Lionel Shriver's Top Ten List

Author Photo And Bio
Photo by Mark Kohn

Lionel Shriver (born 1957) is an American writer known for boundary-pushing, iconoclastic works featuring hard to love characters. Born into a religious North Carolina family, she decided, at age 15, to change her name form Margaret Ann. She published seven strong but little noticed novels, beginning with The Female of the Species (1986) and including A Perfectly Good Family (1996) before achieving break-out success with We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003, Orange Prize), which explores maternal ambivalence through a woman’s effort to understand her murderous son. Her other novels include The Post-Birthday World (2007), a parallel-universe tale which, in alternating chapters, tells what might have happened if the female narrator had resisted or succumbed to a sexual temptation; So Much for That (2010, National Book Award finalist),which offers an indictment of the U.S. health care system through the story of a marriage stressed and strengthened by illness; and Big Brother (2013), a dark, comic portrait of a woman who devotes years of her life to helping her morbidly obese brother lose weight.

1. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940). Hemingway’s ambivalence toward war—its nobility and its pointlessness—are delineated in this account of Robert Jordan, an idealistic American professor who enlists with the antifascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Jordan’s idealism is quickly tested by the bloody reality of combat and the cynical pragmatism of his comrades.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (1948). The story of a good man enmeshed in love, intrigue, and evil in a West African coastal town. Scobie is bound by strict integrity to his role as assistant police commissioner and by severe responsibility to his wife, Louise, for whom he cares with a fatal pity. When Scobie falls in love with the young widow Helen, he finds vital passion again yielding to pity, integrity giving way to deceit and dishonor—a vortex leading directly to murder. As Scobie's world crumbles, his personal crisis makes for a novel that is suspenseful, fascinating, and, finally, tragic.

5. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961). Trying to avoid the conformity of their suburban neighbors on Revolutionary Road, Frank and April Wheeler talk of moving to France where Frank might write the great book or think the great thoughts April believes he is capable of. However, infidelity and alcohol abuse dissolve their dreams as Frank and April lose faith in each other and themselves in this exquisitely painful novel.

6. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920). Martin Scorsese called his 1993 movie of this novel the most violent film he had made—quite a statement from the director of Raging Bull. The innocence here is not in the setting of 1870s upper-crust New York, whose starch-stiff social code hides a viper’s nest of jealousies and conspiracy, but in hero Newland Archer, a newlywed socialite who fancies himself simply an observer of his class. His infatuation with a European divorcée leads to a most unsentimental education on his true position.

7. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966). On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues. As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood yields poignant insights into the nature of American violence through a detached yet penetrating account of the savage and senseless murder of a family.

8. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1868). Prince Myshkin—epileptic, unworldly, sensitive—is the “idiot” of the title, but his gentle, generous nature forces readers to question that assumption. Myshkin (a scarcely disguised self-portrait of the author) tries again and again to help the people he encounters, only to have his efforts mocked or misunderstood. On the surface a love story, the novel is a contemplation of goodness in the world, and while its conclusions are dark, the portrait of this simple, good man endures.

9. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1895). Hardy’s protagonists are souls ahead of their time, who dare to aspire and love in defiance of Victorian class structure and social mores. In this bleak but moving novel, class barriers stymie Jude, a self-educated stonemason and would-be scholar, while convention damns his lover Sue, a pagan protofeminist. The flawed hero and heroine win modern hearts, while the author’s ferocious outcry against legal marriage, established religion, and nature itself, still challenges us today.

10. Paris Trout by Pete Dexter (1988). Winner of the National Book Award, this novel tells the story of a shocking crime that eats away at the social fabric of a small town, exposing the hypocrisies of its ways and shattering the lives of its citizens. The crime is the murder of a fourteen-year old black girl and the killer is Paris Trout, a respected white citizen of Cotton Point, Georgia, and a man without guilt.