What is a masterpiece? Usually there’s a general critical (or at least cultural) consensus on what the ‘best’ novel is by any given author. Maybe it’s not explicitly called the ‘best’, but everyone recognizes it- it’s the book you’re assigned in high school and again in college, the one that people namedrop (title drop?) and the one you see on book lists. Which is really unfair because there are lots of under-appreciated books that deserve more love. And because I’m all about spreading the love ❤ here are my favorite books that I completely subjectively think are the best by some veddy important authors.
Charlotte Bronte: Villette not Jane Eyre
Okay, but they’re both really good. And also kind of similar because Charlotte Bronte had a few favorite tropes (i.e. being a governess and being attracted to rude and not conventionally attractive men) (write what you know I guess?) I find the characters in Villette more interesting and more sympathetic, the story less steeped in a sense of its own importance (Jane Eyre sometimes feels weighed down by its own significance, which is fair enough because it is significant, but it can be a bit exasperating because come on, there’s a guy impersonating a gypsy in his own house in which he has his first wife in the attic, and he’s telling fortunes), and there is an excellent cliffhanger ending which you can choose to end one of two ways, depending on whether you identify as an optimist or a pessimist (much better than the happy ending narrowly snatched from the jaws of karma in Jane Eyre). Apparently Bronte wrote this up-for-interpretation ending to please her dad, who was asking for the rosy ending she herself wasn’t particularly in the mood for.
I know this makes it sound like I’m down on Jane Eyre- I’m not, both books are fantastic.
Exupery: Wind, Sand, and Stars not The Little Prince
Okay, The Little Prince is… I thought I was a fan until I realized I wasn’t. It’s very philosophical, very downer, and also very what the fuck. In other words, very French. Exupery wrote a few short novels (both fiction and nonfiction) about his time as a pilot. Wind, Sand, and Stars is one of his nonfiction works about being an airmail carrier and flying treacherous routes above the African Sahara and the South American Andes. The book is poetry in prose, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. If you can’t find it, then next best is the fictional Night Flight (about flying during WWII, which Exupery also did) and then Flight to Arras. They’ll give you he most beautiful sense of yearning and wanderlust, but not for any destination in particular- for the journey.
Edith Wharton: The Custom of the Country not The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton is my queen and I can’t rightly say that any of her books are undeserving (except for the ghost stories- check out Le Fanu if you want ghost stories), but Custom of the Country is my absolute favorite and I think it’s criminally underrated (and under-read). You take a lady character with an insatiable need for the material markers of wealth and status and throw her into a doomed marriage with a man who epitomizes the snobbish, condescending, and skinflint-y ways of Old New York. Everyone is completely unlikable but somehow you like everyone, it’s brilliant.
Hemingway: A Moveable Feast not The Old Man and the Sea
Problem with Hemingway is that he’s known for everything he’s ever written. Which is fair because it’s all quite good. But A Moveable Feast might be the best. It feels like hanging out with the lost generation in 1920’s Paris. Bookstores, cafes, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and horse races. It’s amusing how disrespectful he can be- it straddles this crazy line between further immortalizing legendary people (Scott an Zelda Fitzgerald) and portraying them as real (and faintly ridiculouse) humans with their own foibles- Hem included.
Virginia Woolf: Flush not Mrs. Dalloway
This is unfair because I haven’t read much Woolf and I’m not a fan of stream of consciousness. Would rather read a book written from the perspective of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel. A novel and very cute conceit.
Maugham: The Painted Veil not Of Human Bondage
Better female characters! Better female character! I love Maugham, but Of Human Bondage is a bit pain staking and plodding. I know it’s supposedly fairly autobiographical, in which case, Maugham- Mildred was clearly wrong for you, like really what were you thinking? 10/10 would much rather read about marital strife and cholera in China.
Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night not The Great Gatsby
I hardly remember reading either of these (maybe eight years ago?) but I’m inclined to say that Tender is the Night is simply better by virtue of being set in the South of France rather than Long Island. It was Fitzgerald’s last completed and most autobiographical novel, accounting for its bleakness and preoccupation with alcoholism. And the relationship between the husband and wife at the center of the story- he with a savior complex and numerous insecurities, she with a roughly equal number of neuroses- mirrors the tempestuous and infamous relationship of Zelda and F. Scott. If that doesn’t all convince you, consider that Fitzgerald regarded this as his best work.
Camus: The Plague not The Stranger
I don’t think I’ve mentioned before how much I dislike The Stranger, but I do. And apparently I would literally choose a rat-born plague over it. But to be serious, The Plague is a book of great beauty. The slow approach of fate, the desperate search for meaning, and the calm resignation that, plague or no, there is but one ultimate resolution. T
he return and ascendancy of cats. Death.
Capote: The Grass Harp not In Cold Blood
This is a horrible one to include because In Cold Blood is one of the best books ever. So is Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And The Grass Harp may not deserve to be included in a collection of the greats, but I do have a great fondness for it. It’s a very innocent and sweet book with just a taste of subversion, the feeling of striking out on your own, being young whatever age you are, and living your true life. The delicious freedom of living in a treehouse and thumbing your nose at the haters.
Thomas Hardy, Return of the Native not Tess of the d’Urbervilles
If you’re reading Hardy then chances are you’re ready to have your heart ripped out and then be smacked with it as not only the unsavory characters meet their come-uppance but all of the sympathetic characters do to? In short, everybody suffers. Go all the way with Return of the Native, an unapologetically mournful book with one of the highest final-fifth body counts since Hamlet.