1. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
What it’s about: This 1961 tale of suburban woe charts the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a couple of ex-Greenwich Village bohemians who accidentally get pregnant and so head on out to Connecticut. They’re unhappy as can be expected as life transforms into one of sedated dreams and crushing realities, and two people who once loved each rapidly forget how.
Read it for: The imagined dialogue – a literary device that didn’t make it into Sam Mendes’ film adaptation, robbing the story of its most pivotal parts. Frank has swathes of happiness within his marriage – long conversations with his wife about his job, how well he is doing, how important he is, and she holds him up the highest, most loving regard… in his head. When those same conversations play out in reality, the juxtaposition of how his wife actually responds, compared to how he hoped she would, is devastating it its disparity.
What you’ll learn: How to write whole stories in the spaces between your actual words.
2. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
What it’s about: loosely based on Howard’s End by E.M. Forster, this is the story of two families, all with wildly different members. The unruly, liberal Belseys in East coast America, and the conservative, religious Kipps in London, England. Whilst the patriarchs of both families are at intellectual war with each other, the wives form a surprising friendship that ends in poetic justice of the most romantic kind.
Read it for: the characters. Smith has written a cast so deep and rich, it is clear that there is nothing about who she has created that she doesn’t know inside out. From the forced casual bohémienne of the liberal-arts-college-attending Zora, to hypocritical but revered professor Monty, to the Haitian cleaner and the manager at the music store where Levi, fake “street” accent and all, gets an education on what the real world can be like: every single character, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, leaps off the page.
What you’ll learn: how to really get under the skin of who you are writing about, and how trying to get away with 2-D characters will rob your stories in an unforgivable way.
3. Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed
What it’s about: A memoir, Wild charts the epic 1,100 mile hike Strayed made along the Pacific Coast Trail in an attempt to reconcile herself to her demons. After the death of her best friend and mother at age 22, Strayed spent subsequent years seeing her stepfather and siblings scattered across the country, whilst cheating on her husband, experimenting with heroin, dabbling in promiscuity and writing in between waitressing jobs. The book isn’t an ode to escaping who she had become – Strayed accepts who she is, and the heartbreak that got her there. She finally lets herself mourn the sadness she has so long kept bottled away inside.
Read it for: the matter-of-fact and unsentimental prose that, in its razor-sharp self-analysis devoid of any self-pity, will have you sobbing in appreciation for amazing storytelling and the craft of writing Strayed demonstrates.
What you’ll learn: how a non-linear narrative can drive a story forward better than a traditionally consecutive timeline. The leaps in time, from the middle of the 100-degree heat on an adventure Strayed is wildly unprepared for, to her childhood memories, to the beds of her former lovers: there is no “making of” twenty-something lesson that is left unexplored, and the story’s culmination is all the more poignant for it.
4. One Day, by David Nichols
What it’s about: On the 15th of July, 1988, Emma Morely and Dexter Mayhew meet for the first time. It is the night of their graduation, and what happens sees their lives entwined for the next twenty years. The book follows the state of the relationship on the same day – St. Swithin’s Day – the following year, and the year after that, and the year after that: on and on it goes, charting how the pair grow… and how they stay the same.
Read it for: knowing your story. So much happens to the characters between each chapter, but the reader never feels like there is information missing. Nicholls’ paints a captivating story of two very real character we all see ourselves in, but who just can’t get it together.
What you’ll learn: that sometimes, the simplest the premise – like following the same two people on the same day, over the years – is the most effective.