8 Novels With Characters Who Go to Therapy

Therapy is far from a cure-all—in fact, it might just lead you deeper down the rabbit hole

Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume by Edouard Manet via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s face it: half of our favorite stories wouldn’t exist if the characters just went to therapy. The Trojan War would’ve lasted nine years, and Bruce Wayne would own a normal basement with a ping pong table. 

Part of the reason so many stories resist therapy is that 1) mental illness has been unrecognized and stigmatized for a long time, therapy viewed as for the weak, but also 2) how do you build conflict if therapy is supposedly a cure-all?

Anybody who has been to therapy can tell you: therapy is not easy. Nor is it perfect. Take for instance the segment from Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings in which she describes being ghosted by her therapist in a time of need. Or Emma Grove’s miscommunications with her therapist in her graphic memoir The Third Person. Therapy is far from a cure-all—in fact, it might just lead you deeper down the rabbit hole. 

From utilizing therapy as framework, conflict or simply including it as a facet of the character’s life, the following books showcase characters who receive some kind of mental health care.

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Chemistry follows a PhD student on the brink—her chemistry research is proving increasingly unsolvable, and she has no idea how to respond to her boyfriend Eric’s marriage proposal. When years of repressed trauma come to a head, the narrator spirals into an unhinged breakdown, quitting her research and spending her days hiding and drinking. In the bleak aftermath, she slowly turns toward healing with the help of her best friend, her dog, and a therapist.

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

When a queer, Palestinian American woman comes out to her mother, her mother responds: “You exist too much.” Thus kickstarts years of emotional repression, culminating in an explosion of reckless flings and unattainable romantic obsessions. Her destructive behavior leads her to The Ledge, a treatment center that diagnoses her as a “love addict.” There she begins contemplating the origins of her trauma and how she can move forward.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

The year is 2000. The narrator is a young, white, pretty trust fund baby living alone in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She should be happy, but low and behold, she is not. There is an emptiness inside her, possibly due to her dead parents, possibly due to her various problematic relationships, but rather than get to the root of the issue, she works with Dr. Tuttle—one of literature’s worst psychiatrists—to medicate herself into a year of unending sleep.

The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood

Dorothy is a thirty-something English adjunct professor in New York City who has lost all hope of gaining tenure. She has also just had a miscarriage—a secret she will not tell her two therapists nor any women in her life. As a researcher on the cultural representations of apocalypse, Dorothy can recognize an ending when she sees one. And yet, as her bleeding dissipates and the weeks pass, Dorothy must contend with the fact that life is not a story and must, for better or for worse, go on.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie Jenkins’ no good, very bad year begins with a disastrous break-up with her white boyfriend Tom, followed soon by the realization that she was pregnant and just had a miscarriage. Things get worse when Queenie attempts to distract herself by sleeping with other men, one of whom turns out to be her close friend Cassandra’s boyfriend. As her personal life falls apart, her professional life grows stagnant, her editor refusing to take her pitches seriously and sending her off to write shallow fashion articles. Everything gets worse before it gets better, but eventually Queenie opts to visit a therapist, who slowly works with her to find value within herself.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is a bit of a social misfit, but she’s fine with that. Really. She enjoys her life of solitude, routine and her weekly “chats” with Mummy. She even splurges on pizza and vodka over the weekends. Nothing is missing—until she sees Johnnie Lomond in concert and realizes he is the love of her life. What follows is one woman’s unhinged attempt to fill every empty vacuum of her life with her celebrity crush. When Eleanlor’s attempts predictably prove unsustainable, she subsequently crashes and burns.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, translated by Jamie Chang

Jiyoung is a 33-year-old Korean woman who recently left her job to take care of her young daughter. Nothing is outwardly wrong with her life—though she rarely gets out anymore, she loves spending time at home with her daughter, and she has a loving husband whose job can support the three of them. But then Jiyoung wakes up one day acting like her mother, then later, inhabiting the character of a university friend who died in childbirth. Her husband sends her to a psychiatrist, who begins unraveling the mundane misogynies that have led Jiyoung to her current state.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It’s 1953 and intelligent, beautiful Esther Greenwood is slowly but surely cracking. A college student who dreams of becoming a poet, Esther is selected for a prestigious summer internship as a guest editor for Ladies Day magazine, but her time in New York only leaves her at odds with her own femininity. Trapped in a web of impossible expectations, Esther falls into a deep depression and attempts multiple suicides, culminating in her hospitalization under the care of Dr. Nolan.

More Like This

9 Books about Women’s Loneliness

Cleo Qian, author of "Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go," recommends stories about the search for connection

Aug 29 - Cleo Qian

Not Another Tragic Gay Love Story

With "All Down Darkness Wide," Seán Hewitt crafts a memoir beautiful enough to withstand the darkness inside it

Sep 2 - Michael Welch

My Memory Is Gone, but at Least I Forgot You

"Signs and Visions," flash fiction by Emily Dezurick-Badran

Nov 15 - Emily Dezurick-Badran
Thank You!