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Denise Gess's Top Ten List
1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847). The author’s only novel, published a year before her death, centers on the doomed love between Heathcliff, a tormented orphan, and Catherine Earnshaw, his benefactor’s vain and willful daughter. Passion brings them together, but class differences, and the bitterness it inspires, keeps them apart and continues to take its toll on the next generation. Wuthering Heights tells you why they say that love hurts.
2. The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942). The opening lines—“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday. I can’t be sure”—epitomize Camus’s celebrated notions of “the absurd.” His narrator, Meursault, a wretched little Algerian clerk sentenced to death for the murder, feels nothing: no remorse, love, guilt, grief, or hope. But he’s not a sociopath; he’s just honest. An embodiment of existential philosophy, he believes in no higher power and accepts that we are born only to die. Our only choice is to act “as if” life has meaning and thereby gain some freedom.
3. Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969) by Evan S. Connell. This his and hers pairing, like twinned guest towels, reveals dirty fingerprints on the underside of a tidy looking 1930s Midwestern, middle-class marriage. Through fragments of conversations, overheard remarks, and wry observations, Connell slices into the Bridges’ relationship, first revealing Mrs. Bridge’s evaporation into suburban ennui, then exposing Mr. Bridge’s increasing distance and disdain. The novels, set a decade apart, reveal two dimensions of the troubled family, which includes three children.
4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). Perhaps the most searching fable of the American Dream ever written, this glittering novel of the Jazz Age paints an unforgettable portrait of its day — the flappers, the bootleg gin, the careless, giddy wealth. Self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby, determined to win back the heart of the girl he loved and lost, emerges as an emblem for romantic yearning, and the novel’s narrator, Nick Carroway, brilliantly illuminates the post–World War I end to American innocence.
5. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (1949). This signature exploration of dislocation follows three young Americans —a married couple and their friend —journeying across the North African desert in search of deeper truths. As their surroundings become more foreign and forbidding, they become unmoored as their connection to the world, each other, and themselves unravels in this work of deep psychological acuity.
6. Dubliners by James Joyce (1916). Although many of these largely autobiographical stories evoke themes of death, illness, and stasis, nearly all offer their characters redemption —or at least momentary self-knowledge —through what Joyce called “epiphanies,” in which defeat or disappointment is transformed by a sudden, usually life-altering flash of awareness. The collection’s emotional centerpiece is its concluding tale, “The Dead,” which moves from a New Year’s Eve party where guests muse about issues of the day —the Catholic church, Irish nationalism, Freddie Malins’s worrying drunkenness —to a man’s discovery of his wife weeping over a boy who died for love of her. A profound portrait of identity and loneliness, it is Joyce’s most compassionate work.
7. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987). It’s a choice no mother should have to make. In 1856, escaped slave Margaret Garner decided to kill her infant daughter rather than return her to slavery. Her desperate act created a national sensation. Where Garner’s true-life drama ends, Beloved begins. In this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, the murdered child, Beloved, returns from the grave years later to haunt her mother Sethe. Aided by her daughter Denver and lover Paul D, Sethe confronts the all-consuming guilt precipitated by the ghostly embodiment of her dead child. Rendered in poetic language, Beloved is a stunning indictment of slavery “full of baby’s venom.”
8. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866). In the peak heat of a St. Petersburg summer, an erstwhile university student, Raskolnikov, commits literature’s most famous fictional crime, bludgeoning a pawnbroker and her sister with an axe. What follows is a psychological chess match between Raskolnikov and a wily detective that moves toward a form of redemption for our antihero. Relentlessly philosophical and psychological, Crime and Punishment tackles freedom and strength, suffering and madness, illness and fate, and the pressures of the modern urban world on the soul, while asking if “great men” have license to forge their own moral codes.
9. 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.
10. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925). This masterpiece of concision and interior monologue recounts events in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a delicate, upper-class London wife and mother, as she prepares for a party at her home on a single day in June 1923. In a parallel subsidiary plot, a shell-shocked World War I veteran Clarissa encounters spirals into suicide rather than submit to soul-stealing experimental psycho therapy. The novel explores questions of time, memory, love, class, and life choices through Woolf’s intricate melding of points of view and powerful use of flashback.