Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

13 Books About Loneliness And Solitude

It must be tough for authors to write about characters who spend a lot of time alone. Without other characters to bounce off, you’ve got to make their personality and their inner worlds damn compelling, or the reader will lose interest. Here are thirteen books about loneliness and solitude where the author absolutely nails it.

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My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Who couldn’t use a whole year off – off work, off social engagements, off interacting with anyone other than the nearest bodega worker – to sleep? That’s what the unnamed narrator is aiming for in My Year Of Rest And Relaxation. What sounds like a sweet dream, though, is given depth by a character who is a walking nightmare. She’s full of herself, terrible to her friends, manipulative, and (as she tells it) absolutely gorgeous. Her self-imposed loneliness and solitude is definitely well-deserved. Ottessa Moshfegh is the queen of unlikeable female characters, and this book is her best and most readable.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi - Susanna Clarke - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Piranesi lives in a house, alone. But this is no ordinary house, and he’s not as alone as you think. Piranesi is a strange and enigmatic book, one that raises philosophical and psychological questions you’d never expect from the blurb. The obvious question is: how did Piranesi end up in the house? What is the house, anyway? It’s big enough to have its own weather systems, after all. Before long, other questions emerge, too. Who is the Other? Is there someone else in the house? Is Piranesi’s simple life of solitude in danger? Read my full review of Piraensi here.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Eleanor Oliphant is an odd duck. It turns out she has good reason to be, and it goes a long way to explaining why she is so terribly, terminally alone. Beyond the occasional chat with one of her colleagues at a graphic design firm, and a weekly conversation with Mummy, she lives a very solitary life. But she’s completely fine with it – isn’t she? Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a real dark horse, a book about very traumatic stuff that became the beach read of the season. And, of course, it shines a light on the issue of endemic loneliness in today’s world, especially among young people. Read my full review of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine here.

All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

All The Birds Singing - Evie Wyld - Keeping Up With The Penguins

All The Birds, Singing has some of the richest and most evocative place writing you’ll read – fitting, for one of the most lauded books about loneliness of the past decade. Jake Whyte has fled her troubled past to live alone in a remote farmhouse on a craggy British island, lashed by wind and rain, surrounded only by sheep and her disobedient dog. But something is picking off her sheep, one by one, and the horrors creeping up at night seem other-worldly when there’s no one else around to check your perspective. This is a story about solitude, survival, and hard-won redemption.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations - Charles Dickens - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The beauty of Charles Dickens’s books is that he managed to write about everything. Seriously, you’d be hard pressed to find a theme or motif or symbol he didn’t address somewhere. He didn’t write whole books about loneliness specifically, but he did write one of the most iconically alone characters of all time: Miss Havisham, of Great Expectations. She is a wealthy spinster who begrudges being left at the altar, and years later still wears her wedding dress – all day, every day. She rarely leaves the crumbling mansion she shares with the only person she truly loves, her adopted daughter Estella. She has been caricatured and parodied to death, but when you look at her in the original context and story, she’s a fascinating study in solitude. Read my full review of Great Expectations here.

Notes On A Scandal by Zoë Heller

Notes On A Scandal - Zoe Heller - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Notes On A Scandal is narrated by Barbara, a veteran teacher at a London comprehensive school, and a lonely spinster in her spare time. How to put this delicately… she has trouble making friends. Her story begins with the arrival of Sheba Hart, a new and apparently-naive (though very privileged) art teacher. Barbara intuits that they are potential BFFs, though Sheba barely seems to realise she exists at first. This is a twisted and compelling literary thriller about the lengths that loneliness can drive us to – Barbara to effectively stalking Sheba, and Sheba into the arms of one of her students. Read my full review of Notes On A Scandal here.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe - Daniel DeFoe - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

So, it turns out one of the very first novels written in English is also one of the very first books about loneliness and solitude – who knew? Robinson Crusoe is iconic, the story of a man shipwrecked on an isolated and uninhabited island, forced to find a way to survive for decades on his own. Best of all, Daniel Defoe probably drew his inspiration from many of the real-life stories of castaways that were floating around at the time. The book is definitely a product of its time, so you need to steel yourself for some horrific racism and a determinedly colonial mindset, but you can’t skip it if you’re looking to read your way through all the classic books about loneliness. You just can’t! Read my full review of Robinson Crusoe here.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild - Cheryl Strayed - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Not all books about loneliness and solitude are fictional. Wild is Cheryl Strayed’s account of how and why she found herself hiking over a thousand miles alone on the Pacific Crest Trail. There are two stories that weave together across the memoir: her mother’s death (and we get all of the weren’t-we-so-poor-and-dysfunctional-but-we-loved-each-other-so-much backstory), and the at-times comical dire realities of a haphazard solo hike through the wilderness. It’s like Eat, Pray, Love meets Survivor – and inspirational as heck. If Strayed can survive a hike of that magnitude on her own, you can get through a lonely Saturday night at home. Read my full review of Wild here.

Bonus: for similar true wilderness survival books about loneliness and solitude, check out Into The Wild by Jon Krakaeur.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint Exupery - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Little Prince has a strange history (like most timeless classic children’s books). The author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was a French aviator, childless, and (at the time of writing) living under grueling war-time exile. So, it’s hardly surprising that his story revolved around an aviator, crash-landed in the desert, entirely alone except for an alien prince who guides him – literally and spiritually. It’s a story that manages to be both heart-warming and heart-wrenching, which probably explains its enduring popularity. It’s now the most-translated French book in the world, appearing now in over 300 languages and dialects. Over 140 million copies have been sold worldwide. Read my full review of The Little Prince here.

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian - Andy Weir - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When you think about loneliness, you’re probably envisaging the terrestrial kind. Alone in an apartment, or on a beach at night, or something in that vein. Andy Weir takes solitude to a whole new level in The Martian. Astronaut Mark Watney is literally the most alone person in the universe: stranded by himself on Mars, after an accident led his fellow interplanetary travellers to believe he was dead. He’s very much alive, and faced with the challenge of a lifetime – figuring out how to survive in solitude on the red planet, until the next mission arrives. It sounds daunting, but this is a surprisingly upbeat and fun sci-fi novel, brightened by Watney’s sense of humour and can-do attitude. Read my full review of The Martian here.

The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man And The Sea - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s kind of sad that The Old Man And The Sea was Ernest Hemingway’s last book, but also poetic. It’s a book about a lonely old man, desperate and hungry, searching for a mythical fish and being dragged out to sea by it. Hemingway himself was aging, and undoubtedly lonely with a string of divorces and trashed friendships behind him. The parallels are clear, if not particularly imaginative. Still, it’s a powerful read, and you could spend years studying the metaphors about solitude that can be found in this slim little tome. Read my full review of The Old Man And The Sea here.

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Where The Crawdads Sing - Delia Owens - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The “Marsh Girl”, Kya Clark, lives alone on the land. Her only friends are the gulls, and her home is the sand of the North Carolina coastline. The people in the village of Barkley Cove have gossiped about her for years. When a handsome man turns up dead, she’s the first person they suspect. But we fear what we don’t know, and Kya is more than they realise. Strangely, Kya’s loneliness is actually a balm, a protective shield against the terrors of the world. It’s when she reaches out, searching for love and recognition, that she runs into trouble. Where The Crawdads Sing is one of the best-selling books about loneliness in recent memory.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

A Single Man - Christopher Isherwood - Book Laid Face Up on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Sorry to end this list on a bum note, but A Single Man is one of the most devastating books about loneliness and solitude – and you must read it! It’s the story of a day in the life of (you guessed it!) a single man, George, who is silently mourning the death of the love of his life. See, George is gay, and could never publicly share his relationship, or openly grieve his loss. George is desperately lonely in the wake of Jim’s death, and he seeks connection anywhere he can find it, resenting it all the while. It’s a beautiful story, and a sad one, and strangely funny in a very-dark-comedy kind of way. Read my full review of A Single Man here.

2 Comments

  1. A really interesting list. You have tempted me to get the Moshfegh. To add to your list there are many lonely characters in Anita Brookner’s novels. She seems to specialise in them!

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