movie star in the 1950s, Evelyn tells the hidden story behind her seven marriages. The characters are all deeply human, and though the book contains its fair share of heartbreak and queer suffering, it is also full of queer joy.
Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk by Kathleen Rooney
On New Year’s Eve, 1984, Lilian Boxfish, 84, takes a walk around New York City. The book is a a combination of the encounters she has as she meanders through the city, and her reflections on her life—arriving in the city in the 1920s, her career in advertising, her marriage and divorce, motherhood. It’s a quiet book about ordinary things, and it left me with a sense of peace.
No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal
Set in a small Indian American community in the Cleveland suburbs, this novel follows the quiet but meaningful transformations of two people. Harit is a lonely, closeted, middle-aged man living with his mother; Ranjana is a middle-aged woman seeking purpose in her life after sending her son off to college. When their paths cross, their lives change. Warm, funny, and full of characters you’ll be rooting for from page one, this one might actually be feel-good literary fiction.
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
I recommend this book all the time for folks looking for happy literary fiction. It’s got its share of heavy themes, but there’s so much humor, exuberance, and joy that the experience of reading it never gets too grim. Nikki is a twentysomething woman living in West London, mostly cut off from the small Sikh community she grew up in. When she responds to an ad to teach creative writing at a community center in the midst of the city’s Punjabi community, the widows she meets end up opening her world in ways she never expected.
Christodora by Tim Murphy
This is a book I expected to end in disaster, and the fact that it doesn’t makes me love it all the more. Spanning the 1980s through the 2020s, it’s a kaleidoscopic view of the AIDS crisis and its reverberating aftermath, as told through the eyes of an intersecting group of diverse characters all connected to the Christodora, an apartment building in the East Village. This one puts you through the wringer, but it’s worth it for the absolutely perfect ending (not to mention the whole emotional ride).
America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo
This is one of the hardest books on this list. It’s about trauma and grief and the lasting effects of violence. But that only makes the hopeful ending all the more satisfying. Hero arrives in America looking for a fresh start. Disowned by her parents back in the Philippines and still haunted by her past, she finds a home with her aunt and uncle and their young daughter amid their tight-knight immigrant community. It’s a gorgeous book with some of the most intimate characterizations of queer women I’ve read in recent years.
The Bees by Laline Paull
If you don’t think a dystopian novel about bees can be beautiful and uplifting, this novel is here to prove you wrong. Flora 717 is a lowly sanitation worker, and she makes a fantastic narrator as she takes you through a year in the life of her hive. There’s danger and political intrigue and all sorts of adventures. The characters—all bees!—are fascinating. And though the hive is not a harmonious place, the book ends on a high note.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor has a perfectly ordered life, working in an office and avoiding humans when she’s not there. But when she tentatively becomes friends with one of her coworkers, her isolated lifestyle loses some of its shine. I love this book for its portrayal of therapy and friendship—the two most important factors that help Eleanor change her life. It’s so real and ordinary. Eleanor is a unique and unforgettable character, but the ways she heals are deeply relatable. And the ending is as uplifting as they come.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
When her mother vanishes just before a long-planned family trip to Antarctica, her daughter Bee decides to piece together the mystery using emails, letters, invoices, and memos. Combining a fierce satire of Seattle culture with a great mystery, a moving family drama, and a love letter to creativity, this novel is a little bit hilarious, a little bit absurd, and completely lovable.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Told in alternating viewpoints, this book is the story of two women separated by an ocean. In Tokyo, 16-year old Japanese American Nao pours all of her loneliness, frustration, and hurt into a diary. On a small island off the coast of British Colombia, Ruth, a struggling novelist, finds Nao’s journal washed up on shore, debris from the 2011 tsunami. As Ruth becomes immersed in Nao’s story, their lives intertwine in surprising ways. This book is another heavy one–there’s abuse, bullying, and suicide. It’s also a beautiful story about the power of art and the mysterious and sometimes magical connections between writers and readers.
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob
When her father starts having conversations with relatives who aren’t there, Amina, a photographer working in Seattle, returns to her childhood home to figure out what’s going on. Unraveling the mystery of her father’s visions takes her back through her family’s history in India, as well as some of the most painful parts of her own past. This is a big-hearted family saga full of characters that go through profound change–my favorite kind of ending.
The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray
Some of my favorite endings in fiction are endings that make space for future joy. They don’t wrap everything up neatly, but give the reader a blueprint for how the characters will move forward. This book ends like that. When Althea and Proctor—the bedrock of their family—are arrested, it’s up to Althea’s two younger sisters to care for their two teenage daughters. But the sisters have their own messy lives—and a lot of family history to untangle.
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
This novel begins with a hit-and-run that kills Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant and long-time resident of a small California desert town. In the aftermath of this crime, the narrative weaves in and out of many character’s perspectives, focusing on Driss’s wife and adult daughter Nora. It’s a complicated look at the effects of crime on the many residents of a small town, and the intersections of race, class, and gender that mark their experiences.
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel
This novel follows the four members of a classical string quartet as they navigate success and failure, fame, competition, personal drama, love, and family. It’s a wonderful look into the life of classical musicians, but mostly it’s about four friends and how their relationships to each other and themselves change as they age.
The Gods of Tango by Carolina de Robertis
In 1913, a young Italian immigrant arrives alone in Buenos Aries, expecting to be married. When they discover their new husband has been killed, they don men’s clothing and join a group of tango musicians, where they find unexpected companionship and family. Steeped in the rhythm of tango and the vibrant messiness of immigrant communities in Buenos Aries, this is a story of self-discovery, often full of heartbreak, that is sometimes physically painful to read. But if you let it, it will lead you out into the light at the end, leaving you feeling reborn.
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
A literary murder mystery set at a school for magicians, this book is by turns funny, charming, and sad. Ivy is a PI with no interest in magic; still grieving the death of her mother, she lives a lonely, ordered life. But when a staff member is murdered at the school where her estranged sister teaches, Ivy is drawn back into a world she thought she’d left behind. If you like character-driven mysteries, this is a great one—the mystery is engaging and the world-building is fantastic, but it’s Ivy’s emotional journey that stays with you.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
I wrestled with whether or not to include this book here, because it is dark. Beginning in the 1600s, it follows the decedents of two Ghanaian sisters over 300 years: one sister marries a slaver and remains in Ghana, and the other is sold into slavery in America. There is some truly horrifying violence in this novel, the kind that is physically painful to read. It’s also a gorgeous story about some of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered in fiction. And the ending is like a clean, bracing wind: it does not erase the generational trauma at the heart of this novel, but there’s an expansiveness to it that makes room for hope and healing.
The Bird Artist by Howard Norman
In some ways, this book is the opposite of a murder mystery: it begins with an admission. Fabian Vas, resident of a remote Newfoundland coastal town, has killed the lighthouse keeper. The narrative unravels the events, emotions, and motivations behind this act. Told in simple prose as sharp and striking as Fabian’s bird illustrations and the windswept Newfoundland coast, this is a book that stays with you long after it’s over. It’s a page-turner, but a quiet one, dwelling in the intimate moments that make up a life.
Looking for legit feel-good literary fiction? Yeah, me too. There’s some great happy literary fiction on this list of books that make you happy long after the last page. We’ve got feel-good fantasy and feel-good science fiction and comforting books for hard times. But truly feel-good literary fiction is hard to come by.