The quintessential English epic novel, Middlemarch tells the story of Dorothea Brooke and the other residents of the fictitious title town. Though there are several intertwining plots, Dorothea’s unhappy marriage to Reverend Casaubon becomes an examination of the patriarchal impediments for women in the 19th century, a fact exemplified and made all the more poignant by Mary Ann Evans adopting a male pseudonym so that her fiction wouldn’t be dismissed as a “romance.”
Though it isn’t quite as long as some of the others, Smith’s debut novel—which she published when she was 24 (!)—is positively overstuffed with narrative ambition and verve, leading critic James Wood to coin the term “hysterical realism.” The friendship of Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, their shared past and their separate lives, form the center of White Teeth, and the rest is Smith’s linguistic verve and audacious storytelling. The narrative propulsion is such that it almost tips over a number of times, and the ending is maybe too perfect of a tied bow, but it’s all so absorbing, you’ll get that ending to judge for yourself.
The Secret History
Donna Tartt’s latest novel The Goldfinch may have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, but it was the small-town Mississippi native’s debut The Secret History that put her on the map. A tale of graduate school, murder, and classic literature, it is the ultimate literary thriller.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Another precocious debut, Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics is like a quirkier, high school version of The Secret History. Perpetually new student Blue van Meer and her nomadic professor father land in a small North Carolina town and are immediately plunged into the mystery of the drama teacher’s apparent suicide and a group of cool kids referred to as the Bluebloods. Filled with literary references (the novel’s chapter divisions mimic an English course’s syllabus) and footnotes, Pessl’s 519-page postmodern noir is a feat of skill and ambition.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story of two Nigerian immigrants—one to America, the other to London—casts a wide cultural net, examining race at the many intersections of Western society. Through Ifemelu we get a character who must confront her Blackness anew in American society, which results in a blog with entries like “Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking About Blackness,” whereas Obinze (refused an American visa shortly after 9/11) winds up in the life of an undocumented Londoner. Americanah is an expansive and impressive work of an accomplished and insightful international author.
The Children's Book
A. S. Byatt
Dame A. S. Byatt is also no stranger to postmodern histories—her 1990 novel Possession is a standard in the genre—but The Children’s Book is her most expansive. A novelist who enjoys investigating the hidden nooks of literature, here she sets her sights on stories written for kids. Filled with tons of characters and partly inspired by the life of E. Nesbit, The Children’s Book focuses on Olive Wellwood, a children’s author, and her family over the course of 20 years. Byatt is one of literature’s greatest living writers, her output the alchemical result of the remarkable erudition of a scholar and the inventive intuition of an artist.
36 Arguments for the Existence of God
Cass Seltzer’s book The Varieties of Religious Illusion becomes a surprise bestseller (the success of which is mostly based on the book’s appendix, in which Seltzer lists and then disproves the title 36 arguments), and it completely upends his life. Rebecca Goldstein’s novel is that rarest of birds: a riveting and humane novel of ideas. An award-winning academic (she’s the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant) as well as a brilliant novelist, Goldstein is one of the few writers able to tackle heady and heavy intellectual subjects in lively and absorbing ways. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is a consistently stimulating think piece, to be sure, but it’s also a funny and moving love story.
Meg Wolitzer’s winning novel The Interestings could be an excellent (and much sunnier) follow-up to Hanya Yanagihara’s harrowing (and also epic) A Little Life. Though both center on a group of friends over a period of years in New York City, The Interestings, though it’s an honest and revealing novel, isn’t quite so devastating as Yanagihara’s novel. One crucial difference is that Wolitzer’s friends have known each other since they were teenagers when, as precocious campers at Spirit-in-the-Woods in the early ’70s, they formed a group they ironically refer to as “the Interestings,” and the subsequent narrative deals with the ways class and talent can come between near-lifelong friends.
He, She and It
There may be no novel in contemporary literature more fitting of the moniker “ambitious epic” than Marge Piercy’s 1991 novel He, She, and It, and this is for a number of reasons. First, because of its scope—it’s set in a future world of environmental ruin and huge disparities of power—but second, and most notably, because of how ahead of its time it was. Not only did it examine gender roles in a way that is more akin to the way we might now, but also Piercy’s novel was an early example of cyberpunk (a style she’s credited with creating in her 1976 novel A Woman on the Edge of Time) and semi-accurately predicted the development of the internet.
The Most Fun We Ever Had
The story of Marilyn and David Sorenson and their four daughters over a nearly 40-year period, Claire Lombardo’s debut (!) novel is a big, complex family saga, moving from the 1970s to the present day. Filled with richly rendered characters and a tapestry of nuanced depictions of American life, The Most Fun We Ever Had is as sad, joyful, and paradoxical as your own family.
The Tale of Genji
Probably the ur-text of complex narratives, The Tale of Genji is an epic story of medieval Japan. Written in the 11th century by a lady-in-waiting, it tells the story of Genji, the son of an emperor and a concubine, which means he’s relegated to the life of a commoner. Through Genji, Shikibu explores a wide swatch of Japanese aristocratic life in the era.
The Old Drift
The century-spanning saga of three generations of Zambian people, Namwali Serpell’s first (!) novel is stuffed full to the brim with fascinating characters, surprising and deftly plotted stories, real history, and even some futuristic science fiction thrown in as well. The Old Drift reads like Toni Morrison or Salman Rushdie or Gabriel García Márquez—essentially, like the work of a master, a future classic.
To Say Nothing of the Dog
Connie Willis is shamefully underappreciated. She began her impressive career at a time when the supposed division between literature and science fiction was much larger and starker, especially sci-fi by women. Now that those ideas are waning (though not quite dead, woefully), we hope for a renaissance of Willis’s work, starting with To Say Nothing of the Dog, a romp filled with time travel, Nazis, and something called the bishop’s bird stump. You’ve just got to read it.
Another time travel story, this one about Claire Randall, a combat nurse in 1945, who stumbles into a portal to Scotland in 1743. Now a popular TV show and the first of so far eight (with a ninth coming) books in a series, Outlander has all the political drama of A Game of Thrones, all the romance of Jane Eyre, and the adventure of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Big, ambitious novels have long been thought of as a man’s game (what with all the overcompensating they’ve got to do), but not only is this perception some sexist bullshit, it isn’t even the right way to think of fiction. A true novelist wouldn’t produce an epic just for the sake of its epicness or to compete with other writers’ length—a long story should be told because the narrative demands it; because the subject or the characters call for sustained study. The thickness of a book is in no way proportionate to its worth; rather, the necessity of great length should be judged on the needs of its content—and nowhere in here are we automatically transferring the intimidating and seemingly formidable size of a book to the intellectual prowess of its creator.
The authors of the following tomes seem less driven by the feat of epicness and more by its potential for infinite complexity. These women pursue their stories and ideas with all the same brilliance and playfulness and buoyancy and seriousness of the Joyce’s, the Pynchon’s, and the Wallace’s of the world. The only difference is these women rarely seem to shout about their accomplishments, and the world doesn’t present them as competitors in the big, ambitious novel game. But literature is not a game—or at least it isn’t one in the sense these men believe it to be. The art alone, independent of its relation to the gifts of its maker, is what is entered into the fray, and its value (the art’s) is where any sort of competition might play out—that is, through the experience of readers. A novel written with extra-textual goals (status, respect, fame) seems like a real waste of effort and time. It puts me in mind of a quote from Stephen Crane’s story “The Open Boat”:
When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples.
These women may feel anger at existence’s indifference (and in fact have every right to feel anger over the mistreatment, exploitation, and abuse of women throughout history), but they don’t bother themselves with imaginary bricks or metaphorical temples. In the face of an indifferent universe, these novelists take aim with that which could never be taken from them: their ideas, their humanity, and their will.
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