Books to Read When You’re Feeling Down: The Struggling Protagonist

Sometimes you need someone to commiserate with. Sometimes, when you’re feeling down, it’s nice to read about someone who has their life even less together than you do. I love it when they’re funny, because they help me laugh when I don’t have anything of my own to laugh about—but it can be just as good when they’re serious, because watching someone else struggle and fail and keep fighting can give you the courage and strength to keep going yourself. These are some of my favorites.

Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding


If ever there’s a character who struggles to get her act together, it’s Bridget Jones, and she does it in a hilariously British way. Critical of silly things she sees as major failings—like the exact circumference of her thighs—but with some legitimate failings, too—like the always substantial number of cigarettes and “alcohol units” she consumes—Bridget documents her (often insane) attempts to “develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance, complete without boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend.”

Confessions of Georgia Nicolson, by Louise Rennison


You could put a lot of contemporary YA on this list, because who struggles with life more than teenagers? The Ruby Oliver series by E. Lockhart is another great example, along very similar lines to the Georgia books (but not British, which I think we have to admit is a point in Georgia’s favor). But these books by Louise Rennison are some of my favorite comedic books of all time. They are the books I try not to read in public, because it never fails that I start laughing uncontrollably and drawing everyone’s attention, including the embarrassment of whoever I’m with.

Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell


The thing that struck me about this book is how real Julie Powell is. I don’t mean literally, because of course the book is nonfiction, based on the blog she kept for the length of her project. I mean that throughout the whole process, Julie makes no attempt to look better than she is. She swears, she doesn’t clean her house for a year, she throws temper tantrums. Toward the end of the experiment, she has maggots growing under the dish rack in her sink. She makes zero excuses for herself, and that impresses me. I think there is something so brilliant about not putting on a face for people. Life is hard enough to handle without making it harder by pretending it’s not, and it’s both refreshing and comforting to see how hard life is for someone else—to know that you’re not the only one barely making it through.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy


Something about Thomas Hardy feels so indulgent to me, soothing, even though as far as I know, most of his books are very sad. I have loved Tess since I first read it almost exactly ten years ago, and I have specifically read it during times when I was miserable and needed something to distract me from complaining all the time. Since this one is so personal to me, I can’t be sure whether the comfort factor will apply to others—but if you’ve never read Thomas Hardy, it’s worth a try for that fact alone.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed


I’m in the middle of this book for the second time right now. Both times I’ve listened to the audio, and I’m sure someday I’ll pick up a print copy, but I love the recording so much and really enjoy listening to it that way. This is a fantastic book from every angle — it’s inspiring, thought-provoking, and empowering, but it’s also just a fascinating story. Cheryl Strayed’s journey is both literal and metaphorical, and I find myself wanting the same kind of experience. If nothing else, I wish I could be friends with Cheryl herself, and listening to her story makes me feel a little bit like I am.

Bonus watch, if you’d like a short break from reading: Bridesmaids, starring Kristen Wiig. Elements of Bridget, Georgia, and Julie, including Melissa McCarthy in her breakout role and many other excellent and hilarious people.

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