Here’s the problem I usually run into when I’m asked for a list of the year’s best books: most places want books that were published that year. And I don’t read all that many new books, because I do a lot of rereading. This feels slightly embarrassing to admit — my bedside table is jammed with new books that look amazing, and I’m putting them off to read stuff that I’ve already read half a dozen times? But there are some books that are either so intricate or so satisfying that I keep coming back to them over and over — because I know I’ll find something new every time, or just because I know it’ll be pure pleasure. I think this is a big part of the joy of discovering a really great book: you know that, even when you finish the last page, you’re not done. There’s more in there, waiting for you to come back and find it.
Maybe my best example of what I’m talking about is Watership Down, which I reread this year for maybe the eighth time. It’s about a group of rabbits who strike out from their warren when one of them has a vision of its destruction. The first time I read it I was a little kid, six or seven. Probably I only got about a 10th of it; all I remember is being enthralled by the idea of the rabbits’ world existing parallel to ours, equally real and vital, but utterly separate. We went on a beach holiday while I was reading it, and seeing wild rabbits in the garden early one morning was one of the most thrilling things that had ever happened to me — because all of a sudden they weren’t just rabbits, they were a whole other world made flesh. When I went back to the book a few years later, I was swept away by the sheer beauty of the writing, the lucid intensity of the images, the perfection of the rhythms. A few years after that, I was hit by the psychological horror of the warren of the snares, all the rabbits desperately blocking out the fact that they’re buying their comfortable lives by offering up themselves and their friends and families as potential sacrifices. A few years after that, I caught the incredibly sinister political undercurrent of the totalitarian warren of Efrafa, ruled by the ferocious leader who’s seized absolute power by putting everyone else in terror of outside dangers. And I know next time I’ll find something else.
This year I reread Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet, C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, all for that same reason: I know I’m going to find something new in there, even if it’s just a beautiful sentence or a nuance I missed before.
And then there are the books that I go back to because they have some element that I know will give me the same shot of pure satisfaction every time. This year I reread Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar for the deceptively economical characterization, just a few simple strokes and the character leaps off the page; George MacDonald Fraser’s Black Ajax for the rich exuberance of the multiple voices; Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl for the meticulous complexity of the structure, the way elements are reflected and refracted back and forth between the two narratives, transforming every time.
I did manage to discover a few new treasures (new to me, anyway) along the way. Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, a beautifully written, moving, darkly funny gut-punch of a book about small-town Ireland in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger; Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, about two young Jewish cousins who, in 1940s New York, create comic book superheroes from their own fears and dreams; Karen Perry’s Girl Unknown, about a university lecturer whose life and mind and family are turned upside down when a student claims she’s his daughter. I haven’t reread them yet, but I know I will, more than once. While the pile on my bedside table gets higher.
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Novels that venture into the minds of multiple characters, or sprawl into a number of different eras, satisfy the greedy reader in me; I want as much access to the writer’s fictional world as I can get my hands on. I still recall the scene of Levin with his scythe, nestled like a secret beneath many pages of Anna Karenina — ahh, I thought, what a kaleidoscopic universe Tolstoy is offering me. This access is partly why I loved The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, and why I’m looking forward to tucking into Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon. (See also: my love for The Wire, or for gossip.) Tell me everything, that’s my motto.
Or that’s my motto…sometimes. I also like a svelte novel with a narrow aperture, its focus sharp and expert. These books venture immeasurably inward. Sometimes a single character’s story, told under the constricts of a clearly delineated span of time, reveals something deep and startling. It’s why The Great Gatsby persists.
It’s no wonder, though, that small-scale books inspire unauthorized sequels or spin-offs. A good novel asks questions as well as answers them, and at its end readers are left to consider the events therein, and also all that didn’t make it onto the page. If that reader is a writer, he might take matters into his own hands. Jean Rhys offered Jane Eyre’s Bertha a chance to tell her story in Wide Sargasso Sea, and in Finn, John Clinch explored the life of Huck’s father. And let’s not forget how much fan-fiction has been written about Bella and Edward. A besotted reader doesn’t want the story to end.
It’s in that spirit that I’ve collected a short list of the spin-offs I’d like to see. Please feel free to add your own wish-list in the comments. Perhaps we’ll inspire someone to get writing…
1. Eloise’s mother from Eloise
When I was younger, I didn’t wonder much about the parents of Eloise, the six-year-old heroine who lives with her British nanny in the Plaza Hotel, putting sunglasses on her dog Weenie and combing her hair with a fork. Now when I read the book to my son, I think about them a lot. It’s wealth that allows Eloise’s mother to neglect her daughter, and it’s the mother’s absence that haunts the book. What do we know of the woman? Eloise tells us that she is 30 and has “a charge account at Bergdorf’s.” Her mother knows Coco Chanel, and has AT&T stock and “knows an ad man whatever that is.” Sometimes she goes to Virginia with her lawyer. Eloise’s father is never mentioned. (Is the lawyer Eloise’s dad, and Eloise just doesn’t know it?) I’d love to read a novel narrated by Eloise’s mother. She’s a rich fuck-up, to be sure, maybe a functioning alcoholic with a penchant for Bloody Marys at breakfast and champagne every afternoon. She loves her daughter, but can’t stand to be around her for more than a few minutes. She jets off to Milan, to Paris, forgetting to remember her offspring back in Manhattan. There would definitely be a strange and/or degrading sex scene involving the owner of The Plaza.
2. Easter from State of Wonder
There are so many magnetic, compelling characters in Ann Patchett’s most recent novel, a knock-out of a beach read if you’re looking for something to take to Hawaii this summer (poor you). The character I want to read more about, however, is Easter, the native deaf boy who accompanies Dr. Swensen on her trips into and out of the jungle, and who ignites protagonist Marina’s maternal instinct. (He also almost gets squeezed to death by an anaconda, so there’s that…) This gentle and goofy kid was adopted into the Lakashi tribe, but is actually a descendent of a nearby cannibalistic tribe, a fact that comes to bear at the end of the novel, when Marina must make a gut-wrenching choice that calls into question Easter’s destiny. I’d love to see him a few years from this point, and I think someone — Patchett herself, perhaps? — could write a challenging and compelling first-person narrative for Easter that echoes Faulkner’s Benjy, or Barbara Kingsolver’s Adah, the silent daughter from The Poisonwood Bible.
3.The Monkey from Portnoy’s Complaint
When my book club discussed Alexander Portnoy’s nearly 300-page potty-mouthed and hilarious rant a few years ago, one of our members said she’d like to read a novel called The Monkey Speaks, which would tell the story of Portnoy’s ex-girlfriend, the shiksa underwear model who used to earn more money in an hour than her “illiterate father would earn in a week in the coal mines of West Virginia.” I agree. I am dying to read a report from this “pathetic screwy hillbilly cunt,” perhaps one that includes a Rashomon-style retelling of her threesome with Portnoy and Lina, the Italian whore with, according to The Monkey, tremendous tits. Men aren’t the only ones who need analysts.
4. Sirena from The Woman Upstairs
Claire Messud’s newest novel is like a Zoe Heller and Vladamir Nabokov mash-up, with its narrator — single, elementary school teacher Nora Eldridge — telling a circuitous and unreliable tale of her love for and obsession with the Shahids, a worldly and exotic family whose presence in Nora’s life magnifies how lonely, predictable and stale her days have become. At the center of the story is Sirena, the wife and mother in the family, whose success as an artist inspires, entices, and provokes Nora. If Sirena got her own novel, I’d of course long to hear her version of the events that Nora recounts with such fastidiousness. It would be more fitting and poignant, however, if Nora were barely present, meriting no more than a paragraph. And I’m sufficiently enamored of and repelled by Sirena to want a whole book with just her, her, her.
5. Richard from Treasure Island!!!
Sara Levine’s wickedly fun novel is narrated by an f-ed up young woman who leaves her job as a clerk at the Pet Library in order to pursue a life like Jim Hawkins’s in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel. She steals the Library’s parrot (Richard) and proceeds to be ghastly toward her family, her boyfriend, and to the poor bird. Just because Richard repeats inane phrases like, “It’s big, it’s hot, it’s back!” doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a rich inner life worthy of a novel. By the book’s end it’s intimated that the bird has witnessed a lot, and, my lord, do I want to know what his little black beady eyes saw before he — oh, but I shouldn’t spoil the book for you if you haven’t read it.
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