Of all the fine novels I’ve read and enjoyed, here are my fifteen favorites, unranked. Each one of them has an exceptional quality that, to me, makes it both wonderful to read and a masterpiece.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann–This is a novel I can hardly praise enough for both its concept and the literary and emotional power of its execution. McCann is particularly strong in this work at revealing the interior lives of characters and their actions, most extraordinarily of Philippe Petit, who walked a tightrope between the WTC towers for forty-five minutes in 1974, but also of the broad audience of unrelated people he creates as Petit’s witnesses.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel—I love this book. I occasionally got slightly lost in the early going until I realized that Thomas Cromwell is the book’s North Star. If it’s not made clear otherwise, it’s Cromwell’s consciousness we’re in. And what a remarkable consciousness it is. I’ve never found a book that so perfectly maintained an entrancing tone. It’s so perfectly written that its language becomes an essential part of the reading ether. I wanted to just stay in its world, which was also rich in fully integrated period detail.
White Noise by Don DeLillo–I had heard great things about DeLillo’s White Noise long before I read it and had wondered if I would find it somehow pretentious and over-intellectualized. I was pleasantly surprised. Though I found the end of the book a bit over the top and the existential problem at the book’s core not of overwhelming intrinsic interest, the book is one of the best evocations of family life I’ve ever read. DeLillo is just wonderful at capturing the intensity and fragility of familial love, including its comic touches, and if he needs the particular intellectual construct he works from in order to do it, so be it.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje—Ondaatje’s work is notable for its almost exquisite lyricism, which is beautifully showcased in this work, which also benefits from the mystery at its center and its interweaving of four remarkable post-World War II stories with resonant power.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan—McEwan is a brilliant and prolific writer who has become known particularly for his novelist’s obsession with timing and luck, how the action or inaction of an instant can shape decades of life. I’ve read most of his work and it’s always fascinating (occasionally slightly unhinged), and while I particularly admire Atonement and the amazing beginning of Enduring Love, it’s this smaller work that, to me, is a gem. McEwan so artfully depicts the innocence and blundering embarrassment of young love. This may be the only book I’ve ever read that kept me in a state of surprise, amused delight and recognition from the beginning to the end of its central story.
Jazz by Toni Morrison—I put the first paragraph of Jazz in my list of favorite beginnings and said it was my absolute favorite. The entire book makes this list for the same reasons—Toni Morrison’s remarkable fusion of the rhythms of jazz with the prose (I don’t know how she does it) and the creation on the page of an entire urban community with its energy, dysfunction, passion, undercurrents of rage, and humor. This is a remarkable American book.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky—I didn’t intentionally name Suite Harmonic as some kind of homage to this book, but I do like the name, though the nature of the suite is very different for the two books, with Suite Française being more of a pastiche of stories about different characters in different places and their experience of the same event, while Suite Harmonic is a connection of events at war and at home, including the war’s aftermath. It’s impossible to read Suite Française without being very aware of the fate of it author, Irène Némirovsky, who died in a Nazi concentration camp, and of how unlikely it was for the book even to be published since the manuscript was hidden and unread for decades. It makes the book feel like a particular marvel. Yet even without that historical nexus, Némirovsky’s writing would still be remarkable and revelatory. It amazingly captures the movement of a whole population as the German army overruns France early in World War II.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez—It may be an odd choice to place this ahead of García Márquez’s100 Years of Solitude, but this is all about my favorites and, much as I like and admire 100 Years of Solitude, I love this book. Its main character is unattractive and unappealing and has some terrible attitudes about women and, in many legal jurisdictions, would be criminally liable for his behavior with an underage girl. Yet García Márquez’s skills with language, deep understanding of human nature, including human weakness and pride, and his amazing storytelling ability make this an extraordinary book with one of the most beautifully comic endings it’s possible to imagine.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison—Invisible Man proves an unwritten rule that if you really write only one book and it’s the right book, it’s enough. This book has always been a marvel in the way it so acutely demonstrates how blackness in America historically equaled invisibility. The operating conceit that even denies the main character a name both makes that point and demonstrates Ralph Ellison’s deep skill as a writer. And the book is spellbinding.
The Clown by Heinrich Böll—It’s been so long since I read this book that I don’t remember many details, though I know I kept encouraging friends to read it. I’m going to put it on this list without rereading it. It’s a book I was amazed by. Böll is a wonderful writer who combines both humor and deep insight. The clown, who is the book’s main character, is perfectly drawn, and I’ve wondered lately if he was the inspiration for Leonard in The Second Magician’s Tale. Perhaps.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh—Brideshead Revisited may be the best-structured book I’ve ever read, partly because the structure is both right there to see, and yet isn’t readily apparent. I was so absorbed in the story I was actually unaware of the careful parallels the first time I read it. On the next reading several years later, I was startled to realize how exactly the story of Julia and Charles in the book’s second half echoes the story of Charles and Sebastian in the first half. It’s a remarkably effective strategy that deepens both stories and adds a curious interest to them. And it’s just a really good book full of incredibly funny dialogue.
The Golden Bowl by Henry James—I was addicted to reading James when I was younger and this is my favorite of his books. He is such a subtle and relentlessly careful observer of human nature and fascinates me in the way he uses individual characters to explore national character.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich—I once heard someone quote Louise Erdrich as saying her work combines her Native American love of storytelling and her German penchant for system-making. That is probably an accurate observation but what draws me so strongly to Love Medicine, her first book, is its wonderful and unique characters and its remarkable lyric power. Extraordinary.
The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa—This novel captures me in so many ways, but mostly in its depiction of a member of the Sicilian aristocracy who sees his own era passing. It is sometimes languid and often bittersweet, and di Lampedusa makes even the dry and dusty air of Sicily feel poignant.
Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald—To read the remarkably eccentric work of Penelope Fitzgerald is to discover a new space in literature. Offshore is probably her most perfect rendering of this quirkiness in its flat depiction of life, particularly of children, on the houseboats moored on the Thames in London. In this book, Fitzgerald raises matter-of-factness to the level of genius.