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Happily never after: love stories that end in tears

By Kobo • February 12, 2024Recommended Reading

Love stories for readers who do not want a HEA... unless it's the first three letters of "HEArtbreaking"

When the right mood strikes, there's nothing better than curling up with a romance book. But sometimes, don't you just want a love story to end tragically? Doesn't that make the story of the characters' romance feel more poignant—and even more beautiful? There is a certain something about a book that proceeds romantically but ends unhappily; those stories can stick with you long after you've read the last page with a voice inside your head asking, "what if...?" and wishing, "if only...".

This list of books is for readers who love a love story that leaves them in tears, who want to follow the arc of a deepening crush to a crushing disappointment. These deeply romantic books—even if they're strictly speaking romance books—feature endings that'll break your heart in the best way.

One Day  by David Nicholls 

Emma and Dexter meet on the night of their graduation on July 15, 1988—and they can't forget one another. Though they have to part ways after that day, they meet up annually every July 15 over decades. The story checks in on the couple every year as they reunite over the next 20 years, letting readers follow their aching love story from its heart-fluttering highs to its tragic lows.

Fans of the 14-part Netflix series can revisit Emma and Dexter and appreciate the little changes that were made for the adaptation—though the story ends no more happily ever after here than on the screen.

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Instructions for Dancing  by Nicola Yoon 

Love doesn't always work out. No one knows this better than Evie Thomas in Instructions for Dancing. One afternoon, Evie witnesses a couple kissing and is immediately overcome by visions of the couple's entire love story from beginning to end. Now any time she sees a couple kiss, she sees the whole relationship flash before her eyes, and she knows that most love stories end in heartbreak. And yet, despite knowing how heartbreaking love is, she still finds herself falling for X, her dance partner for a ballroom dance competition.

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A Walk to Remember  by Nicholas Sparks 

Author Nicholas Sparks's name has become synonymous with sad romance stories. But A Walk to Remember is one of the author's saddest, especially because the story is inspired by Sparks's own sister, Danielle Sparks Lewis, who died of cancer in 2000. In this novel, Landon Carter looks fondly back on 1958, his last year at Beaufort High and the year he fell in love. Shy, sweet Jamie, the daughter of the town's Baptist minister, wasn't the type of girl Landon thought he would fall for, but his love for Jamie remains with him so many years later.

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Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

From the short story collection Close Range, this is the story of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, a couple of ranch hands who spend the summer together—apart from their wives and children—and discover an undeniable connection between them. But they don't live in a world that will let that kind of love exist.

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The Time Traveler's Wife  by Audrey Niffenegger 

Long distance relationships can be hard, but how about romances that are torn apart by time? Time has never been on the side of The Time Traveler's Wife's Clare and Henry, who live on completely different timelines. Clare first met Henry when she was 6 and he was 36. Then they were married when Clare was 23 and Henry 31. How is this possible? Henry has Chrono-Displacement Disorder, meaning he shifts through time, pulled to moments of emotional gravity throughout in his life. Clare and Henry's love for one another is enough to overcome these obstacles, but for how long?

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Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

The classic gothic novel of Heathcliff and Catherine is often regarded as a romance, but it's infused with as much violence as passion, leading to a tragic end.

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The Fault in Our Stars  by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is perhaps one of the most infamously sad contemporary romance stories. So if you are one of the few people who still hasn't read this one yet, be forewarned. You won't want to start John Green's most popular novel without a box of tissues close by. The Fault in Our Stars is the story of Hazel, a young girl who is living with terminal cancer. To help herself come to terms with her diagnosis, she attends a support group for kids with cancer, but the sessions don't do much to change her outlook on life. That is, until Augustus Waters. Just when Hazel has all but given up hope, Augustus teaches her how to savor the life she has, and he teaches her how to love. And while both Hazel and Augustus know they won't have all the time in the world together, they find ways to savor what time they have.

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Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman

A family's handsome young guest at their summer home on the Italian Riviera becomes the object of an adolescent boy's infatuation, sparking a reckless affair that can't outlast the season.

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Finally, if you want to take a very long walk to a sad ending, there's no better journey than the one you'll take in this classic by Leo Tolstoy.

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Image credit: Netflix

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