I don’t know about you, but if I’ve had a bad day or a hard week, it’s tough to unwind with a book that has life-or-death stakes. There’s a lot of pressure on authors to “ramp up the stakes” of their stories, as though the only way we readers could be compelled to read on is if we’re worried the world might end before the epilogue. The thing is, the truly masterful writers out there can make the low-stakes problems of their characters gripping without an adrenaline rush, and keep us reading while soothing and entertaining us. Here are some of my favourite books about low-stakes problems.
Important note: I started feeling super-guilty as I was putting this list together, as if I were minimalising or trivialising the problems of the characters in these books (and, by extension, minimalising or trivialising the real-life problems of readers that mirror them). Low-stakes problems can still be stressful and awful! Your concerns are valid, I promise! To me, “low-stakes” doesn’t mean “not important” or “silly”, just not life-and-death and/or easy for me personally to read about.
Loner by Georgina Young
Loner explores the anxieties and complexities of contemporary youth in a way that feels realistic and grounded. Basically, it’s a book about the weird in-between time after high school but before Real Life. Lona’s big problem is that she doesn’t really know who she is, and she doesn’t really know what the heck she’s doing with herself. Surely, we’ve all been there… Being an introvert in a world built for extroverts and slowly figuring it out doesn’t make for life-or-death dramatics, but it’s great fodder for books about low-stakes problems. Read my full review of Loner here.
There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura
2020 was a year of very high-stakes problems, which is why There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job was such a welcome respite. It managed to capture the mood without fuelling the fire of existential dread. It’s the story of a young woman who wants a job that’s close to home and not too taxing, a 2020 mood if there ever was one. Each chapter is devoted to a different “easy” job she takes on, each with its own unique set of at-times farcical challenges. It was translated into English from the original Japanese by Polly Barton (#NameTheTranslator!). Read my full review of There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job here.
In A New York Minute by Kate Spencer
Have you ever clicked on one of those viral videos: “This woman’s dress ripped on the subway, you won’t believe what happens next!”-type of videos? Well, in In A New York Minute, Franny and Hayes find themselves the stars of one such video, recognised as the #SubwayQTs all over their city. Only they don’t know each other, and if first impressions are any indication, they don’t care to. Will they be able to make their real-life relationship into one worthy of all the online attention? Will Franny be able to parlay their online popularity into a successful business? Read my full review of In A New York Minute here.
Julie And Julia by Julie Powell
Julie Powell’s life in the early ’00s was a bit of a bummer. On the verge of existential crisis, she did what so many of us do: she sought out a Project, and she found it in her mother’s battered copy of Julia Child’s Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. Julie And Julia is one of the few memoirs about low-stakes problems, based on Powell’s blog about her attempt to cook every one of Julia Child’s recipes in just a year. Even though she has Big Stuff going on in her life, she takes the pressure and deals with it by proxy, cooking up a storm, which is a welcome relief. Read my full review of Julie And Julia here.
Happy Endings by Thien-Kim Lam
Romances are great books about low-stakes problems; usually, the will-they-or-won’t-they tension is as bad as it gets. In Happy Endings, though, the couple are tearing each other’s clothes off from the beginning. Their real problem is that they’re each trying to get their respective businesses off the ground, and it’s solved by finding a surprising synergy between their talents: selling sex toys with demonstrations in a soul food restaurant. Their relationship is pretty much a foregone conclusion, so with just the businesses to contend with, it makes for a fun low-stakes read. Read my full review of Happy Endings here.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Arthur Less surely doesn’t see his own problems as low-stakes in Less. He fears he is “the first homosexual to ever grow old”. His boy-toy dumped him, found a more age-appropriate suitor, and got engaged. And now, Arthur Less has received an invitation to the wedding. He has no choice but to accept every other invitation to every half-baked literary engagement that’ll have him, no matter where they are in the world, if only to save himself the shame of attending the wedding and watching the love of his life walk down the aisle to someone else. It’s farcical, it’s ridiculous, and it’s a brilliant book. Read my full review of Less here.
The Importance Of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Who among us hasn’t faked a reason to escape a tiresome situation? The Importance Of Being Earnest is basically the origin of “my mum says no”. Two men both have their own custom-made long-held standing excuses to leave home: for John, it’s his ragamuffin “brother” Ernest, and for Algernon, it’s his sickly “friend” Bunbury. These ruses work well for years, until a woman falls in love with John and swears that she would only ever marry a man named Ernest, and Algernon poses as the fake-brother to win the affections of John’s ward. Oscar Wilde knew that low-stakes problems could make great drama – he even gave the play the subtitle, “a trivial comedy for serious people”. Read my full review of The Importance Of Being Earnest here.
The Helpline by Katherine Collette
The Helpline is a charming, heart-warming story for anyone who loves a good oddball protagonist (and books about low-stakes problems). Germaine is in her late-thirties, she’s far better with numbers than she is with people, and she recently learned (the hard way!) that there’s very little demand in the job market for senior mathematicians. She’s forced to accept the only job she can get, answering calls to the local council’s Senior Citizens Helpline, and soon finds herself drawn into a web of petty corruption and stubborn oldies. Read my full review of The Helpline here.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Like most Jane Austen novels, Northanger Abbey is a romance, with the marriage and honour of the heroine at stake – really, any of them would be at home in a list of books about low-stakes problems, but this one is the most fun. In addition to the love triangle, where the wholesome hero contends with the charismatic wealthy villain for the naive heroine’s affections, Austen throws in her unique satirical take on the tropes of Gothic fiction for good measure. Really, the biggest risk facing the characters of Northanger Abbey is that their own gossip will get them in the end. Read my full review of Northanger Abbey here.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
It’s only as a grown-up (relatively speaking) that I can concede that To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is one of the best young adult books about low-stakes problems. As a teenager, it would have been a horror story, a terrifying prospect that would have fuelled my nightmares well past the end of adolescence. In reality, Lara Jean’s predicament – that her secret love letters to her crushes were actually sent to them, and she was forced to fake-date the hottest guy in school for a while – isn’t life or death. It makes for a marvellous read, though! Read my full review of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before here.