Readers, how many of us have finished the last chapter of a book, only to wish we could stay with our favorite character a little bit longer, or maybe forever? After spending hundreds of pages together, some characters stick with us like an old friend, a true love, or a beloved family member. We simply can’t get enough of their company.
Today, I’m sharing titles that help us hang on to a character’s journey for as long as we possibly can. These books follow characters over the course of many years—the span of several decades, or across multiple generations.
Despite their scope, not all these books are giant tomes (though many do exceed 400 pages). In this book list you’ll find a mix of individual character transformations and complicated family stories, so keep an eye out for the kind of story you suspect you’ll love.
If you enjoy books in which you get to know a character over the course of their entire life, this list is for you.
25 books that invite you to accompany a favorite character for a lifetime
This engrossing story combines medicine, family, and politics to great effect. Moving between India, Ethiopia, and New York City, we follow the story of identical twin brothers, born of a secret union between an Indian nun and the British surgeon she assisted. Part coming-of-age story, part mystery, part sweeping family story, this novel defies easy genre categorizations and ranks as the favorite book EVER of legions of readers. There are some difficult scenes, and it starts slowly—but it is 100% worth every page. More info →
One of my favorite Kate Morton novels. In 1933, a young child disappeared without a trace. In 2003, a disgraced young detective stumbles upon the cold case and soon discovers its ties to one of England's oldest and most celebrated mystery writer (think Agatha Christie). I absolutely loved reading a mystery novel about a mystery novelist: the references to the fictional author's writing process and working life were delightfully meta and utterly fascinating. Following the characters across decades made for absorbing reading, too. More info →
This groundbreaking classic is a gothic romance, mystery, and psychological thriller all rolled into one; its themes were astonishingly modern for 1847. If you never read it in high school, give it a try now. You’ll be kicking yourself for not reading it decades sooner. Those who have read it will spot its influence everywhere. The title makes it clear: we follow Jane Eyre from childhood to adulthood as she learns to speak up for herself and make bold choices. (My 15yo is reading this right now and says it may be the best book she's ever read, which is bringing me so much joy as a book-loving parent.) More info →
This international bestseller was originally published in Sweden in 2009. It's drawn comparisons to Forrest Gump, because the 100-year-old man of the title finds himself involved in key political moments throughout the course of his long life. It's not to everyone's taste, but those who do often call it "clever," "quirky," and "un-put-down-able." (For what it's worth, I enjoyed the story and sense of humor.) More info →
McCullough's modern classic tracks an Australian family across three generations. This sweeping Australian saga tops many a reader's favorite books list for its captivating romance, dramatic turns, and vivid setting. (It should be noted that for every two people who adore this book there's one who considers it a schmaltzy romance.) Read it and decide for yourself, especially if you're looking for a doorstop of a novel that will keep you busy for ages. This saga has enough family drama to fill 700 pages. More info →
I began this book knowing nothing about it, and it took me a while to get my bearings. Atkinson's creative (and sometimes, mind-bending) structure shows clearly how tiny choices in her protagonist's life (and the lives of those around her) lead to vastly different outcomes. Vastly. Ursula Todd dies before taking her first breath, while another Ursula Todd is born with a piercing wail. The rest of the book follows Ursula's unique life cycle from death to life and back again, as WWII approaches. Bonus: Atkinson's novel is packed with literary references that serious literary types will appreciate. More info →
Follow Janie Crawford as she experiences love and loss over the course of her life in 1920s Florida. Known as Hurston's best work, this story about expectations, marriage, and unexpected love is richly atmospheric. A classic for a reason, with a main character you'll never forget. In fact, echoes of Janie Crawford can be seen in contemporary literature, like Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. I highly recommend listening to the audiobook version, narrated by Ruby Dee, to fully experience Hurston's talent for writing dialect. More info →
This is the novel Dickens regarded as his "favourite child" and is considered his most autobiographical. As David recounts his experiences from childhood to the discovery of his vocation as a successful novelist, Dickens draws openly and revealingly on his own life. Among the gloriously vivid cast of characters are Rosa Dartle, Dora, Steerforth, and the 'umble Uriah Heep, along with Mr. Micawber, a portrait of Dickens's own father that evokes a mixture of love, nostalgia, and guilt. More info →
The author's working title (and desired title) for this work was Christina's World, named after the Andrew Wyeth painting so many of us fell in love with the first time we laid eyes on it. In this biographical novel, Kline upends the narrative, telling the story from the perspective of the portrait's subject, "middle-aged" spinster Christina Olson. A previous Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club pick from the author of Orphan Train. Thought-provoking and extremely discussable. More info →
I thought this was a dry, dusty classic, but it's actually a well-loved tale of swashbuckling and revenge. Meredith surprised me by raving about this on episode 11 of What Should I Read Next, because it was never on my radar as an exciting read. Since then I've discovered lots of her fellow readers who adore it. If you're looking for an extra long book, readers describe it as a darn good story, about a man thrown into prison for a crime he didn't commit and his quest for retribution. More info →
Our February book selection for the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club! Last year, I loved listening to Stradal's second novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, so I thought I'd enjoy his debut in this audio format, too, as narrated by Amy Ryan and Michael Stuhlbarg. Please, I beg you, don’t read the jacket copy! I enjoyed it more by not knowing very much going into it. Stradal’s novel-in-stories spans more than thirty years and takes us to half as many kitchens, introducing us to fancy chefs and Lutheran church ladies, portraying the food of a region and the unlikely threads that bind us, with a satisfying, full-circle ending. More info →
"We cannot help but be interested in the stories of people that history pushes aside so thoughtlessly." An unputdownable novel tracing four generations of a 20th-century Korean family back to the time when Japan annexed the country in 1910, affecting the fates of all. Lee portrays the family's struggles against the backdrop of cultural and political unrest, as they endure fierce discrimination at the hands of the Japanese. Operatic and sprawling, every decision has a reverberating consequence in this compelling portrait of a little-explored period of history. More info →
In this sweeping family saga, Trigiani's descriptive writing makes you feel you're right there as two star-crossed lovers travel from a small town in the Italian Alps to Little Italy in New York City, neither knowing the other has made the journey. Trigiani's multi-generational saga spans two families, two continents, two world wars, and nearly five hundred pages. This is on my TBR because trusted readers say the story is so absorbing the pages fly by as you follow the characters across continents and centuries. More info →
I love a story within a story: this novel begins with Fiona Skinner, renowned poet, revealing the story behind one of her famous poems—which leads to the tale of herself and her siblings. Early tragedy forged a strong bond between the four Skinner children, but it also broke them in ways that don’t become apparent for many years. Decades later, another unfolding tragedy makes them question everything they know about their family. The story feels Intimate, yet expansive, while exploring the power of stories, and the bonds that keep us together. More info →
When two rookie cops who meet at the NYC Police Academy strike up a friendship, it sets in motion a tragic chain of events that echo through the decades, through the lives of their children and their children’s children. I found this book exceptionally difficult to read—it’s depressing and dark and triggers abound—yet I was eager to find out what would happen next to these doomed families, and the astonishing developments of the last 75 pages vaulted this to my best-of-the-year list. A poignant story of grace, forgiveness, and redemption, for fans of Atonement and Little Fires Everywhere. More info →
Orphaned at a young age and raised by a Victorian spinster and her brother in Valparaíso, Chile—Eliza Sommers falls in love with Joaquín Andieta against her family's wishes. When Joaquín disappears during the Gold Rush, Eliza leaves Chile to search for him. Her dangerous adventure results in newfound freedom and love she never expected, with plenty of history, drama, and intriguing characters along the way. Written in 1998, this sweeping novel is seamlessly translated by Margaret Sayers Peded. Although this novel stands on its own, readers may be interested in Allende's related works: the sequel, A Portrait in Sepia, and The House of the Spirits. More info →
See spins a tale of female friendship spanning eighty years, set against the backdrop of history in an incredible setting—the very real South Korean island of Jeju. On Jeju, women are the breadwinners, making their families’ livings by free-diving into the chilly waters of the Pacific Ocean, harvesting seafood to sell, while the husbands stay home with the children. This tradition has gone on for thousands of years, and we see it lived out in the lives of Young-sook Mi-ja. The two girls become fast friends as seven-year-olds in 1938, but their respective marriages take them down different paths, and bring unforeseen tensions into their relationship. A rewarding story of strong women, little-known history, and human resilience. More info →
The "lost queen" is Languoreth, a real sixth century Scottish queen whose twin brother inspired the legend of Merlin. Ancient Scotland is the perfect setting for a fantasy novel. Ancient magic, complex politics, and clashing religions all conspire to create an intriguing story. Reminiscent of the Arthurian legends, this book is perfect for fans of Phillippa Gregory. I loved following Languoreth from girlhood and onward as she experiences love, loss, and the weight of responsibility. Note: this fantasy novel works well on audio; I especially appreciated hearing the pronunciation of the Ancient Scottish names and places, as read by Toni Frutin. More info →
I recommended this on an episode of WSIRN: episode 196 with Anudeep Reddy as a gateway fantasy—a fantasy novel for people who think they don't like fantasy. This is a literary mystery, a book about books, coming-of-age story, a tale of adventure and suspense and revenge, with tattoo artistry as a main theme. And, of course, it tracks a character over many years and across many lands and secret worlds accessible to only a few. This was creative and inventive and lots of fun. The narration by January LaVoy (yes, you read that right!) is mesmerizing. More info →
I love sibling stories and meaty family sagas, as well as stories told with a reflective, wistful tone. This one delivers on all counts. Cyril Conroy means to surprise his wife with the Dutch House, a grand old mansion outside of Philadelphia. But a symbol of wealth and success for some is a symbol of greed and excess to others—including, crucially, Cyril's wife—and the family falls apart over the purchase. In alternating timelines, we get the whole story, over five decades, from Cyril's son Danny. (If you want to hear the incredible story of how Kate DiCamillo wrote the perfect final paragraph without reading the book, you must listen to this episode of What Should I Read Next!) More info →
At first, I was intimidated by the length, but when a friend assured me it doesn't drag and that Lombardo's authorial voice is gold, I picked it right up and read it in three days (and it's a 500-pager, so that's saying something!) This is the story of a married couple and their four grown daughters. In the opening pages, one daughter reveals a huge family secret, and the novel tracks what happens in the next year of every family member's life. Listen to me discuss this book further in Episode 206 of What Should I Read Next, called "How to bypass the book hangover." More info →
A compelling premise and graceful telling landed this one on my favorites list. Charles and Lily meet James and Nan in 1963 Greenwich Village when Charles and James are both called to serve Third Presbyterian Church. The two men steward the church through upheaval and change, despite their personal differences. I couldn't stop reading as the couples and their families struggle with faith and friendship. More info →
Identical twins Desiree and Stella grew up in a town so small it doesn't appear on maps. They're closer than close, so Desiree is shocked when Stella vanishes one night after deciding to sacrifice her past—and her relationship with her family—in order to marry a white man, who doesn't know she's black. Desiree never expects to see her sister again. The twins grow up, make lives for themselves, and raise daughters—and it's those daughters who bring the sisters together again. It's a reunion Stella both longs for and fears, because she can't reveal the truth without admitting her whole life is a lie. Bennett expertly weaves themes of family, race, identity, and belonging into one juicy, unputdownable novel spanning five turbulent decades. More info →
This novel follow characters over decades and examines generations of a specific family, but it isn't linear. In her poetic voice, Woodson crafts a narrative that spans years and years but keeps the reader in the moment. The book opens with a special coming-of-age ceremony. Melody enters the room in her grandparents' Brooklyn home wearing the same dress her mother wore sixteen years ago. From there, Woodson weaves Melody and her mother's stories together in a lyrical novel about legacy, parenthood, ambition and desire. For a completely immersive experience, listen to this one on audio. Bahni Turpin is among a full cast of narrators who bring the family to life. More info →
This reflective and often pained retrospective examines a complex mother-daughter relationship. Daughter Norah's musings are prompted by a graduate student who comes calling, seeking insight into the life of her mother, the brilliant Irish actress Katherine O'Dell. The style is almost—but not quite—stream of consciousness, as Norah examines her mother's early years as an actress, her sudden and enduring fame, and then her encroaching mental illness. I loved this book for its voice: Norah is a remarkable narrator of her mother's story, and I loved the sly way she lets her own story slip into the frame. More info →
Which characters do you wish you could read about forever? Do you have any books to add to this list? Let us know in the comments section!