British novelist and essayist Charlotte Mendelson is the author of Almost English, When we were badand Rhapsody in Green. His latest novel, The exhibitionistwas shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK.
The Chronicles of Cazalet by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1990-2012)
A panoramic unpacking of the intimate lives of three generations of one privileged family, Howard’s complex, painful and expansive five-novel sequence is generally, foolishly, dismissed as “domesticated,” a “historical saga” about the middle class. English from the 1930s to ’50s. Fools: It’s a masterpiece. If the author were a man, we would all take him seriously. Buy it here.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956)
James Baldwin, a black homosexual, knew otherness; his writing about race is electrifying, but this short, heartbreaking novel about an American man’s affair with an Italian waiter in Paris is unparalleled in its understanding of fear, poverty, passion, and the end of life. love. Buy it here.
Anna Burns Milkman (2018)
Anna Burns won the Man Booker Prize for this dazzlingly daring and completely true study of domestic terrorism, oppression, gossip, religion, sexuality and the young woman, based on The Troubles but not limited to those- this. I, still a late adopter, have only just found out why. Buy it here.
Villette by Charlotte Brontë (1853)
I am an evangelist for this devastating masterpiece. Jane Eyre is the milky sister of Villetteis Lucy Snowe, the introvert’s introvert: smart, passionate and dark. It is a story of love, a story of hate, an adventure and the most extraordinary portrait of an inner life. The ending will kill you. Buy it here.
Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings (1963)
The most insightful study of a traumatized family I know, this semi-autobiographical story about an Italian family from the rise of fascism to the aftermath of World War II is funny, loving, unnervingly glamorous. Next, read what happened to Natalia Ginzburg herself; your heart will break. Buy it here.
The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)
The dryly brilliant Hazzard is almost completely ignored now, but her idiosyncratic novels of longing, loss, war and recovery are jaw-dropping. This National Book Critics Circle Award winner, about two orphaned Australian sisters starting over in England in the 1950s, is my heartbreaking favorite. Buy it here.
This article first appeared in the latest issue of The week magazine. If you want to know more, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.