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Leah Stewart's Top Ten List
1. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72). Dorothea Brooke is a pretty young idealist whose desire to improve the world leads her to marry the crusty pedant Casaubon. This mistake takes her down a circuitous and painful path in search of happiness. The novel, which explores society’s brakes on women and deteriorating rural life, is as much a chronicle of the English town of Middlemarch as it is the portrait of a lady. Eliot excels at parsing moments of moral crisis so that we feel a character’s anguish and resolve. Her intelligent sympathy for even the most unlikable people redirects our own moral compass toward charity rather than enmity.
2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813). “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” reads this novel’s famous opening line. This matching of wife to single man—or good fortune—makes up the plot of perhaps the happiest, smartest romance ever written. Austen’s genius was to make Elizabeth Bennet a reluctant, sometimes crabby equal to her Mr. Darcy, making Pride and Prejudice as much a battle of wits as it is a love story.
3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). Perhaps the most searching fable of the American Dream ever written, this glittering novel of the Jazz Age paints an unforgettable portrait of its day— the flappers, the bootleg gin, the careless, giddy wealth. Self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby, determined to win back the heart of the girl he loved and lost, emerges as an emblem for romantic yearning, and the novel’s narrator, Nick Carroway, brilliantly illuminates the post–World War I end to American innocence.
4. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996). This novel takes us back in time and into the life of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the nineteenth century. Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders. Dr. Simon Jordan, an up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness, is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories? Is Grace a female fiend? A bloodthirsty femme fatale? Or is she the victim of circumstances?
5. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1849–50). Dickens’s most autobiographical novel chronicles his hero’s ever-changing fortunes, beginning with his famous opening line, “I am born.” As a boy, David is swept between school and the workhouse; later, between the law and literature; and then between his vapid wife Dora and his true love Agnes. Ingratiating Uriah Heep, talented Mr. Micawber, devoted nurse Peggoty, and willing Barkis are some of the most memorable characters in the entire Dickens canon.
6. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle (1962). It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger. "Wild nights are my glory," the unearthly stranger told them. "I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me sit down for a moment, and then I'll be on my way. Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract." A tesseract (in case the reader doesn't know) is a wrinkle in time. What follows in this Newbery Award-winning classic is the story of the adventures in space and time of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O'Keefe (athlete, student, and one of the most popular boys in high school) as they search for Meg's father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government on the tesseract problem.
7. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson (1992). Although the title comes from Lou Reed’s song “Heroin,” it assumes another meaning in this collection of eleven linked short stories about a character who endures drug addiction, car crashes, and violence to learn who he is and achieve some grace. The characters sometimes seem futile as they score drugs and scrounge for money and love, but the real story is the narrator’s fumbling process toward self-discovery.
8. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989). During a car trip, Stevens—a career butler who has existed at once on the fringes and within the bird’s nest of the British ruling class—reflects on his lifetime of service to the late Lord Darlington. Blinded by his devotion to “duty,” he cannot admit that his late master was a fascist sympathizer and cannot see that he has forfeited the possibility of leading his own life. Now in old age, Stevens faces a sense of loss without the emotional acuity to comprehend it.
9. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954). Regarded by many as the finest, and funniest, comic novel of the twentieth century, Lucky Jim remains as trenchant, withering, and eloquently misanthropic as when it first scandalized readers in 1954. This is the story of Jim Dixon, a hapless lecturer in medieval history at a provincial university who knows better than most that “there was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones.” Kingsley Amis’s scabrous debut leads the reader through a gallery of emphatically English bores, cranks, frauds, and neurotics with whom Dixon must contend in one way or another in order to hold on to his cushy academic perch and win the girl of his fancy. As David Lodge has observed, Lucky Jim is “a classic comic novel, a seminal campus novel, and a novel which seized and expressed to the mood who came of age in the 1950s. But there is more to it than that...its university setting functions primarily as the epitome of a stuffy, provincial bourgeois world into which the hero is promoted by education, and against his values and codes he rebels, at first inwardly and at last outwardly."
10. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (1994). A cross between Dante’s Inferno, Through the Looking Glass, and Catch-22, this novel depicts the bizarre and often inexplicable journey of Japanese Everyman Toru Okada, whose missing cat prompts the disappearance of his wife, encounters with psychics and call girls, days huddled in meditation at the bottom of a well, and the breathtakingly graphic depiction of a man being skinned alive.