Recently I lay awake at night pondering such important questions as, "How much would Lieutenant Dan and Forrest's Apple stock be worth today?" (Turns out: a lot.) Fortunately my thoughts soon drifted to material more relevant to this blog: what were the books that made me want to write historical fiction?
Without overthinking it, I compiled my favorites, and came up with a list of six. It was only when I sat down to write this post that I noticed these books are all, with the exception of Year of Wonders, twentieth century stories. Many of them are also told from multiple points of view and jump back and forth from the present to the past. So many times, while I was trying to figure out the puzzle that was Fräulein M.--multiple POVs, settings in the '30s and the '70s--I asked myself, why, oh why, am I doing this? Turns out it's because that's my favorite kind of book to read.
The History of Love, Nicole Krauss
I'm cheating a little, because this one isn't entirely historical, but it's the first book I recommend to friends. Alma, a young girl, and Leo, an old man, live in modern-day New York; Alma misses her father and struggles to connect with her mother, and Leo just wants anyone to notice he's still alive. The sections that occur in the Poland of Leo Gursky's youth--where he wrote a book, also titled The History of Love--are so vivid and romantic. Nicole Krauss receives a lot of praise for her richly textured prose, but it was her sense of humor that really stood out to me in this novel.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon
Comics! Superheroes! A scene at the top of the Empire State Building! I love everything Michael Chabon has written, especially this epic saga of a Jewish teenager with Houdini-level skills who escapes from Prague to build a comic book empire with his American cousin. The geek in me especially loves the voice Chabon uses in this novel's footnotes.
A Very Long Engagement, Sebastien Japrisot
This is one of the few books I return to over and over again. After World War I, Mathilde, a young Frenchwoman, learns her fiance was tossed over the barbed wire by his own superiors as punishment for shooting himself in the hand. A bleak beginning, for sure, but after Mathilde (a plucky, delightful heroine) learns he might have survived, what follows is as compelling a mystery as I've read.
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
"Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." Best opening line ever? I've never read anything quite like The Blind Assassin's blend of history, romance, sci-fi, and mystery. Admittedly I grew weary sometimes in the middle of Atwood's classic, but this book's ending is so devastatingly perfect, shedding light on every page that came before.
Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks
The wonderful Geraldine Brooks's debut. Year of Wonders is a bit of an outlier on this list--as noted, it's not a twentieth-century novel. It takes place during the plague of 1666, in an English hamlet that chooses to isolate itself rather than spread the disease. Anna, the novel's heroine, is one of the few in her town who doesn't descend into violence, drink, or witch-hunting, and her fortitude in the face of such disaster is quite inspiring.
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
Anyone who's read this book knows how heartbreaking and frustrating it is. The tale of Stevens, an English butler in post-war Britain, coming to terms with the knowledge that his longtime employer--whom Stevens served with utter devotion--was a Nazi sympathizer. The book asks important questions about the nature of dignity and service, and the role small personal decisions can play on the world stage.
Those are my favorites, or at least the ones I can think of at the moment. What historical fiction do you love? Tales of Tudor succession? Civil War epics? Jane Austen retakes?