15 Novels That Stretched My Knowledge

I keep finding book lists on the internet with titles like “Books That Will Change Your Life” and “Books That Will Influence Your Thinking.”

So here’s my list (in no special order): 15 Novels That Stretched My Knowledge and Stayed With Me Long After I’d Read Them.

What novels would make your list? Let us know in the comments. Or, better yet, put your list on your own blog and give us a link in the comments here.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee

Cover: To Kill a Mockingbird

Whenever I get to feeling down on humanity, I reread this little gem of a novel and have my faith in the human race restored.

2. Still Alice (2008) by Lisa Genova

Cover: Stilll AliceMuch is written about Alzheimer’s disease, and almost all of it is from the point of view of either caregivers or family and friends who must watch the heartbreaking decline of someone they love. But what is this disease like from the patient’s point of view? Since the nature of the condition makes patients, at least those beyond the initial symptoms, unable to articulate their experiences, fiction becomes the appropriate vehicle. In this novel neuroscientist Lisa Genova tells the story of Alice Howland, a neuroscience researcher and lecturer at Harvard, as she experiences early-onset Alzheimer’s. Genova demonstrates a range of possible reactions to the diagnosis through Alice’s husband and three adult children, but it’s the focus on Alice’s own experience that makes this novel so stunning.

3. Broken for You (2004) by Stephanie Kallos

Cover: Broken for YouTwo characters form the nucleus of this big, soapy novel. The wealthy Margaret, age 75, has just learned that she has a brain tumor. She’s lonely in her huge mansion filled with expensive antiques and decides to take in a boarder. Wanda, a woman in her 30s who has just come to town in search of a lost lover, answers Margaret’s ad. Gradually the list of the mansion’s residents grows as other people arrive to fulfill various needs, both their own and each others’. These characters grapple with life’s important questions—the meaning of family, friendship, responsibility, and love—in a sentimental yet charming way. Who wouldn’t want a group of companions like these imperfect yet lovable characters?

4. Blue Diary (2001) by Alice Hoffman

Cover: Blue DiaryMost of Alice Hoffman’s novels that I’ve read are haunting, but this one has haunted me the longest. What do you do when you find out your whole world is based on a lie? Jorie Ford faces this question when the police arrive to tell her that her husband killed a young girl 13 years before. Ethan Ford isn’t even the real name of the man she married more than 10 years ago, the volunteer fire fighter and pillar of the community, the father of her son. Can she believe his insistence that he has changed? Can love endure?

5. Mystic River (2001) by Dennis Lehane

Cover: Mystic RiverAs kids, Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle were friends. Then one day a strange car pulled up on the street, and the driver convinced one of them to get in. When that boy returned after several days, his mother told him never to talk about what had happened. Now the three are grown. Sean is a homicide detective, Jimmy is a small-time thug, and Dave struggles to hold himself and his marriage together. When Jimmy’s daughter is murdered, Sean investigates and discovers that on the night of the murder Dave returned home covered in blood. The investigation reveals how events, especially secrets, of the past influence the people we become.

6. All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren

Cover: All the King's MenI was in ninth grade when I discovered this masterpiece. I don’t remember much else that I read during that time of my life, but I distinctly remember this as the first book in which I was able to see how all the pieces of a finely crafted work of fiction fit together. I’ve reread it a few times over the many intervening years, and each time it shines anew.



7. The Blind Assassin (2000) by Margaret Atwood

Cover: The Blind AssassinAn aging Iris Chase Griffen can’t stop thinking about the suicide of her sister, Laura Chase, who drove herself off a bridge more than 50 years earlier. Iris is also haunted by the deaths of her industrialist husband and of both her parents. Interwoven among her memories is Laura Chase’s posthumously published novel, a science fiction story interlaced with parables. Atwood skillfully manages to weave together all these disparate strands into a novel that embodies the complexities of human relationships.


8. The Knitting Circle (2007) by Ann Hood

Cover: The Knitting CircleDevastated by the death of her daughter, Mary Baxter joins a knitting circle to occupy her hands and her mind. As the knitters get to know each other, they learn the healing power of sharing their life stories.

9. The Short History of a Prince (1998) by Jane Hamilton

Cover: Short History of a PrinceAs a boy, Walter McCloud aspired to be a classical dancer. As he grew up, he had to come to accept that he was not quite talented enough to become a top performer. In this novel Jane Hamilton creates a character whom we come to care for before she reveals a key element of the characterization. This novel might not have the same impact today as it did back when it first came out, but at that time I found it an effective antidote to stereotyping and prejudice.

10. Plainsong (1999) by Kent Haruf

Cover: PlainsongThe title says everything about this book: It’s the story of the town of Holt, located on the plains of Colorado, home to seemingly ordinary folks. The novel follows the lives of a group of Holt residents during one year when their lives intersect in unexpected ways. This quiet novel demonstrates that ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things to help each other.



11. We Were the Mulvaneys (1996) by Joyce Carol Oates

Cover: We Were the MulvaneysThe Mulvaneys were one of those families who had it all: beauty, brains, charisma, and all-around good fortune. But the Wheel of Life inevitably turns. This novels covers a 20-year downward spiral initiated by a few seemingly random events. But that Wheel of Life keeps on turning, until finally this family reaches a point of redemption and reconciliation. Psychologically probing and completely credible, this one has stayed with me for a long time.


12. A Simple Plan (1993) by Scott Smith

Cover: A Simple PlanThree friends discover, hidden in the snow, the wreckage of a small plane containing the pilot’s corpse and a bag stuffed with $4 million in cash. It would be so easy, they reason, to keep the money, and they come up with a simple plan to ensure they won’t be found out. Except that on their way home with the bag an old man on a snow mobile sees them, and so. . . . Every step they take seems so logical, yet there is no clearer demonstration than this novel that once you take that first step onto the slippery slope, there’s nowhere to go but down.

13. Middlesex (2002) by Jeffrey Eugenides

Cover: MiddlesexAs Amazon describes it, this is “ the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City, and the race riots of l967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic.” Astonishing and absolutely charming, this novel took my breath away over and over again.

14. The Most Dangerous Thing (2011) by Laura Lippman

Cover: The Most Dangerous ThingAlmost all of Laura Lippman’s non-series novels deal with life’s big issues. I think this one made the list because it’s the one I read most recently. Since Lippman is categorized primarily as a mystery writer, most of the blurbs describing her books emphasize the mystery angle. But this book is more a study of character than a straight mystery. Yes, there’s a mysterious occurrence that happened years ago, when the main group were children, and I kept reading to discover what that event was. But just as important as the event itself is the way that event has shadowed the lives of the characters, both those former children, now middle-aged adults, and their parents. Like A Simple Plan, this novel demonstrates that our actions and choices have consequences that can affect us for the rest of our lives.

15. Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell

Cover: Cloud AtlasI didn’t discover this book until all the hype building up to the release of the movie version. I took the time to read the book—and a hefty book it is, weighing in at 528 pages—before seeing the movie, and I’m glad I did. In a tour de force interweaving multiple writing styles and literary genres, Mitchell creates a mythical universe demonstrating the intersections between people and the consequences of their actions across time and space.


© 2013 by Mary Daniels Brown

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