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Martha McPhee's Top Ten List
1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939). A powerful portrait of Depression-era America, this gritty social novel follows the Joad family as they flee their farm in the Oklahoma dust bowl for the promised land of California. While limping across a crippled land, Ma and Pa Joad, their pregnant daughter Rose of Sharon, and their recently paroled son Tom sleep in ramshackle Hoovervilles filled with other refugees and encounter hardship, death, and deceit. While vividly capturing the plight of a nation, Steinbeck renders people who have lost everything but their dignity.
2. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72). Dorothea Brooke is a pretty young idealist whose desire to improve the world leads her to marry the crusty pedant Casaubon. This mistake takes her down a circuitous and painful path in search of happiness. The novel, which explores society’s brakes on women and deteriorating rural life, is as much a chronicle of the English town of Middlemarch as it is the portrait of a lady. Eliot excels at parsing moments of moral crisis so that we feel a character’s anguish and resolve. Her intelligent sympathy for even the most unlikable people redirects our own moral compass toward charity rather than enmity.
3. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905). Caught up in the web of old New York society, Lily Bart angles for a wealthy husband. Though presented with ample opportunity, the beautiful and well-connected Lily rejects one man after another as not rich enough, including her true love, Laurence Stern. When she becomes a hapless victim of her own ambition—blackmailed and wrongly accused of adultery—Lily is cast out of high society before making one final attempt to redeem herself.
4. 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.
5. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847–48). The subtitle is “A Novel Without a Hero,” and never was a hero more unnecessary. In Becky Sharp, we find one of the most delicious heroines of all time. Sexy, resourceful, and duplicitous, Becky schemes her way through society, always with an eye toward catching a richer man. Cynical Thackeray, whose cutting portraits of society are hilarious, resists the usual punishments doled out to bad Victorian women and allows that the vain may find as much happiness in their success as the good do in their virtue.
6. 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.
7. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874). Set in his fictional Wessex countryside in southwest England, this novel was Hardy's breakthrough work. Though it was first published anonymously in 1874, its quick and tremendous success persuaded Hardy to give up his first profession, architecture, to concentrate on writing fiction. The story of the ill-fated passions of the beautiful Bathsheba Everdene and her three suitors offers a spectacle of country life brimming with an energy and charm not customarily associated with Hardy.
8. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (1993). This novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find—through love or through exacting maternal appraisal—a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis,the book takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families. A sweeping panoramic portrait of a complex, multiethnic society in flux, the novel remains the story of ordinary people caught up in a web of love and ambition, humor and sadness, prejudice and reconciliation, the most delicate social etiquette and the most appalling violence.
9. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990). A Vietnam vet, O’Brien established himself as a chronicler of the war in nonfiction works such as If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) and his National Book Award–winning novel Going After Cacciato (1978). In this, his crowning work, a character named “Tim” narrates a series of stories about himself and other young soldiers in his platoon who wrestle with the decision to go to war, walk through booby-trapped jungles, miss their loved ones, and grieve for their fallen comrades. Using simple, emotionally charged language, O’Brien explores the moral consequences and conundrums of the war through daily details, such as the things soldiers carry in their backpacks, and timeless issues, especially the scars they will always bear.
10. Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (1998). In a small bar somewhere in the Bronx, a funeral party has gathered to honor Billy Lynch. Through the night, his friends and family weave together the tale of a husband, lover, dreamer, and storyteller, but also that of a hopeless drunk whose immense charm was but a veil over a lifetime of secrets and all-consuming sorrow. As they comfort his widow, the gentle Maeve, they remember as well his first love, Eva, who died of pneumonia, and whose ghost haunted his marriage and drove him to the bottle. Who is truly responsible for Billy's life and death, and what does it mean to mythologize a friend's suffering? Beautifully written and teeming with fine portraits of Irish-American life in New York,shows how a community can pin its dreams to one man, and how good intentions can be as destructive as the truth they were meant to hide.