What’s In My Therapy Library: Fiction Edition
Since I became something of an academic, I’ve taken to writing notes on every piece of literature I come across. It began, of course, with academic articles, but then I realized that what helped me digest academic articles would of course help me digest other writings. Now I underline things I like and scribble opinions on words I find even in fiction. The books below are my most scribbled-on fiction stories.
I include works of fiction in my therapy library for two reasons. First, because I believe that we cannot consistently fight our demons– we need a safe world in which to take refuge from them. Second, because even though the stories are not real, they offer invaluable commentary on the world we do live in. For example, while Turtles All The Way Down is a love story, it makes a statement about loving someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). While the shooting in A Spark of Light did not actually happen, it raises important questions about our stance on women’s rights in this country.
In Dr. Robert Duff’s book F*ck Anxiety, he cites research showing your brain has a difficult time distinguishing between painful things you think and painful things you experience. While that’s one of the terrible things about anxiety, it’s also what makes fiction stories so powerful. You will find that these books, though not real, still make you feel deeply enough to question what you know.
Just so you know– I’m having trouble making my links look like links, but the headings with the names of the books are all links to Amazon!
**Affiliate Disclaimer- I may receive a small commission from Amazon if you make a purchase from this page. This is at no extra cost to you, and I would only recommend books that I have personally read and truly endorse!
Related: Master List of Book Posts
Fiction Books to Make You Think & Feel Stuff
by Jodi Picoult
Even though Picoult’s book are all fiction, her most popular works center around a conflict that is touching society at the moment. A Spark of Light is about a woman’s right to her own body.
George Goddard is a religious man in the Deep South, raising a daughter on his own. One day, he finds her in the bathroom doubled over, blood everywhere, and takes her to the hospital to find she had attempted to get an abortion. In a rage, he gets his gun and drives 500 miles to the only abortion clinic left in Mississippi, and starts shooting.
In true Picoult fashion, this book is written in many points of view. On the other side, you’ll meet Hugh, the hostage negotiator assigned to neutralize the threat. Can you imagine what happens when he finds out his fourteen year old daughter is one of the hostages?
With all that has gone on in the past weeks with Alabama passing that abominable bill, this book (written two years ago) could not be more hauntingly relevant.
by Liane Moriarty
While Big Little Lies is obviously a national sensation now, with a show starring Reese Witherspoon, I’ve included this book on the list for reasons other than its bestseller status. It’s a cool world to escape to, and it makes an interesting statement about how we’re all connected.
The story is about Madeline, Celeste, and Jane– three mothers whose children all attend the same school but whose lives are vastly different. Until, of course, their paths collide over a murder at the PTA trivia night. I can’t tell you anything about their connections without spoiling parts of the story, so I’ll leave you with just that! It’s quite complex but deeply satisfying and indulgent, with a hint of darkness.
by Janet Fitch
I have a client who found herself in the foster care system as a teenager. When I met her, she told me this book had helped her get through her first year as a foster kid, and I knew we were going to be a great match for therapy. I had read it about two years prior, so we had a lot to talk about.
Astrid’s mother is an insanely gorgeous poet, who lands in jail for murdering a man with the poison from a white oleander. With no father in the picture, Astrid is sent to a series of foster homes throughout Los Angeles. Each one is traumatic in its own way, shaping Astrid’s teen years in ways she never imagined. All the while, she is also in communication with her mother through letters, and readers will feel the confusion that results from their toxic relationship.
by Harper Lee
TKAM is the reason I know unequivocally that teachers are human. My freshman year English teacher cried as she read us the last bit– SPOILER ALERT– where Scout realizes that Boo Radley is the one who saved her and Jem. It was beautiful punctuation on a beautiful classic fiction novel.
Scout Finch is a little girl growing up in Alabama in the 20’s or 30’s. She lives with her father Atticus, a lawyer, and her brother Jem. They befriend Dill, who is fascinated by a haunted looking house inhabited by a recluse they call Boo Radley. Throughout the story, they try to coax him outside.
While this is going on, Scout’s father Atticus agrees to represent a black man on trial for raping a white woman. He is somewhat of a moral compass for the story. As you can imagine, in the Deep South in the 1930s, this ends up subjecting the entire family to torment. Still, Atticus goes through with it because he truly believes Tom Robinson is innocent. This is why I’ve added TKAM to this list. Though it is old, we are still dealing with these race issues in 2019.
There’s a second book– a prequel of sorts– call Go Set A Watchman that was released just a few years ago by Lee’s family. Lee never meant for it to be published, and some say it makes Atticus look racist after all, which soured some readers on the original book. If you’re intrigued, I’ve included the link!
by Jodi Picoult
With the current climate of our nation, Picoult’s 2007 book about a school shooting remains painfully relevant.
Peter is a senior in high school, and has been bullied most of his life. One day, after one particular incident, he decides he’s had enough, and spends nineteen minutes shooting up his school. As is typical of Picoult’s books, the story unfolds over a couple of different timelines– the first is the course of the nineteen minutes, and the second is the aftermath.
What I love about Jodi Picoult is that she is very good at making political statements without judgment. We feel what Peter went through as a bullying victim, and indeed, this book has landed on many anti-bullying curriculums nationwide. Yet, we also get a good look at the pain he causes his town in the aftermath.
by Erin Morganstern
I call The Night Circus “light fantasy” because it’s about magicians, but you don’t need to be a hardcore fantasy aficionado to appreciate the story. It’s about two circus performers who are secretly real magicians. They are destined to kill each other due to a decades-old feud between their guardians, but they meet by chance, and happen to fall in love.
And oh my God, talk about beautiful prose. While the character development may be lacking, Morganstern makes up for it with absolutely delicious description of Le Cirque des Reves. The black-and-white circus always appears without warning, and is only open at night. I’ve included this book on my fiction list because of the way I so easily fell into this world. The words themselves feel like magic, considering how quickly one can be drawn in.
This is Morganstern’s first novel, and certainly a great one. Her second book, The Starless Sea, is coming out in November and looks just as indulgent.
by Emma Donoghue
Room is written from the perspective of a five-year-old boy. More specifically, Jack is a five-year-old boy who has never seem the world outside the small shed–the room– in which his mother is kidnapped. In fact, he doesn’t believe there is a world outside “Room”.
There are a couple of reasons I’m adding this book to this list. First, I love when authors write from a child’s perspective (see the next book, too!) and Donoghue does a brilliant job. Not only does she understand the mind of a child, but she worms her way into that of one who has been groomed to think of a torture chamber as home. She has an amazing grasp on how he would speak, how he would feel about “Room,” and more.
Second, I love how Room exemplifies that healing is not linear. People are often inclined to believe that once kidnapping victims are saved, life is good again. But more often, as Room accurately depicts, some of the worst psychological torture is still to come. And, even when you think you’re feeling better, you can suffer very un-motivating setbacks. Though it’s fiction, it’s compelling for anyone interested in the human condition, specifically the resiliency of children.
by Mark Haddon
I added this book because I remembered what a stunning job Haddon had done writing from the perspective of a child on the Autism Spectrum. Curious Incident is a stigma-buster, for sure.
The book follows Christopher John Francis Boone, who is fifteen. He understands and relates well to animals, but not people. In fact, he doesn’t understand humans very well at all. His love for animals explains why he feels so crushed when a neighborhood dog turns up murdered. All the adults around him try to keep him from trying to solve the mystery of who did it, but he knows he doesn’t like people who kill dogs. So he tries anyway. In doing so, he forces his mind to work in new ways, and readers get a glimpse into the brain of someone with ASD.
by J.D. Salinger
My graduate school entrance essay was about The Catcher in the Rye. I read it sophomore year of high school, in a unit full of coming-of-age novels. This one struck me because of Holden Caulfield’s penchant for protecting the innocent.
This fiction story is about a teenage boy (Holden) who gets kicked out of his private school and doesn’t want to tell his parents, so he wanders around New York City alone until his winter break was supposed to start. Lots of events contribute toward his loss of innocence, and readers watch him grapple with what it means to grow up.
Toward the end, Holden talks with his little sister about what he wants to be when he grows up. He confides in her that the only thing he can think of came from a poem– he envisions a large field of rye, filled with children playing, but they’re all getting close to this cliff. He wants to be the one who catches them before they fall. Of course, grappling with my own coming-of-age at the time, I found that deeply emotional, and I wanted it too. Though it was fiction, again, this was one of the beautiful stories that shaped my career in mental health.
by Liane Moriarty
Much like Picoult’s books, The Hypnotist’s Love Story sort of humanizes behavior that the public often finds very monster-like. I think that’s very cool, and a step in the right direction toward stigma-busting.
Ellen is a hypnotist who has had terrible luck in love. She finally meets a man who might be a good match, and it turns out, he has a stalker. Instead of being afraid, she is fascinated. In fact, she wants to meet her. As the Amazon description states: “Ellen doesn’t know it, but she already has.”
Moriarty does a great job getting us inside the mind of Patrick’s stalker, Saskia. In fact, you can really understand how she got to be this way, and even root for her the tiniest bit.
by Jenna Blum
I brought this book on vacation with me a couple of years ago. I was so riveted that I was sitting hunched over it on a lounge chair and got sunburn on my back!
It’s on my fiction list for two reasons. First, as an MFT I really value the questions this book asks about family. How far would you go for the people you love? Second, it stigma-busts bipolar disorder. We get a glimpse inside Charles’s head, and consequently an up-close-and-personal look at his demons.
Here’s the plot: when they were teens, Karena and Charles were inseparable twins. Charles was obsessed with storms, and when he stopped taking his bipolar medication, his manic tendencies got worse, and they end with deadly consequences. It ruined their relationship, until 20 years later when he ends up missing. Karena has to decide how far she is willing to go to save her twin brother.
by Jodi Picoult
I love elephants. Their brains are just amazing. Researchers are able to see that they emote in some ways that are similar to humans. For example, they are devoted to their families, and they grieve. That brings us to the plot of Leaving Time.
Alice Metcalf is a researcher who studied grief in elephants. After a tragic accident, she disappeared, and her daughter Jenna never saw her again. A decade after her disappearance, Jenna decides to really pour over her journals full of research notes, looking for clues. Yet another book that exemplifies love for family, with an amazing twist at the end. Believe me, you’ll never see it coming!
by John Green
I have a friend who works in finance. He had heard this phrase “it’s turtles all the way down” in the context of infinity, and quite incorrectly thought this book would be about numbers. When he opened it up, he found a YA novel about a girl with OCD. He was annoyed; I was intrigued.
Truth time: I struggle with a mild form of OCD concerning body-focused repetitive behaviors, or BFRBs. Basically, I pick at the skin on my arms. Once I think about doing it, my brain has difficulty moving from that thought (obsessive thought) until I complete the behavior to satisfy it (compulsive action). It doesn’t affect my life much, but it doesn’t look cute. There are people who have far, far worse cases than mine, such as Aza Holmes in this book.
Aza’s obsessive thoughts are about germs– she hates the idea of bacteria being in her body, even though she knows some of it is good and necessary. She compulsively picks at, cleans, and bandages the same callous she’s had on her hand for years. It won’t heal; she can’t seem to let it.
While she struggles with this, another conflict rages in the foreground of the story. Her friend’s dad has gone missing, and she wants the reward for his capture. But then, she starts to like the boy. But then she’s double conflicted because the thought of kissing this boy sends her OCD into triple quadruple overdrive. Yes, there’s a lot going on in this story, but I think it reflects life in that there’s never just one thing to focus on. Especially when you’re battling mental health issues!
by Matthew Quick
Silver Linings Playbook is my favorite movie of all time. Normally, I like to read the books before watching the movie, but I just happened to catch the movie first and I loved it so much I didn’t want to risk not liking the original! Even so, I was at a book sale a few months ago and came across the novel for twenty-five cents and I just couldn’t pass it up. Of course, the changes were a little tough for me to accept, but I also felt like I was getting insider information about my favorite fictional people. In the end, I was drowning in my own tears, so I guess I have to admit it was good!
Silver Linings Playbook follows Pat, who has recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He’s spent the last eight months in a mental hospital following his attack on a man who he found cheating with his wife. We watch him as he struggles to win her back, all the while forming an interesting friendship with Tiffany, who is grieving the death of her husband. It’s a great stigma-busting story as well as a feel-good one.
by Mitch Albom
This fiction story, though simple in its execution, packs a lot of meaning. When I finished it, I was in a serious book hangover! Partially because I had so many more questions about this world! But, I recognize that the magic allowing it to resonate with so many lies in the blanks readers can fill with their own beliefs.
It follows an old man named Eddie, who is killed by amusement park equipment at his job. In the afterlife, he finds that five different people have been waiting for him in their own afterlives to explain certain aspects of his time on earth. Like Big Little Lies, this book confirms what we already know– we are more deeply connected to the world than we imagine.
I have not read the fiction books on this list, but I’d like to someday! If you’re interested too, I’m including the Amazon links.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morganstern
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Cosntantine
The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty