Earlier this week, I read The Eden Test by Adam Sternbergh. It’s a thriller about a couple whose marriage is falling apart. I thought, “Their relationship is so messy.” And since I love reading about messy people and situations, I was delighted by the messiness. That thought inspired this post. So today, I’m sharing ten books about relational, mental, or physical messiness. I’ll start with one of my all-time favorites.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I read Gone Girl shortly after its release in 2012. Before that, I’d only read a couple of mysteries or thrillers. I only picked up Gone Girl because it was getting so much hype. But, as I read it, I understood why.
The story follows Nick and Amy Dunne, a couple who look perfect on the outside. When Amy vanishes, Nick is the prime suspect, though he swears his innocence. As with any good thriller, nothing is quite as it seems. The Dunne’s relationship is incredibly messy, and reading about it made me realize how much I like stories that show behind-the-scenes glimpses of seemingly idyllic lives. We’ve all got our messes; some are just more obvious than others.
Now Is Not the Time to Panic by Kevin Wilson
Frankie and Zeke are two misfits who come together one fateful summer. They’ve never fit in, but they find acceptance in each other. When they create mysterious posters and hang them all over their small town, rumors and fear-mongering immediately follow, causing repercussions they could never have anticipated.
Everything feels so intense when you’re a teenager. The lows are lower, and the highs are higher when you’re young and trying to figure out who you are. It’s easy to make a mess of things because you sometimes don’t know any better. But, you learn as you live, and Frankie and Zeke spend many years wrestling with what they learned from the messes their art created.
Yellowface by R. F. Kuang
Have you ever spilled something and had to use a thin, non-absorbant paper towel to clean it up? As a result, the mess sometimes gets worse, even though you’re trying to tidy. June, the protagonist in R. F. Kuang’s Yellowface, knows a lot about trying to clean up a mess. When her friend Athena, a fellow writer, dies in her presence, June takes the printed manuscript she finds on Athena’s desk. She’s just going to edit the novel but then claims the work as her own. The mess June created threatens to bury her alive when the book becomes a huge success. June quickly learns that you can’t hide from the chaos you create for yourself. This page turner is one of my favorite reads of 2023 so far.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Shaker Heights, Ohio, was designed as a sort of utopian paradise. The city was meticulously planned, and the impressive homes belong to the most successful residents, including Elena Richardson and her four children. Mia and her daughter Pearl are new to Shaker Heights and rent a house from Elena. The two families quickly become enmeshed, but the messiness of a controversial custody battle and Mia’s unexplained past cause ruptures that aren’t supposed to happen in Shaker Heights. If you like novels with large casts of characters and stories full of messy drama, you’ll love this well-written gem.
She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement
by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
A sentence about halfway through The Eden Test struck me: “How weird that the person who transgresses has the freedom of being unburdened.” I thought about that idea concerning She Said and Harvey Weinstein’s crimes.
Many women were preyed upon by Weinstein; his abuse continued for years. Yet he still made money, had famous friends, and got thanked by Oscar winners. Weinstein made the messes, but his victims had to live in the filth. And yet, they told the truth. Kantor and Twohey pursued a story that involved people far more powerful than they were and gave survivors a chance at justice. She Said is a powerful book about women raising their voices.
The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison
I don’t drink alcohol. That’s true for several reasons, but chief among them is the knowledge that alcoholism has deeply hurt some of the people I love. The messes from addiction can be the most damaging because they affect everyone in the addict’s orbit. Decisions made decades before can still cause pain, even if the one who caused the pain tries to clean up the mess.
In The Recovering, Leslie Jamison explores her own relationship with alcohol while also discussing how substance abuse affected beloved writers such as Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace. This brilliant, well-written book seamlessly blends memoir and criticism. The Recovering is one of those books that continues speaking to me years after I’ve read it. Jamison’s writing reads like poetry.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
The Recovering talked about true stories of substance abuse and the consequences of it, but Transcendent Kingdom is about a fictional family scarred by addiction. The novel revolves around Gifty, a Ghanaian immigrant who grew up in Alabama with her mom and brother. When her brother overdoses on heroin, Gifty turns her scientific interests toward addiction research. She’s studying neuroscience in California when her mother arrives to stay with her. Her mom has been a shell of herself since her son’s death, and the two women have to wrestle with their loss and how their religious faith seems to have failed them. Transcendent Kingdom is a stunning novel about the messiness of grief, disappointment, and separation.
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
There are few topics more controversial or divisive than religion and politics. Believers and voters cling tightly to what they believe to be true and often try to persuade others to join their side. But, unfortunately, religion and politics create messes when one fuels the other. Kristin Kobes Du Mez explores this in her brilliant book Jesus and John Wayne.
Du Mez unpacks decades of religious and political movements and shows how entangled evangelicalism and conservative politics have become. A mess inevitably follows when people begin loving power more than they love their God or their fellow citizens. This book is a must-read if you don’t understand how so many evangelicals could love a man as messy as Donald Trump.
How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing
by K. C. Davis
Most of the other books on this list focus on internal messiness, but How to Keep House While Drowning addresses the physical messes in our homes. What I appreciate most about K. C. Davis is her focus on people struggling with mental health. The messiness in our homes can often mimic the messiness in our heads. But, according to Davis, messiness is morally neutral. Her book is full of brief thoughts about dealing with the messes we make, even when our minds are also cluttered.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
In Salvage the Bones, a poor Black family in Mississippi is trying to prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. Esch is a fourteen-year-old girl who’s pregnant and dealing with morning sickness. Her father isn’t around much, and her brothers are mostly left on their own. This family is dealing with the messiness of addiction, a natural disaster, and no parental supervision. While many novels are about the wealthy and elite, Jesmyn Ward’s story of poverty in the rural South is a reminder that stories need to be told about all kinds of families and situations.
Those are my ten messy books. What titles would make your list? I’d love to hear your thoughts.