The best novels about people grappling with the past (often sabotaging their present and future in the process)

Who am I?

As a second-generation Italian American, I’ve always had one foot in the past, fascinated by the way a family history can shape who we are and deepen our understanding of our place in the world. The characters I love are searching for that kind of connection. As a writer, I’ve always thought nothing deepens a story more than a glance into the past, and now, living and writing in a medieval hill town in Italy, surrounded by the remnants of history, I believe it more than ever. I step outside and the past roars in, reminding me how it shapes the present—and each one of us.

I wrote...

The Wild Impossibility

By Cheryl A. Ossola,

Book cover of The Wild Impossibility

What is my book about?

Can a person live someone else’s memories? That’s what Kira, a neonatal ICU nurse, is asking herself. Wracked by grief, she’s having what she thinks are vivid, disturbing dreams—until they start happening while she’s awake. Not dreams but memories, she decides. And not hers. Questioning her mental state, driven to discover what these fragments of someone’s life mean, Kira digs obsessively into the past, putting her marriage at risk.

Meanwhile, her grandmother Maddalena’s tale unfurls, a tragic love story set at Manzanar, a World War II Japanese American internment camp. As Kira discovers that her life is intertwined with Maddalena’s in ways she could never have imagined, she comes face-to-face with her grief and her self-doubt—and her future.

The books I picked & why

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Animal Dreams

By Barbara Kingsolver,

Book cover of Animal Dreams

Why this book?

I’ve read Animal Dreams eight times, and each time I connect with the protagonist, Codi, as strongly as I did the first time. Codi is returning home to Grace, Arizona, partly because she has no idea what to do with her life, partly because her father isn’t well, and partly because she has unfinished business to tend to, though she doesn’t let herself acknowledge that. She’s an expert at running away from the truths she’s buried and the people who could expose them, but her façade shatters when she returns to Grace, a world barren and fertile and unforgettable. Why did I read this book eight times? Because I love Codi’s vulnerability and strength, her quirkiness and intelligence, her complexity and confusion, all conveyed through Kingsolver’s gorgeously poetic prose.

Casa Rossa

By Francesca Marciano,

Book cover of Casa Rossa

Why this book?

This book made me fall in love with Puglia, the hot, dusty “heel of the boot” with its lemons, olives, and cactus, its boxy farmhouses. Not that the story, bouncing from Paris to New York to a long-gone Rome, doesn’t deliver—the narrator, Alina, talks about a family secret passed from woman to woman, disintegrating memories, a past she must understand before the movers arrive and the house with its mural of a naked woman painted on a patio wall is no longer theirs. Present and past, the known and the unknown combine, and all of it is tied to alluring, sensual Puglia. As a storyteller, Marciano demands your attention, painting the life story of a family whose Italy is unlike the one you think you know.

Crossing to Safety

By Wallace Stegner,

Book cover of Crossing to Safety

Why this book?

The retrospective gaze in this semiautobiographical novel zeroes in on friendship rather than family or romantic love. The friendship between the struggling-to-rise Morgans and the blue-blooded Langs, nearly academic royalty, is instantaneous and deep, with an imbalance that creates a delicious sense of precariousness. Stegner is a master of low-key suspense, gently stoking our curiosity about what comes next and what makes these people tick. Known for his California-based masterpiece Angle of Repose, here Stegner ventures into the Midwest, New England, and Italy, into academia, into aspiration and longing, and the forces that can alter a friendship. I love that he sets part of the book in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, my spiritual home. With his customary vividness, Stegner lets me see the mountains and smell the pines.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

By Gail Honeyman,

Book cover of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Why this book?

I fell in love with emotionally damaged, vodka-slugging, social outcast Eleonor Oliphant on page one. I’ve never read a novel with trauma at its core that made me laugh as much as this one did. Eleanor’s voice is confessional and unprepossessing, cynical and delightfully unfiltered. The trauma that seared her emotionally scarred her physically too, and she’s reconciled to a life of deprivation and loneliness and weekends spent in a drunken stupor. My heart broke for her when, searching for love, she chases a fantasy, and I rooted for her to take off her blinders when IT-guy Raymond befriends her (and wants more). After 325 pages with Eleonor, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. 

The Book of Daniel

By E.L. Doctorow,

Book cover of The Book of Daniel

Why this book?

Although it’s fiction, this book dives deep into left-wing politics, boomeranging from 1967 to the ’40s and ’50s. With references to the Bible’s “Book of Daniel” and a story drawn from the lives of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (here, Paul and Rochelle Isaacson), this is the wrenching tale of the Isaacsons’ son Daniel trying to make sense of his parents’ deaths—he is writing his PhD dissertation on American politics to, as he puts it, “empty my heart.” I read this book in grad school and was slow to warm to it; then the story grabbed me hard and I finished it feeling dazed. Doctorow’s in-depth research and insights into history make a fascinating foundation for the kind of storytelling that stays with you long after the final page.

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