Seeking: a few gorgeous novels.

Seeking: a few gorgeous novels | Modern Mrs Darcy

Seeking: a few gorgeous novels | Modern Mrs Darcy

The details on this ongoing project, and the factors I’m taking to heart.

Readers told me 3 books they loved, 1 book they hated, and what they’re reading right now. In turn, I’m recommending 3 books for each reader. (Or more, if I can’t help myself.)

This week we’re choosing books for Anna, who says, “I’m looking for more novel ideas because I’m 8 months pregnant and just cannot match speeds with my usual histories and biographies. But I’m super picky about novels. Maybe you can help.”

Anna’s books are:

Love: Emily of New Moon, Hannah Coulter, Crossing to Safety, Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym. (I like strong believable characters, a sense of place, and wit – they don’t have to be happy ever after)
Meh: The Secret Keeper (Sorry, I know you loved it – I just couldn’t fall in love with the characters and I don’t like historical fiction and am not fond of mystery either)
Recently: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (and I liked it – characters, sense of place, wit)

Anna has zoomed in on one of my favorite categories: the gorgeous novel with moving, lyrical, descriptive prose you want to read slowly so you can hang on every word.

(Although Where’d You Go, Bernadette threw me a little. It’s not a gorgeous novel by any means, but I’m noting Anna’s preference for wit, sense of place, and strong characterization.)

My picks: 

Classics: Brideshead Revisited, Jayber Crow, Our Mutual Friend
Modern: Gilead, The Poisonwood Bible, Peace Like a River
Love it or hate it: The Engagements, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Possession

I’m starting Anna off with a few classics that have a similar feel to the books she loves. If she hasn’t read Wendell Berry’s whole Port William series (which includes Hannah Coulter), I recommend it. Jayber Crow is my favorite among them. (His nonfiction is also excellent, and witty with a sense of place. What Are People For? is a wonderful place to start.)

Brideshead Revisited meets Anna’s requirements, as do most of Dickens’ novels. Waugh and Dickens are both wickedly funny when they want to be.

I think it’s likely that Anna has read the classic works, so I’m recommending three newer selections. I wouldn’t describe Gilead or Peace Like a River as witty, but they have strong characters, are deeply rooted in place, and the writing is lovely. On the other hand, Kingsolver’s dry wit permeates The Poisonwood Bible.

As for offbeat selections, The Engagements is the closest book here to Where’d You Go, Bernadette, because of its unusual format and feisty characters. Father Melancholy’s Daughter is a gorgeous modern novel (light on wit), and Possession is a book that inspires hatred or devotion. Warning: I adored it the first time through, but was bored on the re-read. A. S. Byatt writes wonderful women characters.

I also wanted to throw in a few Wallace Stegner novels, because I am currently obsessed with Crossing to Safety myself. I just finished The Spectator Bird and am still trying to wrap my head around it. I also enjoyed Angle of Repose, but not as much as Crossing to Safety. And wow, it’s long. The Big Rock Candy Mountain is on my to-read list.

Please share YOUR favorite gorgeous novels—or any other book you think Anna might enjoy—in comments. Thank you!

View all the literary matchmaking posts here.

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  1. Natalie Hart says:

    I love these lists — I loved Father Melancholy’s Daughter and had the same reaction to Possession, thought it was the most brilliant thing ever when I read it right after college, but it didn’t move me on a re-read.

    To your list I’d add a novel for adults by L.M. Montgomery: The Blue Castle. A romance filled with those old-fashioned descriptions, but also characters who strain at convention, who take chances (both physical and emotional). It’s the most contemporary feeling romance written in the early 1900s.

    She might also try The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barberry — gorgeous and intelligent writing.

  2. Victoria says:

    This is YA, but “Navigating Early” by Clare Vanderpool was my favorite novel from my summer reading!

    Some of my other favorites are:

    “A Mount Vernon Love Story” by Mary Higgins Clark (I don’t like historical fiction either, but this book is one of my favorites.)

    “Taking Tuscany” by Rennee Riva is a novel about growing up. I read ot years ago and it still sticks with me.

    “Leota’s Garden” by Francine Rivers is a book about friendships that run so deep.

    “84, Charring Cross Road” by Helene Hanff is a book that I’ve been reccomending to everyone ever since I read it last winter!

    My librarian suggested I read “Minding Frankie” by Maeve Binchy last fall and it was the book that made me “fall in love” with Binchy.

    “Emily and Einsten” by Linda Francis Lee was a book I chose because of the cover. The plot was bizzare, but I really enjoyed it.

    “The Outsiders” by SE Hinton makes the perfect weekend read. It’s short but deep.

    And of course, the ones that everyone has read over the last few years: “The Help”, “The Light Between the Oceans”, and “The Art of French Eating”.

    • Anna says:

      Thanks for the recommendations! I actually haven’t read many of these. I’ll have to add some of these to my “to-read” pile. I’ve seen Maeve Binchy’s books on the shelves and never tried one. Is there an author you can compare her to so I can get a feel for what her writing is like?

      • Victoria says:

        Maeve Binchy’s books truly are novels. There really isn’t much to figure out and she isn’t trying to prove anything. The fact that she is Irish comes out in her writing. If I was going to compare her to someone, I would say she is a modern day Elizabeth Gaskell. She writes about characters that seem very real, with issues to deal with that often re,ind us of our own, and she reminds her readers that there is still such a thing as a good story.

        I should say that I have read more of her and haven’t liked everything…I’d love to hear your thoughts if you ed up reading any of her books!

      • Betsy says:

        I would compare Maeve Binchy’s writing to Rosamunde Pilcher, a British author of lovely, gorgeous novels. Have you read hers? The Shell Seekers is my favorite, and Coming Home is a close second.

        Hmmm, I just looked up those books on amazon, and whoever is publishing them has redone the covers to make them look like mindless romances. They are anything but!

  3. liz n. says:

    Excluding historical fiction makes it difficult, for me, anyway, to add to the list, because my first thought was “When Ireland Fell Silent” by Harolyn Enis. “Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English” is a beautiful book about a Jewish family relocating to England from Berlin after WWII, and how they try to fit in. And for writing so beautiful you can smell the leaves, “Watership Down,” of course.

    • Anna says:

      There is always the rare exception to the rule! I’ll have to check out the ones you mentioned. I also find that some of my hard and fast likes and dislikes from the past years are changing now that I’m the exhausted mom of littles. Maybe a few more historical fiction novels will make it to my “love” list.

    • Clara says:

      Oh, I love “Watership Down”! It ranks up there with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in terms of beautiful writing, IMO.

      • Anne says:

        I need to read Watership Down! Sign from the universe: I missed a Trivial Pursuit question back on vacation because I didn’t recognize a character as being from that book. (But then again, I got a question right because I could identify where the Sea of Tranquility was located thanks to my summer reading. 🙂 )

  4. I just consumed A PRAYER FOR ISSY BRADLEY. Two gorgeous YAs I can recommend are THE BRIDES OF ROLLROCK ISLAND and WHEN THINGS COME BACK (perhaps not gorgeous in the traditional sense but an absolute masterpiece. WTCB won both the Morris [debut YA title] and Printz Awards [equivalent to the Newbery for YA]). Then there are my old standbys: MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA and THE HEAVEN TREE TRILOGY.

    Also, boo to those of you who don’t absolutely adore POSSESSION!! 🙂

    • Kate says:

      I’m not a fan of historical fiction either, but adored The Heaven Tree trilogy.

      Anna, you might enjoy Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje. I haven’t read anything else by him, and would never have picked this one up if a friend hadn’t passed it along, but it really sucked me in.

  5. Jeannie says:

    “Gorgeous” is a great category! I thought of Gilead immediately; others I would add are Stones from the River (Ursula Hegi), The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro), and Cold Mountain and Nightwoods (both by Charles Frazier).

  6. “Brideshead Revisited” is a good choice. I also recommend “The Edge of Sadness” by Edwin O’Connor. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1962 and its characterization and writing are so strong. It stayed with me for quite a while.

  7. Oh! — one more. “The Go-Between” by L.P. Hartley is a beautifully-written novel about an English schoolboy visiting the home of his wealthy friends. It has a Downton Abbey-esque setting and all sorts of lyrical descriptions of a country house during a long, hot summer.

  8. Anna says:

    Thanks Anne!! I was so happy for it to be my turn! I’ve read all the Port William novels I think. I’m actually working on A Place in Time right now which is short stories about Port William characters. I’ll have to look into some of Berry’s non-fiction. And I’ve read Our Mutual Friend, but that reminds me that I’ve been wanting to read Bleak House. I have not read Gilead – it’s been on my to-read list for awhile. Peace Like a River is a favorite. The only Kingsolver I’ve read is Flight Behavior and I liked it so I will add The Poisonwood Bible to my list. Father Melancholy’s Daughter sounds interesting. I’ve resisted reading Possession because of my usual dislike for historical fiction, but I can always try it. I surprised myself recently by liking The Paris Wife even though it’s historical fiction. And I’ll have to check out Engagements. Where’d You Go Bernadette is certainly atypical for me so we’ll see if it was a one off due to pregnancy hormones or if I’ll like other similar books. Thanks again for taking the time to do this. It’s so much fun!! And I look forward to reading other people’s suggestions.

    • Anne says:

      I had fun finding books for you because I suspect our tastes are similar. I would love to hear what you end up reading, whether you love it or hate it. 🙂

  9. Katie Mc. says:

    If Anna has already read Brideshead Revisited, she might want to check out another one by Waugh: A Handful of Dust. It’s lesser known than Brideshead but very haunting and equally as gripping.

    Other suggestions – The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Bleak House by Charles Dickens, & pretty much anything by Willa Cather.

    Also – any fiction written by David Adams Richards. He’s a Canadian novelist & his books are definitely the beautiful “you want to read slowly so you can hang on every word” type of prose.

    • Anna says:

      I haven’t finished Brideshead Revisited. I began it earlier this year, but the last weeks of my pregnancy I barely read anything. I need to pick it back up now that I’m back reading as usual. And I’l have to check into that other one. I’ve been intrigued by Waugh since I read a biography of Nancy Mitford and her sisters. Have you read any of Mitford’s work? Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love are both good (and there is an edition with both published together, and a miniseries). The others all sound great too or are already on my to-read list. I’ve not heard of David Adams Richards, but I’ll have to look into him.

    • Anne says:

      I’ve read three or four other Waugh novels (the ones that were supposed to be more comic) and just didn’t enjoy them. Thanks for the rec for A Handful of Dust: it makes me want to try his other stuff again.

      Also, I’ve never read any Willa Cather or David Adams Richards. Thanks for the recommendations, especially because I love the gorgeous novel category so much and would love to find a few new favorites.

      • Lisa S says:

        Willa Cather is very good and you should definitely read some. But I would highly recommend Bess Streeter Aldrich. She is less well known than Cather, but writes in very much the same vein. I personally enjoy her books more. Start with A Lantern in Her Hand. But I haven’t read any I didn’t like.

  10. Misty says:

    I thought of Marilynn Robinson right away as well and I loved Gilead. I am working on Housekeeping right now but I have to say that it was her lesser known book Home that drew me in most. Another one that comes to mind in this category is “A Light Between Oceans” by M.L. Steadman.

  11. Jamie says:

    This is either going to right on point, or totally off, but if Chris Bohjalian writes novels with strong characters and strong sense of place (which don’t tend to have happy endings). They are very well written, although possibly a bit dark to be “lovely.” Try Skeletons at the Feast to start.

  12. Marlena says:

    I second Heaven Tree Trilogy and Peace Like a River! So many of my favorite books in this list/comments, and so many more to explore. Thank you! A beautiful, if unusual, Alaskan novel with a strong sense of place is The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. This was outside of my normal realistic fiction choices because it weaves in elements of a Russian fairy tale, but it’s a wonderful read in a quiet and unexpected sort of way, and still believable. For anyone in snowy climates, I highly recommend waiting until winter to fully enjoy this!

    • Anna says:

      I haven’t read the Heaven Tree Trilogy, but I adored Peace Like a River. And The Snow Child was so lovely wasn’t it? I still think about that book often and I read it last year. I loved how it kept me thinking, “Oh it’s a fantasy. Wait, it’s real? No, it’s a fantasy. But, maybe it’s real.” And it was such a deliciously cold book which is so not Dallas, TX!!

  13. Stacey says:

    I just finished Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Painful at times but beautiful. About real people suffering and the lengths they will go to.

  14. Tuija says:

    When I read words like “gorgeus novel”, and “strong believable characters, a sense of place, and wit” – the first that come to my mind are Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
    (I just recommended these books the last time. It’s probably because I’m so picky about novels myself… I read very few and recommend even fewer…)

    I see you loved a book by Barbara Pym: have you read all her other novels already, too? Excellent Women, or Jane and Prudence?

    I see you don’t love mystery. But for a real sense of place and strong characters, I have to mention The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series (by Alexander McCall Smith). The mystery/detective angle is not very dominant – you can mostly read them as novels about life in Botswana in which the main character happens to be a woman detective… Try one and see if you like it? (However, I personally wouldn’t read the entire series at once. Every now and then – great, like a mini vacation trip to Botswana. All after one another – repetitive…)

    • Ginger says:

      Oh, I also second Ladies Detective Agency for great characters. And speaking of beloved characters in a series, I can never talk enough about the Mitford books. They are very very slow (in a good way — like a lazy summer day on the porch), but so comforting and lush and beautiful.

  15. Ginger says:

    It almost feels like sacrilege to disagree with Anne, and it doesn’t happen often, but I’m going to admit… that I loved House of Riverton (as in, couldn’t put it down, wanted to carry it from room to room with me), and did not love The Forgotten Garden (as in, it took me three weeks to read get through, which is extremely unusual for me).

    I only mention this to say that perhaps if you read one Morton and it’s not to taste, then another is quite different.
    As a side note, House of Riverton reminded me some of Rules of Civility for some reason, so there’s that for comparison.

  16. Arenda says:

    For a strong sense of place, I’d suggest A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter; like LM Montgomery, she really makes the natural world come alive in a memorable way. And I’d probably suggest Scoop by Evelyn Waugh more than Brideshead Revisited – it’s so witty I was actually laughing out loud!

  17. Jennifer says:

    Gilead, Peace Like a River, and The Poisonwood Bible are three of my favorite books ever and I re-read them often, at least once a year. Plus, Peace Like a River and Gilead are two I picked up simply because their covers were that perfect robin’s egg blue and then I loved them, so I still keep looking for similar colored books…expecting them to be as perfect.

  18. Sandy says:

    I love and have read all four Wallace Stegner books you have mentioned. Big Rock Candy Mountain is semi-autobiographical and a must-read! Also, loved Poisonwood Bible.

    I also loved Quiet and it changed my life. I finally found permission to be myself. Thanks for your blog, fellow introvert!

  19. Danielle says:

    Ooo, I LOVED Possession! I only read it once. I worked in a museum for 5 years and really felt like I connected to the academic life/setting of the two modern characters.

  20. Ginger says:

    I just finished Crossing to Safety, and I had remembered somewhere that you said you were obsessed with it. I was too. I don’t think I’ve ever deliberately read a book so slowly. I didn’t want it to end.

    It kept reminding me of A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken, and while it isn’t a gorgeous novel, it is a gorgeous true story. I thought you would enjoy it since you loved Crossing to Safety if you haven’t read it.

    • Anne says:

      Yes, I LOVE that book. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. And because we clearly have similar taste I’m adding A Severe Mercy to my list right now!

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