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Ann Patchett's Top Ten List
1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877). Anna’s adulterous love affair with Count Vronsky —which follows an inevitable, devastating road from their dizzyingly erotic first encounter at a ball to Anna’s exile from society and her famous, fearful end —is a masterwork of tragic love. What makes the novel so deeply satisfying, though, is how Tolstoy balances the story of Anna’s passion with a second semiautobiographical story of Levin’s spirituality and domesticity. Levin commits his life to simple human values: his marriage to Kitty, his faith in God, and his farming. Tolstoy enchants us with Anna’s sin, then proceeds to educate us with Levin’s virtue.
2. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967). Widely considered the most popular work in Spanish since Don Quixote, this novel —part fantasy, part social history of Colombia — sparked fiction’s “Latin boom” and the popularization of magic realism. Over a century that seems to move backward and forward simultaneously, the forgotten and offhandedly magical village of Macondo — home to a Faulknerian plethora of incest, floods, massacres, civil wars, dreamers, prudes, and prostitutes — loses its Edenic innocence as it is increasingly exposed to civilization.
3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955). “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” So begins the Russian master’s infamous novel about Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who falls madly, obsessively in love with a twelve-year-old “nymphet,” Dolores Haze. So he marries the girl’s mother. When she dies he becomes Lolita’s father. As Humbert describes their car trip —a twisted mockery of the American road novel —Nabokov depicts love, power, and obsession in audacious, shockingly funny language.
4. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1924). Hans Castorp visits his cousin at a sanatorium in the mountains of Switzerland. Soon he too becomes ill (maybe) and checks into the hospital —for seven years. In this sanctuary, Hans and the sanatorium’s denizens endlessly debate questions of morality, politics, and culture, as the “real world” moves inexorably toward the horror of World War I. A meditation on time, an inquiry into how life ought to be lived, and an unflinching look at evil, Mann considered the ideas in his monumental novel so challenging that he said it must be read at least twice.
5. 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.
6. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (1979). An old man recalls a story of murder and adultery in his childhood Illinois town, and how he came to betray the friend who witnessed them. This novel by the longtime fiction editor of The New Yorker is an American Remembrance of Things Past—heart breaking in its portrayal of a boy’s loss of innocence, and savvy about memory’s self-serving nature.
7. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915). A novel made seminally modernist through an unreliable narration that is part cubist, part Freudian, it tells the story of the prissy and rather thick John Dowell and his wife Florence who repeatedly meet British soldier Edward Ashburnham and his wife over the years at various upper-crust European spas. Dowell’s blindness to Edward and Florence’s hidden-in-plain-sight affair finally lifts, but his class solidarity with the man he calls a “good soldier” endures —a tension that creates an exquisite portrait of denial and the death throes of Edwardian gentility.
8. Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West (1933). In this short novel on the soul-sickness of mass society, a New York advice columnist with a Christ complex is laid low by his taste for married women and his belief in his own redemptive powers. The letters in Miss Lonelyhearts were based on actual missives to residents of two hotels the novelist managed in the 1920s —letters West steamed open to read.
9. 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?
10. The Human Stain by Philip Roth (2000). Mentioning two students who never come to class, seventy-one-year-old professor Coleman Silk asks, “Do they exist or are they spooks?” The students are black, and Silk is soon engulfed in a racially charged campus controversy that may expose his secret life. The imbroglio also sparks Silk’s libido, and he begins an affair with one of Roth’s most finely drawn female characters, an illiterate janitor. An attack on political correctness, the novel also explores Roth’s signature theme: the quest for personal identity free from society’s labels and expectations.