Cracking up & Breaking Down: Top 10 Novels about Mental Health

I’m a big fan of the films of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, and on the weekend rented his early classic Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown for a re-watch, which inspired today’s top ten:

1. Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1945)

16 year old Holden Caulfield describes the days that led to his admission to a mental institution, stumbling around New York City, realising that everything around him was phony. A lot of people seem to love this book as teenagers and reject it when re-reading it as adults, but I am still fond of the voice, which somehow makes heartbreak funny, something I am always a sucker for.

2. The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway (1961)

The sad and sorry tale of how a newlywed couple enter into a love triangle with a beautiful woman they meet on their honeymoon. All fun and games at first, it quickly takes its toll on the young wife’s psychological state. It sounds horribly cheesy when I describe the plot, but it’s Hemingway, so of course, it’s not.

3. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)

The devastating story of the roguish inmate of a psych ward taking on the system…and losing.

4. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)

A fictionalised account of Plath’s first breakdown, this novel still amazes me with its biting prose.

5. Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion (1970)

A young actress is pushed to breaking point by the depravity of LA culture in the late 1960s. Mesmerising and chilling; Didion at her absolute best.

6. Poppy by Drusilla Modjeska (1990)

A non-fiction examination of the impact of a mother’s breakdown on her three daughters; this book is compassionate, thought-provoking and beautifully written.

7. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999)

A teenager struggles against depression in this moving and poignant coming-of-age story.

8. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (2012)

Leonard Bankhead, bipolar sufferer and newlywed, teeters on the line between brilliance and madness as he tweaks his own medication in this contemporary take on the 19th century marriage plot novel.

9. How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman (2013)

Is Marta imagining things? Hallucinating? Should she just ‘take her pills’ as her husband Hector urges. Or is there truly something in her past so terrible she has repressed it until now? Chapman lets the reader decide in this compelling psychological thriller.

10. A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee (2013)

Ben Armstead, husband and father has been increasingly withdrawn. After the true extent of his existential crisis is revealed at a marriage counselling session, a full-scale crisis swiftly follows. A Thousand Pardons deals with the aftermath of the breakdown for Ben, and his wife and daughter.

Your turn: Have you read any of these? What are your favourite novels about mental health?

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Cracking up   Breaking Down  Top 10 Novels about Mental Health   ANNABEL SMITH

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