"Read in order to live."--Gustave Flaubert
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
In Austen's wittiest and most sparkling romantic comedy, the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet and the proud Mr. Darcy play a game of civilized sparring in the genteel setting of eighteenth-century drawing rooms. I agree wholeheartedly with Anna Quindlen, who said about Pride and Prejudice, "It is a pure joy to read."
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
I first read this book when I was ten years old, and it has been one of my favorite novels ever since! Jane is a poor orphan who becomes a governess at the gloomy and mysterious Thornfield Hall, where she falls in love with the mansion's brooding master, Mr. Rochester.
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
One of Dickens's most polished and expertly crafted novels, this is the story of the orphan Pip and the moral conflicts that he experiences as a young man with "great expectations." The novel also contains some of Dickens's most compelling and memorable characters, including the eccentric and vengeful Miss Havisham, her beautiful protégé Estella, and the mysterious convict Magwich.
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
This epic Civil War novel, first published in 1936 and immortalized on film in 1939, tells the story of Scarlett O'Hara, a spoiled, stubborn, and independent Southern belle, who arrives at womanhood in the midst of the nation's fighting and tumult.
Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
In this many-faceted portrait of upper- and middle-class English society at the time of Waterloo, two very different women struggle to achieve their goals--Becky Sharp, a fast-talking, scheming adventurer, and Amelia Sedley, a timid, gentle lady of "high society."
Emma, Jane Austen
In another gloriously witty and funny Austen novel, Emma Woodhouse, "handsome, clever, and rich," is too busy playing matchmaker for her friends to notice that she herself is falling in love with the distinguished Mr. Knightley.
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
Mrs. Gaskell's last novel--incomplete when she died and thus missing the final chapter--is a departure from her earlier "social" fiction, yet it offers an ironic critique of mid-Victorian society, blended into the charming story of the morally grounded, sweet-tempered Molly Gibson and her life in the country village of Hollingford. I read this book after seeing the Andrew Davies TV adaptation on Masterpiece Theatre, starring Justine Waddell as Molly and Anthony Howell as Roger Hamley--definitely worth a viewing!
Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
Dickens's last completed novel, this is also one of his most delightful--a pure joy from start to finish (after all, what else would we expect from Dickens?). The plots and subplots, which involve an extraordinary number of characters, center on the theme of money and greed, coupled with the regenerative power of love. I'll leave it at that and let you sort out the details on your own. But rest assured that this story is the skillful blend of comedy, morality, mystery, and romance of which Dickens alone was the master. (And, by the way, I'm in love with Mr. Rokesmith!)
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
This brilliant novel is succintly summed up in its famous first sentence: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Although the novel recounts the experiences of several such families, its focus is on the charming and beautiful Anna Karenina and the painful lessons she learns as she sacrifices her family for the love of another man. This deeply moral novel also paints a detailed picture of life in rural Russia.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
In this dark and introspective Gothic novel, two brooding figures--the mysterious Heathcliff and the fiery Catherine Earnshaw--struggle to achieve happiness on the bleak Yorkshire moors, but often end up hurting each other instead.
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
In this classic tale of growing up, the charmingly warmhearted orphan David Copperfield survives through the ups and downs of life's vicissitudes to become a man of self-discipline, truth, and honor. Of this largely autobiographical novel, Dickens wrote, "Like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favorite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD."
Persuasion, Jane Austen
A wonderful but often underrated novel, this book follows the experiences of the gentle, intelligent Anne Elliot as she encounters the man whose offer of marriage she was previously persuaded to reject--the dashing naval hero Captain Frederick Wentworth.
My Ántonia, Willa Cather
This moving story traces the self-realization of Ántonia Shimerda, a brave Bohemian girl who finds happiness in motherhood on the Nebraskan frontier.
Evelina, Frances Burney
A charming book written much in the style of Jane Austen, Fanny Burney's first and greatest novel unfolds entirely through letters--primarily those written by the enchantingly innocent and virtuous heroine, Evelina Anville, who is just making "her first appearance upon the great and busy stage of life." An insightful portrait of eighteenth-century England from London to Bristol, the novel is also a beautiful love story.
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." Beginning with this famous first sentence and ending with Sydney Carton's prophetic vision (often considered one of the most moving texts in all of literature), A Tale of Two Cities is a masterpiece of absorbing pathos. Dickens's only historical novel, it tells the turbulent, often ruthless story of the French Revolution. In so doing, the tale illustrates the extreme actions that can proceed from human emotions--actions of nobility and sacrifice inspired by love, and those of hate and barbarity inspired by revenge.
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
This fascinating and highly symbolic novel explores the aftermath of adultery in Puritan New England by telling the story of Hester Prynne, a young woman banished from society and condemned to wear the scarlet A of adultery for her sin.
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
Although the first of Austen's novels, it is one of the best and most highly praised of them all. It tells the stories of two sisters and their painful separations from the men they love. Elinor, the older sister, is self-controlled and rich in common sense, while the younger Marianne is impetuous, ardent, and controlled by her sensibility.
Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
In one of his darkest and most realistic portraits of life in Victorian England, Dickens tells the story of Oliver Twist, a penniless orphan who remains faithful to his morals and principles despite the surrounding crime and cruelty of the London "underworld." This book is a brilliant attack against the injustices of Victorian workhouses and the misery inflicted on that society's poor and helpless masses.
The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot
This intensely absorbing novel chronicles the sometimes tempestuous life of Maggie Tulliver (widely regarded as Eliot's finest character), whose gifts and charms find no fulfillment in her surroundings. Characterized by satirical humor, keen psychological insight, and remarkable narrative power, this book is one of the most emotionally engrossing of all those I've read. (It took me only five days to read my 509-page edition!)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
In Twain's masterpiece of satire, humor, and social criticism, the mischievous Huck rebels against "sivilization" and travels down the Mississippi on a raft, along with the slave Jim.
Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
In Austen's satirical response to sensational Gothic novels, the believable and "unromantic" heroine, Catherine Morland--a voracious reader of these Gothic novels--creates a melodramatic but completely fabricated history for the mysterious old house to which she is invited, Northanger Abbey.
The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
In this absorbing novel, Lily Bart--the embodiment of gracious charm and perfect beauty--operates in a luxurious and glittering New York society at the turn of the century. Throughout the story, Lily constantly struggles to maintain her clear view of the morally decadent world in which she was raised--a world where money can buy social position, and friendships and reputations last only so long as that social position is maintained.
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
One of Dickens's later works, this novel was designed to illustrate the evils caused by long, drawn-out suits in London's famous Courts of Chancery. The plot centers on the legal case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce (in case you're wondering where the unusual title comes from, John Jarndyce is the owner of Bleak House--which, incidentally, isn't at all bleak!). Much of the story is told from the viewpoint of Esther Summerson--a young woman who serves as companion to two wards in the suit, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone. While the reading can be rather thick at times (this is one of Dickens's "deepest" creations), the novel is utterly absorbing--a fascinating mystery and charming romance rolled into one. (By the way, I recommend keeping a list of all the characters as you read--otherwise, their sheer number can become a bit overwhelming!)
The Rubaiyat, Omar Khayyam
This beautifully poetic 12th century Persian commentary on life and love is as brilliant and pertinent today as it was when it first appeared in 19th century England.
The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens
This highly entertaining novel, orginially published as a series of "sporting sketches," narrates the varied adventures of the Pickwick Club--Samuel Pickwick, Augustus Snodgrass, Tracy Tupman, and Nathaniel Winkle--along with Mr. Pickwick's faithful valet, Sam Weller (or "Veller," as he would say). I actually laughed out loud through the entire first half of this comically brilliant book!
Middlemarch, George Eliot
A rich tapestry of interconnected stories, George Eliot's masterpiece chronicles 19th-century English provincial life. The drama centers on the emotional and intellectual conflicts within the lives of Tertius Lydgate (an idealistic doctor who comes to Middlemarch fired with the desire to spread the new science of medicine) and Dorothea Brooke (a "latter-day St. Theresa" who unwittingly traps herself in a loveless marriage). Fortunately, there's a romantic hero who saves the day--Will Ladislaw (sigh...). The only fault I see in this novel is Eliot's occasional failure to be consistent in the delineation of her complex characters--a fairly minor flaw that certainly shouldn't discourage you from reading this fine piece of work.
The Night the Bed Fell, James Thurber
This excerpt from Thurber's My Life and Hard Times is undoubtedly the most hilarious short story I've ever read. After years of reading it, I still laugh so hard I cry!
Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
The mad Spaniard Don Quixote imagines himself a knight-errant and, along with his faithful sidekick Sancho, rides through the world tilting windmills, "rescuing" damsels in distress, and fighting "giants."
Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw
In this witty comic drama, Henry Higgins, a professor of linguistics in early twentieth century London, tries to turn "gutter trash," in the form of a flower girl named Eliza Doolittle, into a genteel lady.
Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens
This novel is classic Dickens, complete with a splendid cast of vivid characters, including the pitiful but warmhearted orphan Smike, the cruel and callous Yorkshire schoolmaster Mr. Squeers, and two of the most delightful characters I have ever encountered in fiction--the Cheeryble brothers. Presiding over the story, of course, is Nicholas, a hero worthy of his creator and a young man whose kindness, virtue, and bravery see him through all his misfortunes and adventures and win him many friends along the way. Like all of Dickens's novels, this is a joy from start to finish!
The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
These four novels and fifty-six short stories recount the colorful adventures of Baker Street's most famous resident and the greatest detective in fiction, Sherlock Holmes, through the writings of his lovable "friend and colleague," Dr. Watson.
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
This heartwarming classic novel, drawn from Alcott's memories of her own childhood in Concord, Massachusetts, tells the stories of four sisters and their enchanting years between girlhood and womanhood--tomboyish Jo, beautiful Meg, fragile Beth, and romantic Amy. (Other books in the Little Women series include Little Men, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Under the Lilacs, and Jo's Boys. All are wonderful!)
Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery
I grew up with this book and have always been able to identify closely with its lovable heroine, the red-headed dreamer Anne Shirley. The novel recounts Anne's childhood adventures in the beautiful countryside of Prince Edward Island, Canada. A delight from front cover to back, this book is followed by four other "Anne" novels, all of which are equally enchanting--Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, and Anne of Ingleside.
A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett
A children's classic, this beautiful story features the twelve-year-old heroine Sara Crewe, the priviliged daughter of a wealthy officer in the English army. In the novel, Sara's strength of mind and courage are tested during her stay at Miss Minchin's "Select Seminary for Young Ladies" in Victorian London.
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Kate Douglas Wiggin
Ever since this timeless novel was published in 1903, it has been delighting young readers, who invariably agree with Mark Twain that it is "beautiful and warm and satisfying." The story's heroine is the charming and passionate Rebecca Rowena Randall, but many other colorful characters dot the novel's pages--Rebecca's prim but loving aunts, Miranda and Jane Sawyer; her best friend, the warm-hearted and loyal Emma Jane Perkins; and a charming young businessman whom Rebecca refers to as "Mr. Aladdin."
The Blue Castle, Lucy Maud Montgomery
This charmingly imaginative and descriptive novel is the fairytale story of Valency Sterling and her magical life in her husband's "blue castle" in the woods. I fell in love with this book the first time I read it.
Heidi, Johanna Spyri
In this novel, the charming and ever-optimistic orphan Heidi is an inspiration to everyone whose life she touches, from her gruff grandfather living in the beautiful Swiss mountains to the wealthy invalid daughter of an elite Frankfurt family. (This classic book was made into a delightful film starring Shirley Temple in 1937.)
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
One of the most beloved children's books of all time, this is the story of Mary Lenox, a spoiled and sickly child who is sent to live on her uncle's estate, Misselthwaite Manor. After discovering a hidden garden, she transforms it into her own secret paradise and later teaches her invalid cousin Colin to live again in her magical hideaway. The classic story is touchingly heartwarming, while Burnett's celebrated writing is wonderfully descriptive.
An Old-Fashioned Girl, Louisa May Alcott
In one of the most treasured books of my childhood, a happy-go-lucky country girl, Polly Milton, comes to visit her fashionable city friend Fanny and captures the hearts of everyone she meets. The novel is filled with fun adventures and traditional moral values--a must for children of all ages!
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