The best books with characters who seem to have nothing to do with each other

Joan Silber Author Of Secrets of Happiness
By Joan Silber

Who am I?

One of my favorite bits of praise for my books was Michael Silverblatt, of KCRW, saying, "There is no one else like her—she invents a new improvised form for her fiction." The last five books of fiction I’ve written (my total is nine) have been webs, spinning out from one character to another, across different times and places. It lets me be intimate and distant both at once. So I’ve naturally loved reading writers who’ve done this in various ways. People like to quote John Berger saying, “Never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one,” and I’m in line with that. 


I wrote...

Secrets of Happiness

By Joan Silber,

Book cover of Secrets of Happiness

What is my book about?

I love writing books that link webs of people. My most recent novel, Secrets of Happiness, begins with a young lawyer in New York learning his father has a secret family, a Thai woman, and two sons. The first chapter hones in on his mother, but I knew I wanted to follow the Thai family as well. Other branches went in their own directions from that, until I worked my way back to the opening family.  

The books I picked & why

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Great Expectations

By Charles Dickens,

Book cover of Great Expectations

Why this book?

Dickens always has a fabulous range of characters—in this book the orphan Pip, who thinks he’s going to someday apprentice with his dear uncle the blacksmith, meets up with an escaped convict and then with a jilted heiress, and their roles in his fate are beautifully confused throughout. This is my favorite Dickens—it’s the most well-shaped—and it has held up for me. I had just re-read it in 2016, when I went to teach English in Laos for a month, and was thrilled to discover that one of my students, a novice Buddhist monk, was reading it, and Pip’s disasters on the borders of class made perfect sense to him.


Disappearing Earth

By Julia Phillips,

Book cover of Disappearing Earth

Why this book?

This novel takes place in Kamchatka, in Far East Russia, and begins with the abduction of two young sisters. Each chapter then carries us into the life of a whole other character, and we get engrossed in her fate, as events move through the course of a year. The shadow of the missing girls arises every so often, and then we forget them, until they appear with brilliant drama toward the end of the book. The novel becomes a whodunit—and I suppose all mysteries are tasked with connecting improbables—that links its sequences in deep and moving ways.


To Paradise

By Hanya Yanagihara,

Book cover of To Paradise

Why this book?

The novel is set in three end-of-century time-frames—1893, 1993, and 2093. In the opening, set in a mansion on Washington Square in New York, we discover we’re in an America where same-sex marriage has been legal for a long time, and a young man is about to run off with a suitor his father distrusts (a new version of a Henry James plot). The next section is in Hawaii, the colonized Paradise, where descendant characters (with the same set of names, juggled) stumble and grab what they can of freedom and love. My favorite section is the last, where characters with those recurring names are in a New York of “cooling suits” and “decontamination chambers” and totalitarian rule. This is a wild and really quite brilliant book, whose sprawling parts are fueled by a searing vision.  


Dear Miss Metropolitan

By Carolyn Ferrell,

Book cover of Dear Miss Metropolitan

Why this book?

In a novel inspired by the decade-long kidnapping of three women in Cleveland, Ferrell has crafted a story out of voices. We hear each of the young women—their inner obsessions and distractions, the details they live inside of—before, during, and after their confinement, and their joy in each other. But Ferrell has also included the Miss Metropolitan of her title, a nosy woman living on the same street, with her eager attentions misdirected, one of the neighbors who didn’t notice. There’s an extra ambition in the reach of that, a context that insists on including unexpected corners, picking up lots of loosely connected characters to get the full meaning of the story.


In the Distance

By Hernan Diaz,

Book cover of In the Distance

Why this book?

Set in the mid-nineteenth century, the story begins with young Hakan Soderstrom leaving Sweden with his brother Linus for a less blighted life in America. After they’re separated, Hakan tries to walk from San Francisco to New York to find his brother. Instead he meets up with a deluded Irish gold prospector, a toothless dance hall queen who dresses him in velvet, dangerous Civil War soldiers, a visionary naturalist, and a host of other fantastic characters, as he wanders for years. No line links these characters except the wild needs of this radically revised picture of the West, and I was surprised on every page.


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