I almost always prefer story collections to novels, and many of my favorite writers (Kelly Link, George Saunders) don’t even have a published novel. That being said, there are many formative long-form works about which I’m deeply passionate. So here are my current top ten, annotated:
- The Book Thief, Markus Zusak. A young girl navigates adolescence in Nazi Germany; also, the entire book is narrated by Death. The Book Thief is sold as YA in the United States, but I’d definitely dispute that label. Not because YA isn’t its own amazing genre – just because I think it just doesn’t quite fit that category. In any case, this book is beautifully written and incredibly smart. The first time I read it, I broke down weeping in the DC metro. It will undo you.
- Mama Day, Gloria Naylor. This haunting second wave novel about a woman struggling to connect her rich family history with her desire for modernity still surfaces in my dreams. When I was in high school, a wise English teacher saw that I was hungering for fiction beyond our reading list and brought in books from her own personal library that she thought I would love. Little did she know that two of those books – #2 and #3 on this list – would be some of my favorite novels over a decade later.
- One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez. A classic, but deservingly so. My fifteen-year-old self didn’t even know how to begin to process this multi-generational magical realist family saga, but it did things with language, plot, and fantasy that I didn’t even know were possible. It continues to shape my own fiction to this day.
- The Children’s Hospital, Chris Adrian. A retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark takes place on a children’s hospital floating in a flood eight miles above the earth’s surface. Early on in my MFA program, I became very stressed out by school and my own work and went through a bit of a fiction dry spell. This novel was the sudden and welcome rainstorm that saved me. Despite its length, I devoured it in two days. Incredible.
- Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro. The horror of this spare, haunting novel will sneak up on you and club you over the head if you’re not careful. Set in a the fifties in England–our own quiet past in every way except for one brutal difference–this story of three friends navigating their life circumstances is almost unbearable in its austere beauty.
- The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino. Frustrated with his parents, a young noble climbs into the trees outside of his home and lives out his life without ever touching the ground. I read this novel at the recommendation of Kevin, and it’s an absolute wonder. Most books that I read are steeped in suffering and tragedy, but this book is unflaggingly, beautifully optimistic. I read it and laughed out loud more than once. So much joy in this novel.
- Vox, Nicholson Baker. Told entirely in dialogue between two people on a phone sex line. I’m a huge fan of sex in fiction, and this slender little book packs so much beauty and eroticism. A fun bit of trivia: this was a novel famously given to Monica Lewinsky by Bill Clinton during their affair.
253, Geoff Ryman. This book was originally an interactive novel available online (as of a few months ago, the novel was at that link, but it appears to be down now). That being said, I read the print version and I was glad I did. I think it actually worked really well reading everything in order and cover to cover. Each page of 253 is a 253-word description of yet another character during the same seven minute stretch on a doomed subway train. This might seem like just a gimmick, but Ryman does exactly what he should: uses the symphonic structure to build an increasingly frenzied narrative that eventually transcends the form and turns into something else.
- Cry the Beloved Country, Alan Paton. This book about two fathers trying to rediscover their lost sons in pre-apartheid South Africa has almost everything you could want in a novel. It tackles so many beautiful ideas, tells a heartbreaking story, and unpacks how a society broken by racial oppression can try and begin to pull itself together again. It’s a very religious book, but in a way that I find utterly uplifting. And the prose is exquisite: lyrical and clear.
- The Crimson Petal and the White, Michael Faber. I always describe this novel to people as “Dickensian, if Dickens was a feminist.” The epic saga of a prostitute in turn-of-the-century London seems like one thing and becomes another, in the best way possible. What seems like a fairly standard wealthy-man-has-mistress narrative turns into a work deeply – and primarily – concerned with its richly multi-faceted female characters, all from various social classes. I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, but this novel, which I re-read fairly frequently, always completely immerses me.