‘Tis the season for adding books to your wish list. Here are ten of my absolute favorite modern fiction works. While none of these are very new, all are worth reading and savoring. I hope to follow up with other lists over time with other top 10 lists in other genres as well, including classic literature, non-fiction, and humor.
I have linked my full reviews to these books to my posts on Goodreads.com. Happy reading!
1. Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier—Who is the woman who posed for Vermeer’s famous painting, “Girl with the Pearl Earring”? In this outstanding novel, the author imagines it is a 16-year-old servant in the Vermeer household named Griet. Hired to clean, cook, shop and help take care of the Vermeer’s ever-expanding family, Griet captures the notice of the master of the house, Vermeer himself, and thus begins the unfolding drama. Beautifully imagined.
2. The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve—The late-night knock on the door instantly alerts Kathryn Lyons to the terrible news: her pilot husband has been killed in a plane accident. From there, the reader follows Kathryn through her grief and eventual discovery of her husband’s secret life, and raises the question: how well can we ever know anybody, even a spouse? I also enjoyed Shreve’s novel “Resistance” a great deal.
3. Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk—Marjorie Morgenstern is 19 years old, a beautiful daughter of Jewish immigrants who have steadily climbed into a comfortable upper-middle class life in Manhattan. When Marjorie meets and falls in love with the director of a summer stock production at a retreat in the Catskills, she loses her naiveté, her innocence, and her heart. Wouk’s brilliant character portraits include not only Marjorie and Noel Airman, but Marjorie’s parents, her best friend Marsha, and her Uncle Samson-Aaron, with a big heart and a big appetite that will lead him to trouble. An unforgettable book.
4. My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok—This novel explores the tension between artistic expression and the Orthodox Jewish world that would set limits on that expression. Asher Lev is born into a rabbinic dynasty and is expected to step up to his role, but his soul is that of an artist, and his calling cannot be denied. You don’t have to be Jewish to be able to appreciate the universal aspects of the story.
5. Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Horn—A novel about memory and how best to preserve it over time, spun around a semi-thriller involving the protagonist, Josie Ashkenazi, a young, brilliant and successful tech wizard who is abducted while on a consulting mission at the Library of Alexandria. A second theme involves the 12th century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimondies, who wrote the original “The Guide for the Perplexed,” a hallmark work of Jewish philosophy.
6.Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri —This is a short story collection about the lives and relationships among Indian emigres and often, their adjustment to a new life, such as a young married couple (in an arranged marriage) who move to America as newlyweds for the husband’s university job. Lahiri’s writing is elegant and uncluttered but evocative. I liked this collection far more than the author’s highly praised novel, “The Namesake.”
7.The Help by Kathryn Stockett—This book set in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi grabbed me on the first page and never let go. It’s about the disconnect between the lives of white privileged women and the black “help” they rarely see as fully human. When Skeeter, a white woman who sees the injustice, tries to get some of the maids to speak out, trouble ensues. Really a wonderful read.
8.Excellent Women by Barbara Pym—A comedy set in post World War II England, the book centers around Mildred Lathbury, a clergyman’s daughter and “spinster,” one of the “excellent women” of the title who is expected to live a life of good works supporting others whose married lives are fuller than her own. This writer is not as well known as she should be.
9.Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner—This is a beautifully written book, a story about enduring friendships, enduring marriages, and the ways that friends and spouses grow through life’s often difficult journey to become more than what they were at the start.
10. 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith—I love McCall Smith’s gentle humor and wry observations about human nature. His books are light reads, but sometimes, that’s just the ticket for reading entertainment. The characters are finely drawn, including the narcissistic Bruce, intelligent-yet-confused-about-her-options Pat, wise Domenica, and scene-stealing Bertie, the 6-year-old who just wants to be a regular boy but whose feminist mother forces him to endure yoga, psychotherapy, wear pink trousers and otherwise make him her gender-neutral sociology project.
What would make YOUR top 10 fiction list? Let me know by writing to me at jg at judygruen.com.