Author Ann Leary is a master at creating unforgettable characters (See: The Good House‘s complex and hilarious Hildy Good). Her darkly comic new novel, The Children, is an absorbing story of a wealthy New England family with intriguing, long-buried secrets, and it is nearly impossible to put down until its haunting conclusion. We asked Leary to share her ten favorite books set in New England, and the result was the irresistible collection of titles below.
Moby-Dick, or The Whale, by Herman Melville
Okay, I admit I haven’t read it cover-to-cover since high school. Instead, I frequently return to favorite chapters and sometimes I discover a fascinating passage I had either forgotten or failed to understand when I was younger. If you’re into literary erotica, I recommend the chapter, “A Squeeze of the Hand.” It appears that there was a sort of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on Ahab’s ship. Enjoy!
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
Tartt set this, her astounding first novel, on a college campus that so resembles Bennington College, I could smell the clove cigarettes as I turned the pages. (I attended Bennington a few years before Ms. Tartt). But speaking of Bennington, Vermont:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson spent many years living in the small village of North Bennington while her husband taught at Bennington College. She was sensitive to the insidious, thinly veiled suspicion and hostility some of her neighbors felt toward “outsiders,” and this informed much of her work. Merricat Blackwood, the agoraphobic but highly imaginative narrator of this novel helped inspire Charlotte, the main character in my new novel The Children.
On Beauty, by Zadie Smith
Another great book with a college as its setting—this one loosely based on Harvard University. One could do a long list of great books set on New England campuses, there are many. On Beauty would be at the top of my list. I love this book.
The Stories of John Cheever, by John Cheever
While it’s true that the majority of Cheever stories are set in Manhattan and its suburbs, some of my favorite stories in his Pulitzer prize-winning collection are set in New England. “Goodbye, My Brother,” “The Summer Farmer” and “The Chaste Clarissa,” for example. Speaking of the Pulitzer Prize…
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
Strout perfectly captures the essence of Olive, the flinty, guarded, flawed but somehow precious heroine in this great novel. If you’ve lived in New England, it’s likely you know an Olive Kittredge. I also love the nonlinear narrative—it’s almost a collection of linked short stories. Which brings me to another favorite…
The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman
Oh how I love what Alice Hoffman did in this book. The Red Garden is a collection of short stories set in the fictitious town of Blackwell, Massachusetts over the course of the town’s 300-year history. Hoffman interlaces imagery and themes that link one story to the next. It’s classic Alice Hoffman—strong female characters, the beauty of the natural world and a glimpse of the spiritual/supernatural as well. Oh, and while we’re in the Berkshires…
Ethan Frome and Summer, by Edith Wharton
These novels are short, so I’m going to count them as one, though they are two of my favorite books of any length. I like to read Ethan Frome every autumn on the first really cold night. I only recently discovered Summer, which is also set in a rather isolated corner of the Massachusetts Berkshires. Like Ethan Frome, its characters reveal the somewhat brittle but often quietly noble characters found in the rural, hardscrabble New England of Wharton’s era and today.
Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates
Set in the 1950s Connecticut suburbs, Revolutionary Road is one of my all-time favorite novels. The writing is flawless—the story is funny and ultimately heartbreaking. Nothing helped me understand my parents’ generation more than this book.
The Beans of Egypt, Maine, by Carolyn Chute
I read this when it was published in 1985 and recently reread it to see if it holds up. Yes, it does. The “Beans” of today—poor people in rural, forgotten corners of our country—continue to be marginalized and overlooked. But it’s the writing—the honest, naïve yet somehow wise voice of Earlene that carries this unforgettable novel. “If it runs, a Bean will shoot it! If it falls, a Bean will eat it.” How can you not continue reading?
The Children is out May 24.