The best novels that reveal the interior thoughts of its characters as they navigate the fragility of life and relationships

Margaret Farrell Kirby Author Of Becoming Nora
By Margaret Farrell Kirby

Who am I?

I have always wanted to be a writer. I love reading and am inspired by authors of character-driven novels—Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Berg, Colm Toibin, Anna Quindlen, and others—who take time to explore the inner thoughts and motivations of their protagonists. The novels I picked take the reader deep into the interior thoughts of their protagonists. As they explore the complexities of relationships amid the texture of ordinary life, they reveal the fragility and strength of the characters as we discover what simmers beneath the surface of their relationships. Long after reading them, I remember the characters and the time I spent with them.

I wrote...

Becoming Nora

By Margaret Farrell Kirby,

Book cover of Becoming Nora

What is my book about?

Becoming Nora explores how unexamined pasts and repressed emotions can simmer beneath a seemingly ordinary and happy marriage. Until the day her husband shattered her world with the news that he was unhappy and wanted a separation, Nora Stanton had been sure her life was settled, perfect in fact. At age forty, they had everything: good careers, a nice house, and two children-just as planned.

Nora is forced to face her misconceptions and uncover parts of herself that had gotten buried in the day-to-day containment of her marriage. As she learns to free herself, she finds herself making choices the old Nora could not have imagined.

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The books I picked & why

Nora Webster

By Colm Toίbίn,

Book cover of Nora Webster

Why did I love this book?

Colm Toibin is one of my favorite writers. The drama in his novels is found in quiet moments with portraits of ordinary characters that we get to know and love. Nora Webster is a 44-year-old woman living in a small town in Ireland. We meet her soon after her husband dies, as she grieves amid navigating her new life with four children and little income.  

Through Toibin’s exceptional character development, we become immersed in Nora’s journey: her realization of feeling confined by the well-meaning expectations of her neighbors; her relationship with her sons as she struggles to parent them through their grief; her growing self-reflection as she awakens to her hidden strength. We cheer her as she achieves her newfound independence.

By Colm Toίbίn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Nora Webster as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

* * * Shortlisted for the 2014 Costa Novel Awards and the 2015 Folio Prize * * *

Nora Webster is the heartbreaking new novel from one of the greatest novelists writing today.

It is the late 1960s in Ireland. Nora Webster is living in a small town, looking after her four children, trying to rebuild her life after the death of her husband. She is fiercely intelligent, at times difficult and impatient, at times kind, but she is trapped by her circumstances, and waiting for any chance which will lift her beyond them.

Slowly, through the gift of music…

Ladder of Years

By Anne Tyler,

Book cover of Ladder of Years

Why did I love this book?

Anne Tyler is one of my favorite authors. I am always drawn to her portraits of family dynamics through the lens of her quirky characters. She presents them in a way that moves beyond their quirks and negative qualities; we see them with their contradictions and failings amid the texture of their daily lives. We follow her characters through their difficulties and hard-won unexpected discoveries about themselves.

In this novel, a woman simply walks away from her family, leaving them on a beach in Delaware. We follow her life as she chooses a new identity and an independent life — a fantasy for many women, including myself. Like Delia, I have often felt like getting up and walking away. I call it my Ladder of Years Day.

By Anne Tyler,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Ladder of Years as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the beloved Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Breathing Lessons


The headlines are all the same: Beloved mother and wife Delia Grinstead was last seen strolling down the Delaware shore, wearing only a bathing suit and carrying a beach tote with five hundred dollars tucked inside. To the best of her family's knowledge, she has disappeared without a trace. But Delia didn't disappear. She ran.

Exhausted with her routine and everyone else's plans for her, Delia needed an out, a chance to make a new life for herself and to…

Light Years

By James Salter,

Book cover of Light Years

Why did I love this book?

James Salter takes us deep into an exploration of the human condition and fragility of relationships with his narrative of the domestic life of an affluent American family with seemingly perfect lives on the surface. Through small details and observations of daily life, Salter brings us closely into their world—like voyeurs, we observe the fissures that simmer underneath their searches for happiness.  

We move through years of their lives as their marriage crumbles with the passage of time and the coexistence of love and betrayal.

By James Salter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Light Years as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nedra and Viri are a married couple whose favoured life is centred around dinners, ingenious games with their children, enviable friends and near-perfect days passed skating on a frozen river or sunning on the beach. But fine cracks are beginning to spread through the shimmering surface of their life - flaws that will eventually mar the lovely picture beyond repair. Seductive, witty, tender and resonant, Light Years is an exquisite novel of lost lives and the elusiveness of happiness.

Trompe L’oeil

By Nancy Reisman,

Book cover of Trompe L’oeil

Why did I love this book?

Nancy Reisman brings her characters to life in this portrait of a family that begins after the tragic death of one of their children. Four-year-old Molly is killed by a truck while dashing across a street in Rome during a family vacation. In an instant, their lives change. 

We follow the family in the aftermath of the accident and over two decades. Reisman chronicles the birth of two more children and the slow dissolution of the Murphy’s marriage. The loss of Molly reverberates throughout the novel. Through varying points of view, we observe the guilt, regret, longing, and despair that affect each member of the family.

By Nancy Reisman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Trompe L’oeil as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set against a backdrop of Rome, Renaissance artworks, and images of Mary Magdalene, Trompe l'Oeil portrays the ripple effects of a family tragedy and the ways in which its members perceive and misperceive themselves and each other.

During a vacation in Rome, the Murphy family experiences a life-altering tragedy. In the immediate aftermath, James, Nora, and their children find solace in their Massachusetts coast home, but as the years pass the weight of the loss disintegrates the increasingly fragile marriage and leaves its mark on each family member. Trompe l’Oeil seamlessly alternates among several characters’ points of view, capturing the…

Book cover of The Year of Magical Thinking

Why did I love this book?

In Didion’s beautiful style of writing, this raw memoir offers an in-depth portrait of the inexplicable journey of grieving. As she tries to make sense of her husband’s sudden death, Didion chronicles her experience in such a way that we intimately enter her world—the shock of life changing in an ordinary instant, the reality of death not fully penetrating, her disorientation leading to periods of denial and magical thinking.

She takes us with her on her hard and lonely first year, weaving introspective details of her days, shards of memory, and glimpses into the past with details of her domestic life haunted by absence. 

As she relates the reality of grief as opposed to what we might imagine it to be, she universalizes the experience of active mourning in all its physical and emotional ramifications. 

By Joan Didion,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked The Year of Magical Thinking as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From one of America's iconic writers, a portrait of a marriage and a life - in good times and bad - that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child. A stunning book of electric honesty and passion.

Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill. At first they thought it was flu, then pneumonia, then complete sceptic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later - the night before New Year's Eve -the Dunnes were just…

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