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

The Books I Picked & Why

Nora Webster

By Colm Toίbίn

Book cover of Nora Webster

Why 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.

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Ladder of Years

By Anne Tyler

Book cover of Ladder of Years

Why 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.

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Light Years

By James Salter

Book cover of Light Years

Why 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.

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Trompe L’oeil

By Nancy Reisman

Book cover of Trompe L’oeil

Why 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.

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The Year of Magical Thinking

By Joan Didion

Book cover of The Year of Magical Thinking

Why 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. 

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