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8 Contemporary Books That Make You Root for the Antihero

We identify with protagonists who brave messy fictional worlds and emerge unclean. Perhaps this is why we connect so strongly with antiheroes, who can be just as messy as their fictional worlds. Antiheroes often both shock and entertain us as they move through their story on their own terms, even if we often do not — and should not — aspire to emulate. With this, they live long in our memory with their actions sparking many conversations.

By Celadon Staff

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

From Nigeria comes the tense and thrilling tale of Korede and how far she will go to protect her family. By day, Korede works steadfastly as a nurse, and by night, she helps clean up after her serial killer sister. We root for our antihero even while she tries to keep Ayoola’s murderous tendencies at bay. However, Korede is soon torn when her more beautiful sister sets her lethal sights on her work crush. Korede faces an impossible choice — will she keep her sister’s dark secret or finally put an end to the cycle?

Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes

R.L. Maizes’s Other People’s Pets follows La La, an animal empath abandoned by her mother who becomes her thief father’s criminal accomplice. La La’s father is eventually caught and arrested for burglary, and La La is forced to drop out of vet school to help pay her father’s legal costs by returning to her former life of crime. La La is a character of true dimension, however, leaving behind a parting gift at each break-in: medicine for a dog, water for a parrot, food for a hamster. These acts of repentance complicate the narrative further, inadvertently bewildering the police force hot on her trail.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

In New York City, a recently orphaned young woman takes it upon herself to strike the current year from her memory through prescription medications and self-isolation. She shuns all conventional life and career goals and dives into her so-called year of rest and relaxation with single-minded determination. She is hurt and hurting others in a complex representation of an unnamed woman battling her mental health — we know her and yet we do not. Whether she successfully completes this year or breaks through her self-induced fog maintains steady tension throughout. 

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Working as an undercover communist spy during the fall of Saigon in the 1970s, the antihero narrator is tortured by the weight of both his actions and his sympathies. Born to an absent French father and Vietnamese mother, he attends university in America but returns for the communist cause. He plays both sides which lends him his sardonic and ironic attitude in chronicling the horrors he witnesses and partakes in. A fascinating look at a man and nation torn in two during the tumultuous Vietnam war.


Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

In this sequel to the Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge, we again meet our cantankerous titular antihero. Without worrying about being likeable and not tempering her prickly attitude at all, Olive roams through her small town in Crosby, Maine doling out her opinions and judgments whether anyone wants to hear them or not. Told through chapters like short stories, Olive, Again spans years with the indomitable Olive who steals hearts with her brash energy but deeply empathetic spirit. She moves in her own way and on her own terms.  

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Our titular antihero is not one for social conventions and maintains a strict routine, albeit not the healthiest one. Dismissed as the office oddball, Eleanor forms an unlikely friendship with her co-worker Raymond when they rescue the elderly Sammy after he falls on a sidewalk. We soon learn why Eleanor shuns typical social graces through a slow unraveling of her finely tuned routine. Whether she can confront the demons of her past with her newfound friendships or not keeps us rooting for her.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

The bold and notorious Bernadette shocks everyone when she simply disappears right out of Seattle. Most of all, she shocks the family she leaves behind with her teenage daughter trying to piece together why Bernadette made this choice and how she can track her down. This dysfunctional family, formerly headed by a misanthropic antihero, is chronicled by her daughter with the same tendencies and evokes both humor and pathos. Ultimately, the poignant bond between a complicated mother and daughter remains with us.

Mothers by Chris Power

A powerful short story collection filled with complex characters and more than one compelling antihero. Whether it’s a young man who tries to crash a Mexican wedding after a brief tryst with the groom or the young girl who frames her neighbor without knowing exactly why she did so, each character behaves with unparalleled ambivalence. The tales are terse and keep you on edge as you ponder the root of their choices.

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