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Alexander McCall Smith's Top Ten List
1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877). Anna’s adulterous love affair with Count Vronsky —which follows an inevitable, devastating road from their dizzyingly erotic first encounter at a ball to Anna’s exile from society and her famous, fearful end —is a masterwork of tragic love. What makes the novel so deeply satisfying, though, is how Tolstoy balances the story of Anna’s passion with a second semiautobiographical story of Levin’s spirituality and domesticity. Levin commits his life to simple human values: his marriage to Kitty, his faith in God, and his farming. Tolstoy enchants us with Anna’s sin, then proceeds to educate us with Levin’s virtue.
2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869). Mark Twain supposedly said of this masterpiece, “Tolstoy carelessly neglects to include a boat race.” Everything else is included in this epic novel that revolves around Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Tolstoy is as adept at drawing panoramic battle scenes as he is at describing individual feeling in hundreds of characters from all strata of society, but it is his depiction of Prince Andrey, Natasha, and Pierre —who struggle with love and with finding the right way to live —that makes this book beloved.
3. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961). The Miss Brodie in question is a wildly popular teacher in a 1930s Edinburgh middle school. She cultivates a group of chosen girls —the “crème de la crème,” as she calls them —and in return they must give her their absolute loyalty. Massive privileges accrue to the Brodie set, but Spark is most interested in what the girls sacrifice to be included among the elite in this tense yet charming novel.
4. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). A coming-of-age story filled with high adventure and Scottish history, this is the story of David Balfour, an orphan sent in 1751 to live with his greedy uncle. To steal David’s inheritance, his uncle has him kidnapped and taken aboard a ship to America to be sold into slavery. David and another captive escape the ship. Then, while fending off a charge of murder, David heads back to the Highlands where he hatches a clever plan to expose his uncle’s wrongdoings.
5. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (1948). Written just before apartheid became law in South Africa, this novel exposes the nation’s racial problems through the story of a rural black minister who travels to Johannesburg to save a friend’s daughter, who has become a prostitute, and later, his son, who is accused of murder. This vivid portrait of South Africa is informed by the white author’s Christian faith, which suggests that only changed hearts can reform, and redeem, his nation.
6. The Europeans by Henry James (1878). After the dissolution of her marriage to a German prince, Eugenia Munster and her artist brother Felix visit their wealthy relatives in the countryside near Boston. Felix’s easy sophistication and Eugenia’s fierce independence contrast with the pious Yankee values of their hosts in this sparkling novel of romantic intrigues that depicts the clash between European and American cultures and values.
7. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857). Of the many nineteenth-century novels about adulteresses, only Madame Bovary features a heroine frankly detested by her author. Flaubert battled for five years to complete his meticulous portrait of extramarital romance in the French provinces, and he complained endlessly in letters about his love-starved main character — so inferior, he felt, to himself. In the end, however, he came to peace with her, famously saying, “Madame Bovary: c’est moi.” A model of gorgeous style and perfect characterization, the novel is a testament to how yearning for a higher life both elevates and destroys us.
8. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967). Widely considered the most popular work in Spanish since Don Quixote, this novel —part fantasy, part social history of Colombia — sparked fiction’s “Latin boom” and the popularization of magic realism. Over a century that seems to move backward and forward simultaneously, the forgotten and offhandedly magical village of Macondo — home to a Faulknerian plethora of incest, floods, massacres, civil wars, dreamers, prudes, and prostitutes — loses its Edenic innocence as it is increasingly exposed to civilization.
9. The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan (1945). The Indian author reimagines the sudden death of his beloved wife through the life of an English teacher whose deeply satisfying marriage ends with his wife’s fatal illness. His deep despair is broken by devotion to their daughter and his successful efforts to communicate with his departed wife. Yet he does not achieve the inner peace he craves in this novel infused with Hindu spirituality, until he realizes that true happiness does not come from other people, but from within.
10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960). Tomboy Scout and her brother Jem are the children of the profoundly decent widower Atticus Finch, a small-town Alabama lawyer defending a black man accused of raping a white woman. Although Tom Robinson’s trial is the centerpiece of this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel —raising profound questions of race and conscience —this is, at heart, a tale about the fears and mysteries of growing up, as the children learn about bravery, empathy, and societal expectations through a series of evocative set pieces that conjure the Depression-era South.