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Jennifer Gilmore's Top Ten List
Here is my list, but instead of best works of fiction of all time, I would say just the books that have formed me. They are predominantly American, and for the most part are written in English and so not show the true breadth of my reading. And yet these are, in the end, the books that have formed me as a writer and so how could they not be my “favorites?”
1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847). Like Wuthering Heights, this is a romance set in the isolated moors of rural England the Brontës called home. Its title character is an exceptionally independent orphan who becomes governess to the children of an appealing but troubled character, Mr. Rochester. As their love develops, the author introduces a host of memorable characters and a shattering secret before sending Jane on yet another arduous journey.
2. 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.
3. The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers (1943). A haunting tale of a human triangle that culminates in an astonishing brawl, this novella introduces readers to Miss Amelia, a formidable southern woman whose café serves as the town’s gathering place.
4. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936). Weaving mythic tales of biblical urgency with the experimental techniques of high modernism, Faulkner bridged the past and future. This is the story of Thomas Sutpen, a rough-hewn striver who came to Mississippi in 1833 with a gang of wild slaves from Haiti to build a dynasty. Almost in reach, his dream is undone by plagues of biblical (and Faulknerian) proportions: racism, incest, war, fratricide, pride, and jealousy. Through the use of multiple narrators, Faulkner turns this gripping Yoknapatawpha saga into a profound and dazzling meditation on truth, memory, history, and literature itself.
5. Another Country by James Baldwin (1962). Set in Greenwich Village, Harlem, and France, among other locales,Another Country is a novel of passions—sexual, racial, political, artistic—that is stunning for its emotional intensity and haunting sensuality, depicting men and women, blacks and whites, stripped of their masks of gender and race by love and hatred at the most elemental and sublime. In a small set of friends, Baldwin imbues the best and worst intentions of liberal America in the early 1970s.
6. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (1916). In this semiautobiographical novel, hero Stephen Dedalus rejects the world of his youth—Ireland in its provincialism, nationalism, Catholicism, and sexual guilt—for art. From its stream of consciousness technique to its descriptions of expatriate life in Paris, Portrait inspired nearly all the touchstones of twentieth-century modernism, the most important of which is the artist as a misunderstood god.
7. American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997) & The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow (1971). "American Pastoral": Seymour “Swede” Levov embodies the American success story: a Jewish boy who became a football hero, a conscientious businessman, a good citizen. Then his alienated daughter commits an atrocious political crime and his idyllic world is blown apart by the same radical energies assaulting American innocence during the 1960s. Conflicting perspectives on its protagonist’s vulnerable combination of decency, righteousness, and naiveté make this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel both sweetly nostalgic and extremely angry. "The Book of Daniel": The central figure of this novel is a young man whose parents were executed for conspiring to steal atomic secrets for Russia. His name is Daniel Isaacson, and as the story opens, his parents have been dead for many years. He has had a long time to adjust to their deaths. He has not adjusted.Out of the shambles of his childhood, he has constructed a new life—marriage to an adoring girl who gives him a son of his own, and a career in scholarship. It is a life that enrages him. In the silence of the library at Columbia University, where he is supposedly writing a Ph.D. dissertation, Daniel composes something quite different. It is a confession of his most intimate relationships—with his wife, his foster parents, and his kid sister Susan, whose own radicalism so reproaches him. The result is a book of memories, a book of investigation and book of judgments about the nature of leftist politics in the United States —its sacrificial rites, its peculiar cruelties, its humility, its bitterness.
8. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891). When Tess’s mother learns that her humble family has lofty bloodlines, she sends her daughter out to cadge funds and land a rich husband. Instead Tess suffers cruel mistreatment and becomes pregnant. The baby’s death unleashes torrents of grief, guilt, and religious doubt. However, Hardy’s grim tale is lightened by his loving descriptions of the English landscape and his humorous rendering of local talk.
9. La Bête Humaine (The Beast Within) by Émile Zola (1890). The seventeenth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, is one of Zola's most violent and explicit works. Set at the end of the Second Empire, when French society seemed to be hurtling into the future like the new railways and locomotives it was building, the novel is at once a tale of murder, passion, and possession and a compassionate study of individuals derailed by the burden of inherited evil. In it, Zola expresses the hope that human nature evolves through education but warns that the beast within continues to lurk beneath the veneer of technological progress.On one level a tale of murder, passion, and possession, it is also a compassionate study of individuals derailed by atavistic forces beyond their control.
10. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963). This autobiographical novel, a raw, eloquent articulation of a young woman’s nervous breakdown after a summer working at a New York fashion magazine, is especially unsettling because it was published after Plath’s suicide. Her alter ego, Esther Greenwood, is a girl’s Holden Caulfield, ripping away the phoniness of the suburbs, the city, and the doctors who would shock her back into submission. Ultimately, Esther rallies against a sterile world and finds a way to live. Plath did not.