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Amy Bloom's Top Ten List
1. The Deptford trilogy by Robertson Davies (1983). A single question—“Who killed Boy Staunton?”—hovers over this trilogy that begins when ten-year-old Percy “Boy” Staunton throws a rock-filled snowball at his friend Dunstan Ramsay. Instead he hits Mary Dempster, who soon gives birth, prematurely, to a boy with birth defects. The novels Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders chronicle the lives of these characters and their families, developing themes of guilt, love, and responsibility while detailing “the consequences that can follow any single action.”
2. Persuasion by Jane Austen (1817). Eight years ago, Anne Elliot was persuaded by a friend to break off her engagement to a handsome naval officer because he lacked wealth and name. Now twenty-seven, her romantic prospects a dim memory, she encounters him once again, only now he is a grand success. Can she rekindle his love?
3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (1995–2000). This epic trilogy, comprised of Northern Lights (a.k.a., The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, reconceives Paradise Lost as an adventure/fantasy from an atheist, humanist perspective. Like Adam and Eve, Lyra and Will embrace knowledge. But for them it is the path to liberation, not damnation. In thrilling quests across magic universes filled with demons, angels, and talking animals, they battle “the Authority” that demands faith while repressing freedom.
4. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (1995). This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the fictionalized autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett is a subtle but affecting portrait of an everywoman reflecting on an unconventional life. What transforms this seemingly ordinary tale is the richness of Daisy's vividly described inner life—from her earliest memories of her adoptive mother to her awareness of impending death.
5. The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2003). Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, this rich, sprawling novel centers on the life and legacy of an African American man who was also a slaveholder. Through a wide cast of characters, who display a wide range of perspectives and emotions, Jones examines the concept of slavery, especially how the master–slave relationship corrupts the soul.
6. The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro (1978). In this series of interweaving stories, Munro recreates the evolving bond between two women in the course of almost forty years. One is Flo, practical, suspicious of other people's airs, at times dismayingly vulgar. the other is Rose, Flo's stepdaughter, a clumsy, shy girl who somehow leaves the small town she grew up in to achieve her own equivocal success in the larger world. Published in Canada under the title “Who Do You Think You Are?,” it won the Governor’s General Award.
7. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. Roth presents an alternate version of American history in this novel that begins in 1940 with the election of Charles A. Lindbergh, heroic aviator and rabid isolationist, as President. Shortly thereafter, he negotiates a cordial “understanding” with Adolf Hitler, while the new government embarks on a program of folksy anti-Semitism. For one boy growing up in Newark, Lindbergh’s election is the first in a series of ruptures that threaten to destroy his small, safe corner of America–and with it, his mother, his father, and his older brother.
8. The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998). This Pulitzer Prize–winning novel describes three women whose lives resonate with Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway. There is Woolf herself, contemplating suicide even as she imagines her great novel; an American housewife in 1949 who can’t quite fathom her discontent; and a contemporary woman, a lesbian in a long-term relationship, whose great love, a man, is dying of AIDS. Melancholy, hope, and endurance suffuse this intimate novel that suggests, “There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined. . . . [Still] we hope, more than anything, for more.”
9. Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier (1951). With a cast of characters that ranges from man-eating flora to disgruntled devils and suburban salarymen (not that it's always easy to tell one from another), Collier's dazzling stories explore the implacable logic of lunacy, revealing a surreal landscape whose unstable surface is depth-charged with surprise.
10. Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (1997) Larry Weller, born in 1950, is an ordinary guy made extraordinary by his creator's perception, irony, and tenderness. This novel gives us, as it were, a CAT scan of his life, in episodes between 1977 and 1997, that seamlessly flash backward and forward. We follow this young floral designer through two marriages and divorces, and his interactions with his parents, friends, and a son. Throughout, we witness his deepening passion for garden mazes--so like life, with their teasing treachery and promise of reward. Among all the paradoxes and accidents of his existence, Larry moves through the spontaneity of the seventies, the blind enchantment of the eighties, and the lean, mean nineties, completing at last his quiet, stubborn search for self. Larry's odyssey mirrors the male condition at the end of our century with wit, poignancy, and wisdom in this Orange Prize-winning novel.
Wild Cards to make it an even dozen:
Jumping the Queue by Mary Wesley (1983). Middle-aged widow Matilda Poliport has decided to end her life. She puts her papers in order and gives away her beloved pet goose, Gus. She packs a picnic and heads off to the beach to drown herself. But her plans are interrupted by Hugh Warner—wanted by the police for bashing in his mother’s skull with a tea tray. Hugh has the same idea as Matilda: to end his own life. But Matilda foils Hugh’s suicide, inadvertently saving them both, and the unlikely pair finds itself launched on an adventure in this story told with wit and psychological suspense.
Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson (1957). In this sequel to her memoir Life Among the Savages, Shirley Jackson continues her affectionate, hilarious, sophisticated tale of dubious parental equilibrium in the face of four children, assorted dogs and cats, and the uncounted heaps of small intrusive possessions which pile up in corners everywhere.