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Meg Wolitzer's Top Ten List
1. 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.
2. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927). The Ramsays and their eight children vacation with an assortment of scholarly and artistic houseguests by the Scottish seaside. Mainly set on two days ten years apart, the novel describes the loss, love, and disagreements of family life while reaching toward the bigger question—“What is the meaning of life?”—that Woolf addresses in meticulously crafted, modernist prose that is impressionistic without being vague or sterile.
3. A Passage to India by E. M. Forster (1924). A handful of English people searching for the “real” India get far more than they bargained for —up to and including a terrifying transcendental experience in a very dark cave. Forster’s novel of the Raj is infused with a generous, liberal humanism; the author writes like a man determined that Indians should populate a novel of India, and he succeeds in this beautifully imagined portrait of both colonizer and colonized.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1854). “Now, what I want is, Facts,” reads the opening of this entertaining melodrama animated by impassioned social protest and indignant satire. In the humorless martinet Gradgrind, who preaches and practices uncompromising logic and efficiency, Dickens lampoons the soulless utilitarianism of Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill. Such reason has spawned the grimy, industrial city of Coketown —which Dickens contrasts with a traveling circus —and informs the subplot concerning Stephen Blackpool’s inescapable, unhappy marriage (a sour fictionalization of Dickens’s own domestic miseries).
9. Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth (1959). Even if it only hinted at the depth of humorous rage Roth would later unload, this is the book that put him on the map. A novella coupled with five short stories, Goodbye, Columbus confronts issues of identity, class tensions within American Jewry, and a suffocating veil of conformity that exists amid so much American opportunity. By airing what many saw as his people’s dirty laundry, Roth gained a reputation as a self-hating Jew that was so pervasive even his mother asked if it was true.
10. My Ántonia by Willa Cather (1918). Featuring a beleaguered central heroine who endures her father’s suicide, is driven to work in the fields, and is seduced, abandoned, and left pregnant, this ought to be a tale of tragic inevitability. Instead, this beautifully elegiac novel offers an unsentimental paean to the prairie, to domesticity, and to memory itself. As remembered by her friend Jim, Ántonia is as mythic and down-to-earth as the Nebraska she inhabits.