1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I suffered through an entire semester of Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Greece because this book convinced me I would never be happy unless I studied classics and joined a cult. A group of friends—snobby Classics majors at an elite liberal arts school—accidentally kills one of their own. The plot simmers slowly. Let yourself be manipulated by this one. If anything is worth the time it takes to read 600 pages for fun, it’s this book.
2. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
You can’t read a sentence of this book without tripping over six similes and fourteen obscure references. Nonetheless, it doesn’t read like Pessl is showing off. The narrator, Blue, a hyper-educated genius raised by her erudite single father is probably contemporary fiction’s best narrator. This is a reader’s book: the chapters are organized around a fictional Great Books syllabus. A lot of people consider this the natural successor to The Secret History, either its illegitimate child or rightful heir. High praise, but Special Topics absolutely holds up.
3. The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud
A 9/11 book free of sentimentality and jingoism. Unbeknownst to me, die-hard Claire Messud fans consider this piece her sell out, her most commercial book and a departure from her high literary aspirations. Well, maybe I’m just a literary peasant, but I adored this poignant (and juicy) story of American privilege. Messud tells the story of three friends—Danielle, Julius, and Marina—who met at Brown University and moved to Manhattan. At 30-years-old, when the book finds them, they’ve accomplished far less than they imagined they would. This book treats 9/11 as an event in the context of the lives of its characters; its indirectness paints a truer portrait of what NYC was like.
4. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
The Interestings follows six friends from 1974 at age 15 to present day, as they hit—or miss—all of those major milestones—marriage, career, children and the like. The Interestings (the group’s name for themselves) are men and women, gay and straight, young and old, and Wolitzer infuses each of them with personalities that are at once startlingly realistic and dazzlingly compelling.
5. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Wide Sagrasso Sea is a radical re-telling of Jane Eyre, from the point of view of the famous madwoman in the attic, Bertha Mason. In Rhys’ prequel, Bertha, called Antoinette Cosway, gives the account of her childhood and her unhappy marriage with Mr. Rochester. This book is post-colonial without being pedantic as it explores race, displacement, and assimilation through one of literature’s most vilified women.
6. When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
Julie Otsuka is a painter as well as a novelist and it shows in her writing. I learned the word “paratactic” to describe this book, which tells the story of a Japanese mother, son, and daughter—that’s all we ever get to call them— as they experience President Roosevelt’s evacuation order in 1942 to an internment camp in Utah, where they live for three years. It’s sparse but heartbreaking, and knocks America off the moral pedestal of this so-called Great War through thorough but not overwhelming research.
7. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
I should have included Atwood up there with Austen and Woolf considering most high school students are assigned The Handmaid’s Tale. I wasn’t (for shame!) and didn’t discover it until after I read this. Atwood re-tells the Odyssey, except this time Penelope narrates. With humor and insight, Atwood gives new life to the most loyal wife in the history of literature.
8. I Was Told There’d Be Cake By Sloane Crosley
“Life starts out with everyone clapping when you take a poo and goes downhill from there.” Sloane Crosley is the funniest writer since David Sedaris. I dare you to read any of her essays and disagree with me.