Cross-posted, with a few changes, on the Robbins Library blog. Links go to past blog posts or LibraryThing reviews.
Recently, a friend asked me for some recommendations of historical fiction books. She said she had read a lot of historical fiction when she was younger (think A Break With Charity by Ann Rinaldi and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry), and had recently enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. She has also enjoyed historical fiction by Geraldine Brooks (March, People of the Book) and Colm Toibin. She expressed a preference for books about wholly fictional characters rather than fictionalized real people from history.
Using the above information as a starting point, here’s what I came up with:
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein: Marketed as a young adult novel, this book has earned rave reviews almost universally. I loved it for its journal-style narration; the friendship of its two main characters, captured spy “Verity” and downed pilot Maddie; and the fantastic plot twist. It is WWII fiction, but unlike much of WWII fiction, it doesn’t take place in Germany and doesn’t center around Jewish characters: Verity was captured on a mission from England into France, with Maddie as the pilot. The narrators on the audiobook are absolutely wonderful; there’s a lot of added value there, but the voices come through in the text as well. A wrenching, incredible book.
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly: This is another young adult book, a classic coming-of-age story set in the Adirondacks in 1906. I find it difficult to imagine the reader who could resist sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey, who loves school and dreams of being a writer, but may end up sacrificing that dream to take care of her family, as she promised her mother on her deathbed. As an additional complication, there is a murder at the hotel where Mattie works – the same murder that inspired Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.
Astray by Emma Donoghue: Donoghue has written historical novels and short stories before, but Astray is a standout collection. Each story is based on some fragment of historical truth, and Donoghue builds on these facts to create fully realized characters. Each story is preceded by its setting (time and place) and followed by a note about its inspiration. The audio production is stellar; I highly recommend listening to this book, because it makes the stories last longer. My favorite in the collection is “The Gift.”
Honolulu by Alan Brennert: Honolulu is excellent historical fiction: it sheds light on a little-known time and place in history, it has a compelling main character, and it covers several years without ever dragging in pace. The Library Journal review sums it up perfectly: “This sweeping, epic novel follows Jin from her homeland of Korea to a new life on the blossoming Hawaiian Islands. The year is 1914, and Jin is a “picture bride,” a sort of mail-order bride to a Korean man living in Hawaii whom she has never met. Not the wealthy husband she was promised, he is a poor laborer who treats her cruelly. Escaping her abusive husband, Jin must make her way in Honolulu, eventually finding love and stability…Seeing life through Jin’s eyes is a pleasure as she changes from a farm-bound, repressed immigrant girl to an outgoing, educated member of Hawaiian society…” There are also strong female friendships in this book, which is nice to see.
Losing Julia by Jonathan Hull: Honestly, it’s been over a decade since I’ve read this, but I remember really liking it; partly I found it refreshing (if that’s the word) to read a war book that wasn’t about WWII, though nowadays with the Downton Abbey craze we’re seeing more WWI fiction. Patrick Delaney narrates, focusing on three time periods in his life: his time as a soldier in WWI, ten years post-war, and his present situation in an old folks’ home. Hull’s description of war is graphic and immediate, and the love story is poignant and romantic without being sappy. I may have just talked myself into re-reading this.
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman: Set in Australia after the Great War (WWI), The Light Between Oceans has few characters but a big impact. Soldier Tom Sherbourne takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on a lonely island. On a trip back to the mainland, he meets and then marries Isabel Graysmark; they live together on the island, alone and happy, until Isabel has a miscarriage, then another, then another. At the center of this beautiful book is a moral dilemma, and a love story. It’s thought-provoking, discussion-worthy, and its setting in a remote part of Australia is unique.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: I love this book for two reasons: narrator Katey Kontent, and the way 1937-1938 New York comes to life. I find it hard to believe this (first!) novel was written by an investment banker (with an M.A. in English from Stanford, but still), but obviously I shouldn’t judge; Rules of Civility (the title is from a pamphlet by the young George Washington) is a remarkable book. Katey is independent, well-read, serious, fun, and moral without being prissy. New York in the late thirties is a character all its own; if ever you were going to read a book for the setting alone, it could be this one.
Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara: If Mattie Gokey was ten years older and was an artist instead of a writer, she’d be Desdemona Spaulding, nee Hart. Set primarily in Massachusetts in the 1930s, with a few scenes in New York, this is the perfect book for fans of A Northern Light. Dez faces the family-or-career choice that many women still face today. In O’Hara’s own words, “life is full of tough choices between less-than-perfect alternatives.” Readers may sympathize or disagree with Dez’s decisions, but no one could say they were easy ones to make.
Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum: This is another WWII novel, one that alternates between WWII-era Germany and present-day Minnesota. I enjoy split narratives, and this one is easy to follow, but some readers prefer chronological narratives. The character in the present is Trudy, a history professor, and the character in the past is her mother Anna, who had an affair with a Nazi officer during the war. Anna has never talked to her daughter about her past, but Trudy is determined to find out what happened. This compelling book stands out among the glut of WWII fiction.
Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres: It is rare to find a book that has moments of such humor (it begins with a doctor curing a man’s deafness by removing a pea from his ear) and scenes of such overwhelming horror, cruelty, and sadness; in fact, one of the most powerful scenes I have ever read is in this book, which takes place on the Greek island of Cephallonia before, during, and after WWII. Captain Corelli is a member of the occupying Italian army who falls in love with the daughter of the deafness-curing doctor. Yes, Corelli’s Mandolin is also a movie, but – as is nearly always the case – the book is better.
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky: As if we did not already have enough reasons to hate Nazis, here’s another: they have deprived us of volumes 3-5 of this book. Suite Francaise contains two parts, “Storm in June” and “Dolce,” but the author intended to write five parts; unfortunately, she was arrested, deported to Auschwitz, and killed before she completed them. However, Nemirovsky – who was born in Russia, but moved to France with her family when she was a teenager – accomplished a great deal in the first two parts of Suite Francaise. She captures the atmosphere of France during the early part of WWII: in “Storm in June,” people flee Paris as the Germans invade, and in “Dolce” German officers are quartered in French homes in a small village. Moral complexities abound, as difficulties bring out the best and worst in people.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Anne Shaffer: Don’t let this long, tongue-twister title put you off; Guernsey is a delightful epistolary novel (a novel in letters), and at its center is Juliet Ashton, an English author looking for a subject for a new book. Set in England in 1946, Guernsey has a WWII story embedded in it, but primarily the reader sees the aftereffects of the war, both in London and on the island of Guernsey. If I were forced to muster up a complaint about this book, it would be that the characters, especially Elizabeth, are too perfect; but I’ve read it three times now (once on audio, which I recommend) so it’s not really a complaint at all.
And here are some historical fiction novels that do take real historical figures as their main characters:
Fever by Mary Beth Keane (“Typhoid” Mary Mallon)
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (Zelda Fitzgerald)
The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin (Anne Morrow Lindbergh)
The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields (Edith Wharton)
Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Thomas Cromwell)
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Hadley Hemingway)
Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (Mamah Borthwick and Frank Lloyd Wright)
Above All Things by Tanis Rideout (George Mallory)