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Elizabeth Flock's Top Ten List
1. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857). Of the many nineteenth-century novels about adulteresses, only Madame Bovary features a heroine frankly detested by her author. Flaubert battled for five years to complete his meticulous portrait of extramarital romance in the French provinces, and he complained endlessly in letters about his love-starved main character — so inferior, he felt, to himself. In the end, however, he came to peace with her, famously saying, “Madame Bovary: c’est moi.” A model of gorgeous style and perfect characterization, the novel is a testament to how yearning for a higher life both elevates and destroys us.
2. Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac (1847). Lisbeth (Bette) Fischer, a seamstress for the demimonde of actresses and courtesans and the poor relation of Baron Hulot, has a secret: she is helping to support a poor but noble Polish sculptor. Baron Hulot’s daughter Hortense discovers the secret and helps herself to the handsome sculptor. Bette then unleashes an underhanded stratagem dictated by her implacably vengeful heart: using Baron Hulot’s insatiable lust as a lever, Bette organizes her courtesan connections to ruin him, both morally and financially. Scary and psychologically acute.
3. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1925).Clyde Griffiths wants to be more than just the son of a Midwestern preacher. Leaving home, he follows a path toward the American Dream that is littered with greed, adultery, and hypocrisy. The brass ring seems close when he wins a wealthy girl’s love, but then very far away when a factory girl he impregnated demands that he marry her. In this disquieting social novel, Clyde faces a moral dilemma that reveals the corruption of his soul and the materialistic culture that seduces him.
4. My Ántonia by Willa Cather (1918). Featuring a beleaguered central heroine who endures her father’s suicide, is driven to work in the fields, and is seduced, abandoned, and left pregnant, this ought to be a tale of tragic inevitability. Instead, this beautifully elegiac novel offers an unsentimental paean to the prairie, to domesticity, and to memory itself. As remembered by her friend Jim, Ántonia is as mythic and down-to-earth as the Nebraska she inhabits.
5. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859). It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.... These well-known and loved lines begin Dickens's novel set during the bloodiest moments of the French Revolution. When former aristocrat Charles Darnay learns that an old family servant needs his help, he abandons his safe haven in England and returns to Paris. But once there, the Revolutionary authorities arrest him not for anything he has done, but for his rich family's crimes. Also in danger: his wife, Lucie, their young daughter, and her aged father, who have followed him across the Channel. His salvation may be his uncanny resemblance to the dissolute yet nobel Sydney Carton.
6. The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell (1945). This is the serenely observed yet deeply moving story of two boys finding one another in the Midwest of the 1920s, when childhood lasted longer than it does today and even adults were more innocent of what life could bring.
7. Stories of Raymond Carver (1938–88). Culled from his own hard-drinking, working-class upbringing in the Pacific Northwest, Carver’s stories depict relationships in various states of decay, the unsung losses of unsung people, and the prolonged misery of ordinary people delivered in a sly understated tone sometimes called dirty realism. A master of the short story, Carver’s name was only beginning to be mentioned in the same breath as Hemingway and O’Connor when lung cancer brought him down at the age of fifty.
8. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990). A Vietnam vet, O’Brien established himself as a chronicler of the war in nonfiction works such as If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) and his National Book Award–winning novel Going After Cacciato (1978). In this, his crowning work, a character named “Tim” narrates a series of stories about himself and other young soldiers in his platoon who wrestle with the decision to go to war, walk through booby-trapped jungles, miss their loved ones, and grieve for their fallen comrades. Using simple, emotionally charged language, O’Brien explores the moral consequences and conundrums of the war through daily details, such as the things soldiers carry in their backpacks, and timeless issues, especially the scars they will always bear.
9. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1962). The author draws on the eight years he spent in Soviet prisons to write this harrowing novel of the Soviet gulags. Inmates and prisoners are always cold, always hungry, always scheming for crumbs, and willing to betray each other for less in this Siberian labor camp. Though brutally dehumanized, many of Solzhenitsyn’s characters remain indomitable, making this novel an indictment of human nature and an ode to the human spirit.
10. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961). Trying to avoid the conformity of their suburban neighbors on Revolutionary Road, Frank and April Wheeler talk of moving to France where Frank might write the great book or think the great thoughts April believes he is capable of. However, infidelity and alcohol abuse dissolve their dreams as Frank and April lose faith in each other and themselves in this exquisitely painful novel.