My Top 5 Favorite Literary Novels Ever

5 literary novels

My reading life has languished a bit this summer. I blame Netflix and a $20 fine at the library which I didn’t feel like paying until last week.

But I still love books and I have a few on my list for the summer, none of which I’m going to talk about in this post.

I’ve been crushing on Anne Bogel’s podcast, “What Should I Read Next?” Anne listens to her invited guest talk about their 3 favorite books ever {and why}, as well as their least favorite book ever {and why.} Then she provides suggestions as to what the guest should read next. It’s brilliant.

Her podcast inspired me to make my own lists of favorite books. Normally I’m pretty good at seeing patterns but y’all, I could not for the life of me find patterns in my favorite books.

Until I started writing about them for this post. And then I could totally see it.

Apparently I like character-driven stories and have a deep appreciation for nuanced settings, especially if that setting is a southern one. I’m also drawn to stories that are grounded in issues of race and class. These can be some of the hallmarks of literary novels, which I’ll explain in a minute.

Character-driven stories are sometimes more tedious. I’m not a patient person, so this sort of surprised me until I realized that I’ve always been drawn to complicated narratives that carry a deeper message. Perhaps the pattern will be different when I investigate my favorite mainstream fiction reads? I’m curious to find out.

I decided to break down my best ever fiction reads into two categories: favorite literary novels and favorite mainstream fiction. Otherwise it feels like comparing apples to oranges.

“What’s the difference?” you may ask. I’m no literature professor so I had the same question. I know a literary novel when I read one but I wasn’t sure how to clearly define the difference.

Here’s a super helpful post written for normal people {like us!} that breaks down the two categories in a simple way. Essentially, literary fiction “tends to focus on complex issues and the beauty of writing itself.” This why they’re recommended in high school and college literature classes; they require critical thinking and invite meaningful dialogue. Writers Relief says to “Think of literary fiction as a manifesto of sorts—it’s driven by the ideas, themes, and concerns of the novelist, often producing a narrative that is at times controversial.”

I’ll get to my top mainstream picks in another post. For now, let’s feast on these five rich literary reads and why I love them.

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Favorite Literary Novels {in no particular order}

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

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One of my dear friends from grad school gave me this book for my birthday soon after it was published. She thought I’d love it and she was so right.

I soon learned that everyone doesn’t love it as much as I do. Not long after reading it, I joined a book club and recommended this one. They all hated it. Yay for picking the book no one wanted to finish!

I’ll be the first to admit it’s not super accessible. The writing is gorgeous but not easy. The pace is slow, something I can’t always handle because I’m impatient. But if you like 19th-century southern history, the kind that deals with race and slavery and complicated relations, you might dig it. {The subject matter was my focus in grad school which probably explains my love for it.} If I was teaching a specialty class in college again, I’d make this book required reading, even though it’s entirely a work of fiction.

The characters are complicated and brilliantly crafted. The setting is palpable. The story is a work of genius. The historical context is accurate. Also? It was the dude’s first novel and it won the Pulitzer. Boom.

 

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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I read this in high school. Then I listened to the audio several years ago with my daughter while driving to and from the South Carolina low country {which only added to the experience of this story.} We enjoyed it again this past spring for her freshman English class.

I love the people of this novel so much it brings me to tears. Scout and Atticus are two of my favorite characters in the history of the world, even if they’re not real. The sheer mention of this story sends all my senses to imaginary Maycomb, Alabama.

When I listened to the audio version several years ago, I was blown away by the narration. Sissy Spacek is the reader and she nails it. Highly recommend.

Again, the pace is slow but I become so enamored with the characters and the setting that I don’t care. If I were president, I’d make this book required reading for every American. It feels more relevant now than ever. The end and Amen.

 

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

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Here’s what amazon says about this novel:

Carson McCullers was all of 23 when she published her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. She became an overnight literary sensation, and soon such authors as Tennessee Williams were calling her ‘the greatest prose writer that the South [has] produced.’

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter tells an unforgettable tale of moral isolation in a small southern mill town in the 1930s. Richard Wright was astonished by McCullers’s ability ‘to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness.’ Hers is a humanity that touches all who come to her work, whether for the first time or, as so many do, time and time again.

Twenty-three. Years. Old. I don’t even know how that’s possible.

Again, slow-ish pace, unforgettable characters, a 1930s southern setting you experience with all your senses, and, you guessed it — themes of race, class, and poverty. If you like Flannery O’Connor, you’ll like this book. This is another top pick for an audio book because the narration is exquisite.

 

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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Someone told me that this book is the “great American novel” and I’m inclined to agree. Identity, land, individualism, destiny — it’s all here.  Even though it’s a classic, I didn’t read it until two years ago. It looks big and intimidating but I finished it in a week, surely to the neglect of other important things. For a literary novel, it moves pretty quickly.

From amazon:

Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel.

The masterpiece of Steinbeck’s later years, East of Eden is a work in which Steinbeck created his most mesmerizing characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity, the inexplicability of love, and the murderous consequences of love’s absence.

Speaking of mesmerizing characters, this story has the best she-villain of any book I’ve ever read, a character so pathological you just can’t get enough of her. Also, the QUOTES from this story are profound. I highlighted more quotes in this book than in any other novel.

It’s hard for quotes to stand alone without any context but Steinbeck has a way of delivering a sermon with only a couple of lines. It’s a gift. Don’t believe me? Just read a few for yourself. 

 

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

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I read this book when I was 16 years old and I can still remember where I was when I finished it, sobbing, life forever changed even though I couldn’t explain why. It would be years before I could appreciate and articulate the themes of redemption and forgiveness in a grown-up way. But they captured my young heart through this story in a way I’ll never forget.

From the book jacket:

Les Miserables ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld and immerses them in a battle between good and evil…Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperations of the the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thenardier and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds.

Real talk. This book is slooooow and sometimes painfully tedious. Also, the military backdrop of the uprising of 1832 makes certain sections a yawn fest unless you’re into battle scenes. {Guess who’s not?} Honestly, you can skim or even skip those sections because the real appeal of this book is Jean Valjean, the main character.

So there you have it, a small stack of literary faves vouched for by a real person. I’m always looking to add recommended reads to my list so what are some of your favorites? We can dish in the comments or on the blog’s Facebook page. : )

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Comments

  1. says

    Can’t believe you read Les Miserables when you were 16. I listened to the abridged audio as an adult and still felt it was over my head. LOVED the story though. I don’t know if these are technically considered literary but the writing was gorgeous in both. First,” All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr–WWII setting, the sensory descriptions are phenomenal partially because the main character is blind. Secondly, “Peace Like a River” by Leif Enger. Again, really enjoyed the writing. Has the feel of to Kill a Mockingbird because of the child’s point of view. Both stories are kind of sad, so if you’re looking for a pick-me-up…sorry about that. :) I’m adding Steinbeck, MCullers, and Edwards to my TBR list! Thanks!

    • says

      Shauna, thanks so much for chiming in! I’m reading All the Light right now. It’s gorgeous. I haven’t heard of Peace Like a River but will add it to the list. Thanks you!

  2. Jenny Keaton says

    Since your faves are my faves (my thesis concerned TKAM), I’m going straight to Amazon to check on The Known World. Thanks.

  3. Jasmyn Denton says

    I love book posts! Especially in this genre, for I find my list of mainstream fiction getting longer and longer and sometimes I just long for something a little meatier. I’ve read and loved three of the five. I tried to start Les Mis several times and just never got far enough to be hooked, and let’s be real, I kept singing “Look Down” throughout the beginning and waiting for huge choral numbers…and they didn’t come! Maybe I’ll try again. It was a free iBook. And I’ve never heard of The Known World, but I like books that others don’t…so there’s that. Thanks for the list! And happy summering!

    • says

      Jasmyn, I honestly don’t know if I’d have the attention for Les Mis at this point in my life. It’s a bit of a chore and I think, like a lot of literary novels, it helps to read it with a class.

      That soundtrack though. The best! : )

  4. Martha Wright (Aka Griffin) says

    You have 3 of my favorites on here. I’ve never read “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” or “The Known World” but you’ve piqued my interest so I’m adding them to my list. Enjoyed reading your comments!

  5. says

    Loooove this post! Adding the few on here I haven’t read to my list RIGHT NOW. I also read All the Light etc. a couple months ago and loved it. Although the chapters are short, for me it was a slow read.

    Anna Karenina is a standout from high school. And Atonement from college. Oh mah gaaaaaaash.

    • says

      OH and I’m in the second of three Phillip Roth books right now. Finished “The Human Stain” last week and I’m reading “American Pastoral” now, in anticipation of the movie coming out this fall. Dude. So good, definitely literary, and so relevant.

      • says

        Erin, you just added to my list! I’ve never read Atonement or Anna K or the series you mentioned. But I feel like we’d totally love the same books so I’m adding to my list!

      • says

        Love this post too! I’m writing down titles suggested by both of you. These are all probably a stretch/challenge for me, any book in the literary novel category really. I remember reading Les Miserables in high school and To Kill a Mocking Bird in 5th grade, but I might not have understood or appreciated the writing as much back then. Could be interesting to read them over again now. Well, thanks for sharing!

  6. says

    East of Eden and TKAM are definitely in my top 5 as well. I just read All the Light and it was beautifully done, but a tougher one for me to slog through. Just didn’t hold my attention all the time, though by the end I appreciated the careful weaving of the story and the beautiful prose. Other favorites are: Fall on your Knees, the Kite Runner (or is that mainstream fiction?), The Poisonwood Bible, The Invention of Wings, Sarah’s Key, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Fun post!

    • Marian says

      Tracy, I’m reading All the Light as we speak. I’m only about 25% of the way through but you’re right, it is so beautifully written and I can already sense I’m going to need a box of Kleenex. I LOVED The Kite Runner and Poisonwood; those are definitely at the top of my other list. We must have the same taste in books. : ) I have The Invention of Wings and Sarah’s Key but haven’t read them yet. It’s always fun to find a kindred reading spirit. As always, thanks for chiming in!

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