Favorite Familiar Classics

Sometimes there’s nothing better than sinking into an old, familiar classic. These are the books that I reach for when it’s raining outside. They’re best read in front of a roaring fire with a cup of tea next to your hand and a cozy blanket on your lap.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Anne Elliot seems to have given up on present happiness and has resigned herself to living off her memories. More than seven years earlier she complied with duty: persuaded to view the match as imprudent and improper, she broke off her engagement to a naval captain with neither fortune, ancestry, nor prospects. However, when peacetime arrives and brings the Navy home, and Anne encounters Captain Wentworth once more, she starts to believe in second chances.

This is the book I most often mention when people ask me what my favorite book is. (As though any book lover could choose. Really, people!) I might’ve read Pride and Prejudice first and I certainly enjoy it, but I connected with Anne Elliot and her story more than Lizzy Bennett. There’s something wonderful about the long, angsty burn of the romance, even if it takes Captain Wentworth far too long to figure his life out.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Through the story of Margaret Hale, the middle-class southerner who moves to the northern industrial town of Milton, Gaskell skillfully explores issues of class and gender in the conflict between Margaret's ready sympathy with the workers and her growing attraction to the charismatic mill owner, John Thornton.

I read North and South my freshman year of college, which was also when I happened to watch the BBC adaptation. Needless to say, my love for this story is very wrapped up in my love for Richard Armitage as Mr, Thornton. However, the book stands out as a complex, beautifully rendered love story rich with questions about class, progress, and morality.

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Anthony Patch is the idle heir to a vast fortune. His wife, Gloria, dazzles society with her good looks. Satisfied by privilege and beauty alone, they are beholden only to the “magnificent attitude of not giving a damn.” When Anthony’s inheritance is withheld, it causes an irreparable rift in their marriage, threatening their fragile paradise. Oblivious to their future, he and Gloria have little left to define themselves but their ever-receding pasts.

If you ever wanted a blueprint of how not to live your life, look to Anthony and Gloria Patch. Self-destructive, dissatisfied, and spoiled, the pair represent the worst of the Jazz Age. They party their way through life, waiting for Anthony’s aged relative to die so that he will come into his inheritance. They are a mess, but they’re also fascinating. The story, widely accepted as being semi-autobiographical, is sad and compelling in a way that makes you want to just keep reading.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

When two young couples meet for the first time during the Great Depression, they quickly find they have much in common: Charity Lang and Sally Morgan are both pregnant, while their husbands Sid and Larry both have jobs in the English department at the University of Wisconsin. Immediately a lifelong friendship is born, which becomes increasingly complex as they share decades of love, loyalty, vulnerability and conflict. Written from the perspective of the aging Larry Morgan, Crossing to Safety is a beautiful and deeply moving exploration of the struggle of four people to come to terms with the trials and tragedies of everyday life.

One of the tiny soapboxes upon which I like to stand and shout is the one that says that Wallace Stegner has not been given his due as one of the great authors of the 20th century. Why? I’m going to point the finger at an East Coast elitism that didn’t accept him because he wrote about the West, but I digress.*

This book is beautiful. It explores the complexity of adult friendships, how people come together and move apart throughout their lives, and the ways in which we and love and hurt each other in equal measure. It is also one of the only books that has made me cry while reading and that should be recommendation enough.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

In writing Anna Karenina…[Tolstoy told] the story of an aristocratic woman who brings ruin on herself. Anna's tragedy is interwoven with not only the courtship and marriage of Kitty and Levin but also the lives of many other characters.

I’ve read Anna Karenina at a rate of about once every seven years since I was in high school, and I’m probably due to re-read it again soon. It’s by far my favorite Russian novel—unfair and tragic but also beautiful. Anna’s story shows the deep double standards of her time, while also criticizing some of the unforgivable decisions she makes. I get something new from this book every time I read it. (Although you can take it from me, skip Levin’s 70 pages of scything wheat.)

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

Alice Vavasor cannot decide whether to marry her ambitious but violent cousin George or the upright and gentlemanly John Grey - and finds herself accepting and rejecting each of them in turn. Increasingly confused about her own feelings and unable to forgive herself for such vacillation, her situation is contrasted with that of her friend Lady Glencora - forced to marry the rising politician Plantagenet Palliser in order to prevent the worthless Burgo Fitzgerald from wasting her vast fortune. In asking his readers to pardon Alice for her transgression of the Victorian moral code, Trollope created a telling and wide-ranging account of the social world of his day.

Justine and I are both fans of Anthony Trollope. I’ve read quite a few of his books, and one of my reading projects is to finish up the Palliser novels, of which this is the first. Can You Forgive Her? is vintage Trollope with interpersonal relationships, politics, and society all thrown into the mix. By the end, you’ll probably be like me wanting to shake Alice, scorn George, and pet Lady Glencora’s hair.

*Proud Californian here.