7 Novels and Stories That Prove Fiction Can Grapple with Illness

Contemporary literature isn’t romanticizing the reality of illness

Man curled in fetal position against white background
Photo by mwangi gatheca on Unsplash

For a very brief period of time, I wanted to be a doctor. My medical aspirations were not, however, borne of so noble a desire as to ease suffering—frankly, what I was really interested in was job security. As a pragmatic (if not especially altruistic) college student, it was clear to me that illness, pain, and disability were not aberrations of the human condition but, rather, sizable components of many individuals’ lived experience. Indeed, today, in the United States alone, six in ten adults live with chronic illness, and that number is much higher globally

And yet, chronic illness and disability are something I see far too infrequently on the page, particularly if what I’m seeking are accurate depictions. Am I just supposed to believe that the characters in my favorite novels are never in ill health? For readers as skeptical as I am—readers, perhaps, interested in more nuanced and realistic reflections of life lived in a human body—these books don’t pretend “healthy” is the default.

Luster by Raven Leilani

When Edie, a 23-year-old Black woman living in unaffordable Bushwick meets Eric online, she’s not discouraged by the red flags: he’s much older than she is, and he’s married. The implications of these facts are the meat of the story, but threaded throughout is the reality of Edie’s body. She’s been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, an amorphous chronic condition that influences her life in small, but disruptive ways. For example, Edie prepares for a date with Eric by not eating for 10 hours beforehand. “I cannot anticipate the overreactions of my stomach,” she says, “so if I think there is even the slightest possibility of sex, I have to starve.” Though Edie’s strange interpersonal relationships take center stage throughout the novel, her health is always present—the background to her romantic foreground. An excerpt of the novel was published in Recommended Reading.

All’s Well by Mona Awad 

Miranda Fitch is a theater professor living her post-perfect life—that is, after a freak accident steals her successful stage career and leaves her mired in chronic pain, she muddles through her days in a fog of painkillers and resentment. When her student production starts going off the rails, taking her life with it, Miranda meets three strange men in a bar and her horrible luck takes a miraculous turn. But what does a life without pain cost? All’s Well is a dark, painfully funny look at chronic pain and our desire in erasing it.

The Answers by Catherine Lacey

The protagonist of Catherine Lacey’s second novel, Mary Parsons, is ill and Western medicine has failed her. Her symptoms are excruciating and unmanageable—until suddenly, they aren’t. In desperation, Mary tries an experimental therapy that miraculously works. The catch? It’s unaffordable. In a desperate attempt to pay for her treatment, Mary accepts an acting role as the “Emotional Girlfriend” in a famous actor’s elaborate research experiment. As the gig becomes increasingly demanding, Mary is forced to face uncomfortable questions about love, art, and how much one should reasonably be willing to pay for the absence of pain.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

If you haven’t read the book that spawned “the cult of Sally Rooney,” you’ve probably at least some idea of what it’s about: introspective young people in complicated relationships. Two female 20-somethings, Frances and Bobbi, are best friends and former girlfriends who become physically and emotionally involved with Melissa and Nick, a married couple in their 30s—cue drama. But against the backdrop of the quadrangle’s spiraling interpersonal dynamics, the novel is also about Frances’ struggle with the increasingly acute symptoms of endometriosis, as well as depression and self-harm.

If the Body Allows It: Stories by Megan Cummins

Though Megan Cummins’ debut is divided into six sections, each named after various parts of the body (“Heart,” “Eyes,” Lungs,” etc.), it is very much a linked collection. Marie, a woman in her 30s with a chronic autoimmune illness (lupus), is the centerpiece around which the narratives orbit. While many of the stories grapple with the body’s limitations, “Skin” is a particularly compelling look at illness and the difficult choices people with illness often confront. The stories in If the Body Allows It, winner of the Prairie Schooner Prize in Fiction, clarify the impossibility of divorcing oneself from the physical.

The State of Me by Nasim Marie Jafry

Based on the author’s own experience with myalgic encephalomyelitis (also known as chronic fatigue syndrome), The State of Me is unadorned autofiction that follows the protagonist, Helen Fleet, from her diagnosis at age 20 through the aftermath of her illness. Jafry has described her novel as “the antithesis of sick lit,” and indeed, it would be impossible to describe Helen’s experiences as anything approaching romantic. But as much as the novel is an honest, sometimes ruthless exploration of chronic illness, it’s also a story of everything else that might populate a person’s life: love, sex, relationships, and all the “life bits” in between. Helen’s voice, quirky and sardonic throughout, makes for an immersive and compelling read.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Yanagihara’s doorstopper (it clocks in at over 700 pages) is nothing if not an in-depth examination of chronic pain and trauma-induced illness. Technically, the novel follows four male friends over three decades, but Jude’s life—particularly his mental and physical well-being—is the metaphorical glue that binds the quartet together. As the victim of ghastly and vicious abuse, Jude’s adulthood is permanently and profoundly marked by the trauma of his childhood. A Little Life is a difficult read, to be sure, but if you’re looking for an absolutely unflinching look at a life in an injured body, Yanagihara delivers. 

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