The best novels about ruthless social climbers

Why am I passionate about this?

My novel, Right Back Where We Started From, is about greed. I wanted to see what it would look like if women in history pursued their goals with the same relentless intensity as the men who came to the California Gold Rush. I love reading about social climbing because ambition is so baked into the fabric of the United States, and is such a big part of our lives. The books on this list are unafraid to show you the ugly, unpleasant side of ambition—and the exciting, captivating side as well. 

I wrote...

Right Back Where We Started From

By Joy Lanzendorfer,

Book cover of Right Back Where We Started From

What is my book about?

Sandra Sanborn believes she's destined to become rich and famous. Success, she feels, is in her blood, and it's only a matter of time before she restores her family name to a place of prominence. But when pesky secrets start revealing themselves, Sandra begins to suspect that her family history is not what she thinks it is. This sweeping saga about greed and ambition covers three generations of strong women and a hundred years of history, from the California Gold Rush to World War II. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Vanity Fair

Joy Lanzendorfer Why did I love this book?

There are few social climbers in literature more determined than Becky Sharp. Born in 1814 London, the daughter of an art teacher and a French dancer, she's clear-eyed, sly, and, unfortunately for her, poor. A gossipy narrator follows Becky as she marries one more economically desirable man after another to rise through the ranks of English society. I like it when female characters turn the little power they have—in this case beauty and charm—into the more substantial power of money and social position. And yes, Becky is what they call a "difficult" woman, which makes her all the more interesting to me. This is truly, as Thackery wrote, "a novel without a hero."

By William Makepeace Thackeray,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Vanity Fair as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair depicts the anarchic anti-heroine Beky Sharpe cutting a swathe through the eligible young men of Europe, set against a lucid backdrop of war and international chaos. This Penguin Classics edition is edited with an introduction and notes by John Carey.

No one is better equipped in the struggle for wealth and worldly success than the alluring and ruthless Becky Sharp, who defies her impoverished background to clamber up the class ladder. Her sentimental companion Amelia Sedley, however, longs only for the caddish soldier George. As the two heroines make their way through the tawdry glamour…

Book cover of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Joy Lanzendorfer Why did I love this book?

This novel is hilarious. When I first read it, I was jealous that I hadn't written itwhich is a silly feeling to have about a book that came out in the 1920s, I admit. It's a diary written by a blonde showgirl named Lorelei Lee, who uses her feminine wiles to get wealth from the gentlemen callers who want to "educate" her. Loralei isn't very smartthe diary is riddled with misspellings and confused assumptionsbut she has a kind of innocence and practicality that keeps you rooting for her throughout. With her friend Dorothy, a brunette, she arranges it so that everything always works out in her favor, which usually includes lots and lots of diamond jewelry. 

By Anita Loos,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Intimate Diary of a Professional Lady (1925) is a novel by Anita Loos. Adapted from a series of stories written for Harper's Bazaar, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was an astounding success for Loos, who had mired for over a decade as a screenwriter in Hollywood and New York. An immediate bestseller, the novel earned praise from leading writers and critics of its time, and has been adapted several times for theater and film. Recognized as a defining text of the Jazz Age, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an absolute classic dubbed "the great American novel" by Edith Wharton.…

Book cover of The Talented Mr. Ripley

Joy Lanzendorfer Why did I love this book?

This is a classic psychological thriller about a social climber, complete with murder and stolen identity. There's something about Tom Ripley, who fenagles his way into the upper-crust world of Dickie Greenleaf, son of a wealthy shipping magnate. Ripley is immoral and ruthless, but also needy and sad, a complicated character who evokes sympathy even as he does terrible things. This book asks the question: What if you could take the place of a person who has everything you ever dreamed of? Would you do it? And if you did, how would you keep from getting caught? 

By Patricia Highsmith,

Why should I read it?

19 authors picked The Talented Mr. Ripley as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It's here, in the first volume of Patricia Highsmith's five-book Ripley series, that we are introduced to the suave Tom Ripley, a young striver seeking to leave behind his past as an orphan bullied for being a "sissy." Newly arrived in the heady world of Manhattan, Ripley meets a wealthy industrialist who hires him to bring his playboy son, Dickie Greenleaf, back from gallivanting in Italy. Soon Ripley's fascination with Dickie's debonair lifestyle turns obsessive as he finds himself enraged by Dickie's ambivalent affections for Marge, a charming American dilettante, and Ripley begins a deadly game. "Sinister and strangely alluring"…

Book cover of The Secret History

Joy Lanzendorfer Why did I love this book?

Some books have such a strong sense of place that I'm sad when I finish them because it means I can no longer be in that world. All Donna Tartt novels are like that for me, but especially The Secret History. A student named Richard Papen tells about his friendship with five other students at a private college and the events leading up to the death of a boy named Bunny Corcoran. I love stories about elite colleges and the fraught intensity of young adulthood. Add in class issues, social striving, and an inverted detective plot, and I'm hooked. 

By Donna Tartt,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked The Secret History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'Everything, somehow, fit together; some sly and benevolent Providence was revealing itself by degrees and I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together---my future, my past, the whole of my life---and I was going to sit up in bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!'

Under the influence of a charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at a New England college discover a way of thought and life a world away from their banal contemporaries.…

Book cover of Forever Amber

Joy Lanzendorfer Why did I love this book?

My grandfather went to elementary school with Kathleen Winsor, whose bestselling historical romance, Forever Amber, was banned in some places for being too sexy. I haven't read the novel since I was a teenager, but I loved it at the time and would probably still enjoy it for the sheer romanticism today. Amber starts as a peasant and works her way up through the ranks of lords and ladies of restoration England, becoming the mistress of King Charles IIbut she does it with way more bodice ripping than Becky Sharp ever dreamed. Amber navigates the Great Plague and Fire of England while, all along, she yearns for a man she can't have. Think Gone With The Wind, but without the racism. 

By Kathleen Winsor,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A book to read and reread, this reissue brings back to print an unforgettable romance and a timeless masterpiece.

Abandoned pregnant and penniless on the teeming streets of London, sixteen-year-old Amber St. Clare uses her wits, beauty and courage to climb to the highest position a woman could achieve in Restoration England - that of favourite mistress of the Merry Monarch himself, Charles II.

From whores and highwaymen to courtiers and noblemen, from the Great Plague and the Fire of London to the intimate passions of ordinary - and extraordinary - men and women, Amber experiences it all. But throughout…

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Rewriting Illness

By Elizabeth Benedict,

Book cover of Rewriting Illness

Elizabeth Benedict

New book alert!

What is my book about?

What happens when a novelist with a “razor-sharp wit” (Newsday), a “singular sensibility” (Huff Post), and a lifetime of fear about getting sick finds a lump where no lump should be? Months of medical mishaps, coded language, and Doctors who don't get it.

With wisdom, self-effacing wit, and the story-telling artistry of an acclaimed novelist, Elizabeth Benedict recollects her cancer diagnosis after discovering multiplying lumps in her armpit. In compact, explosive chapters, interspersed with moments of self-mocking levity, she chronicles her illness from muddled diagnosis to “natural remedies,” to debilitating treatments, as she gathers sustenance from family, an assortment of urbane friends, and a fearless “cancer guru.”

Rewriting Illness is suffused with suspense, secrets, and the unexpected solace of silence.

Rewriting Illness

By Elizabeth Benedict,

What is this book about?

By turns somber and funny but above all provocative, Elizabeth Benedict's Rewriting Illness: A View of My Own is a most unconventional memoir. With wisdom, self-effacing wit, and the story-telling skills of a seasoned novelist, she brings to life her cancer diagnosis and committed hypochondria. As she discovers multiplying lumps in her armpit, she describes her initial terror, interspersed with moments of self-mocking levity as she indulges in "natural remedies," among them chanting Tibetan mantras, drinking shots of wheat grass, and finding medicinal properties in chocolate babka. She tracks the progression of her illness from muddled diagnosis to debilitating treatment…

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