What are the novels that you remember most fondly, even long after you’ve read them? Here are five that have stuck with me over the years.
1. Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos
Margaret Hughes, age 75, has just learned that she has a brain tumor. Margaret lives alone in a huge mansion in the most upscale section of Seattle, where her only companions are the rooms and rooms full of valuable figurines left to her by her father. When Margaret’s mother, dead some 60 years, begins visiting her, Margaret decides to take in a boarder. Wanda, in her 30s, answers Margaret’s ad. She recently sold all her belongings and left New York City for Seattle in pursuit of the lover who abandoned her. Warily, Margaret and Wanda begin to befriend each other. The mansion’s list of residents increases over the course of the novel as new people arrive to fulfill various needs—both their own and each others’.
I loved this novel for its treatment of life’s big themes: the meaning of family, friendship, responsibility, and love. Broken for You received several honors: The Today Show book club selection, 2004; Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, 2005; and Washington State Book Award, 2005.
2. Empire Falls by Richard Russo
Empire Falls, Maine, is a town that has seen better days. With its logging industry and textile mills now defunct, its working-class inhabitants try to earn a living however they can. Miles Roby is a typical Empire Falls resident, still living in the town’s tangled web of historical, economic, and family relationships. He manages the Empire Grill, the last economic holdout of Mrs. Whiting, the widow who is the only remaining member of the family that once held all the wealth, industry, and property of the town.
This is a social novel in its look at the declining economic and class conditions of rural America. But it’s also a deeply personal novel in its look at how people interact with one another. At the heart of the story is the relationship between Max and his teenage daughter, Tick. This is another novel from which life’s big themes shine forth: love, friendship, honesty, and family.
3. Plainsong by Kent Haruf
In the fictional small town of Holt, on the high plains of Colorado, a high school teacher works at raising his two sons after their mother’s retreat from her life and responsibilities. In another part of town a mother locks her pregnant teenage daughter out of the house. In the country just outside of town, two elderly bachelor brothers work their family farm, the only life they’ve ever known. Life on the plains is unremitting, but the people in this small town manage to come together in a mutually supportive way that serves everyone’s needs.
I am drawn to novels that demonstrate how people, even though unrelated by blood, create surrogate families that fulfill their needs and desires for companionship, help, and love. Karuf creates a group of memorable characters who, despite the greatly different situations, do just that. This is a truly memorable novel, along with its sequels, Eventide and Benediction, that continue the story.
4. Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Lydia Rowe is a 42-year-old classical pianist married to Victor, a painter. The couple has four children. Lydia has remained friends with a group of college roommates who all studied philosophy together and engaged in endless debates about the fine points of particular theorists. They still hold frequent gatherings, and at one meeting George tells Lydia about field theory, a construct borrowed by psychology from physics, that posits a psychological field as the locus of a person’s experiences and needs. As George explains to Lydia, “the tendency is always to try for some sort of equilibrium in the field. To complete an unfinished transaction” (p. 4). A disturbance occurs in the field when a “particular need is not satisfied. You can’t move on. You get stuck” (p. 8).
Over the course of the novel, all the members of Lydia’s circle learn that abstract philosophical theory cannot begin to do justice to the dense reality of everyday life as intricate, complex experiences accrue. This rich novel has stayed with me for the nearly 10 years since I read it. It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
This novel follows the lives of four college roommates from a Massachusetts college (the name is not mentioned, but Harvard is implied) for decades after they all move to New York City to start their careers. There’s an actor, a painter, an architect, and a lawyer. At the center of the group is the lawyer, Jude, a man so broken both physically and emotionally that all the others instinctively surround and protect him.
This is a big book—an 814-page trade paperback—that takes the time necessary to look at all the world can throw at four people over their lifetimes. Yet in the end it’s another novel about how people manage to put together the surrogate family they need to care for themselves and each other. Like all of these novels, it will stay in my memory for a long time.
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown