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Ask a Book Critic: Books to read when you’re tired of being alone

Book recommendations for your very specific mood.

Ask a Book Critic Amanda Northrop/Vox
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to the latest installment of Vox’s Ask a Book Critic, in which I, Vox book critic Constance Grady, provide book recommendations to suit your very specific mood: either how you’re feeling right now, or how you’d like to be feeling instead.

This week I’ve been dipping in and out of The Moment of Tenderness, a new collection of Madeleine L’Engle’s early short stories (some of which have never been published). It’s interesting to me mostly as a L’Engle completist, because it provides a look at her early take on some of the themes that animated her later writing: isolated and lonely children, glamorous mothers, and absent or emasculated fathers. In these stories, though, those themes are mundane and miserable, with none of the magic and escape that L’Engle’s later books have. I’m not at all sure it’s making me feel better about the world, and I think I might send myself off on a quest for a different book to read soon, something that might better fit my mood.

In the meantime, I’d like to help you find something to read that will fit your mood. Let’s get started.

The recommendation requests below, submitted to me via email and on Twitter, have been edited for length and clarity.

I generally swing between big literary books or crazy-funny fantasy (with a bit of quirky for good measure), but right now I need something less difficult. I’d like to be engaged and amused, with NO plague/death/sick children.

I have a few possibilities for you, and I’m going to list them in order of how dense the prose is, lightest to heaviest.

  1. Roisin Meaney, Life Drawing for Beginners. A group of strangers in a small town in Ireland take drawing classes together. Super-accessible and lovely.
  2. Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate. Mid-century romantic comedy that strongly does not believe in romance. Very funny, very smart, breezy and light.
  3. Stella Gibbons, Nightingale Wood. Similar vibes as Love in a Cold Climate but a bit more under the radar. Funny and warm mid-century British satire.
  4. A.S. Byatt, Possession. This one’s a little dense, but you also mentioned in your email that you like Donna Tartt, and Byatt’s vibe is similar. It’s an absolutely beautiful book involving two Romantic poets and the 20th-century English professors researching them.

I just got out of a mental hospital — I am dealing with my first episode of psychosis at 37. I just want to be able to spend more of the day reading, but I can only read 15 or so pages at a time.

That sounds extremely difficult, and I am very sorry you are dealing with this. What I would try right now is one of M.F.K. Fisher’s essay collections, maybe The Gastronomical Me. Fisher is a food writer and a truly brilliant stylist, so you’ll get lots of really visceral, sensual detail to help ground you in the world she’s evoking. The essays are nice and short, too, so you don’t have the pressure of a long novel.

I find I can only read Anthony Trollope now. Is there something else, something like Trollope, that is discursive, gently humorous, encompassing, wise, and never above the specificity of money — the want of it, the loss of it, the getting of it?

The best Trollope pastiche I know of is Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, which is Trollope but with dragons. It’s a surprisingly good fit (dragons are traditionally interested in the acquisition of wealth and the formalities of etiquette), but I have to say that I’ve never found it to be a very gentle read — it always makes me feel as though I am trapped inside the skull of an alien creature, and the skull is the wrong shape. Give it a try, and if it does not work for you, I would move on to Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. She’s riffing off Howards End in that one, but she’s a bit warmer and funnier than Forester in a way that’s reminiscent of Trollope. There’s a lot about race and class and money, and it’s gently satirical the whole way through.

I would like to read a book about a college-aged lesbian because I am a college-aged lesbian. But not a shitty book. There are so many shitty lesbian books.

I will endeavor to avoid the shitty ones! The obligatory classics here are Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Fun Home. I believe The Well of Loneliness has some college stuff too, but I will not inflict it on you; it is depressing as fuck. Contemporary options I have heard good things about include We Are Okay by Nina LaCour and Cottonmouths by Kelly J. Ford.

I am so tired of being alone. I’m interested in hearing your suggestion.

The first book that made me feel less alone in all of this was Emma. It was very soothing to watch Emma navigate the social world of her little village, and Jane Austen is the best company you could ask for: arch and funny, but always at the expense of other people. It worked for me, and I hope it works for you too!

If you’d like me to recommend a book for you, email me at with the subject line “Ask a Book Critic.” The more specific your mood, the better!