The best novels that explore solitary characters

Daniel Damiano Author Of Graphic Nature
By Daniel Damiano

Who am I?

As both a playwright and novelist, I tend to gravitate to complex characters with an internal struggle. Graphic Nature, my second novel, touches upon a particular character, Edmond de Capitoir, who while considering himself a well-meaning member of society, has kept himself at arm’s length from life in many ways – not the least of which is due to his commitment to his profession as an executioner in 1913 France. Much of the work I've recommended touches upon these similar protagonists who are somehow emotionally closed off and perhaps have developed a certain guilt about their actions by what they experience through the course of these stories – even a need for love.

I wrote...

Graphic Nature

By Daniel Damiano,

Book cover of Graphic Nature

What is my book about?

Set in 1913 France, Edmond de Capitoir is the Chief Executioner - content with a relatively solitary life, aided by his own introverted nature. However, his persona is tested by a developing attraction to a young patisserie clerk in Versailles - an attraction that becomes further challenged by his sudden notoriety. Graphic Nature is very much a character study, while incorporating dark humor, as well as romantic, gothic, and social commentary elements with modern parallels. 

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The books I picked & why

Crime and Punishment

By Fyodor Dostoevsky, Richard Pevear (translator), Larissa Volokhonsky (translator)

Book cover of Crime and Punishment

Why did I love this book?

I love the texture and naturalness of Dostoyevsky's writing, and Crime and Punishment is the ultimate blend of his gifts as a novelist of supreme skill.

The book focuses on a young, intelligent former student (Raskalnikov) who commits a tragic act, unknowingly in pursuit of his own humanity, but his guilt and paranoia begin to dominate his existence. It is through his sense of guilt that we as the reader feel a growing sense of claustrophobia that is almost unbearable, yet made immensely engaging by Dostoyevsky’s depth-filled writing. 

Raskalnikov is complex in that he is not evil or bad in a sense that one expects from one who engages in a horrifying criminal act, and it is this very complexity which makes Crime and Punishment such a compelling work.

By Fyodor Dostoevsky, Richard Pevear (translator), Larissa Volokhonsky (translator)

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Crime and Punishment as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hailed by Washington Post Book World as “the best [translation] currently available" when it was first published, this second edition has been updated in honor of the 200th anniversary of Dostoevsky’s birth.

With the same suppleness, energy, and range of voices that won their translation of The Brothers Karamazov the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Prize, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky offer a brilliant translation of Dostoevsky's astounding pyschological thriller, newly revised for his bicentenniel. 

When Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in the St. Petersburg of the tsars, commits an act of murder and theft, he sets into motion a story that is…

The Remains of the Day

By Kazuo Ishiguro,

Book cover of The Remains of the Day

Why did I love this book?

This engaging novel centers on Stevens, a most committed and loyal butler, whose life and career are unequivocally dedicated to his employer, Lord Darlington. 

Set predominately in 1930s England, The Remains of the Day is very much a character study, focusing on Stevens’ utter commitment to his work, a trade also shared by his aging father, while keeping his personal longings at bay. 

However, these feelings become tested by the arrival of Ms. Kenton, an outgoing housekeeper, who, unlike Stevens, very much needs to express herself, but restrains on the basis of Stevens’ façade, which serves to impede their mutual attraction. 

An additional element of intrigue to this story is the unsavory engagements of Lord Darlington, which ultimately forces Stevens to question his lifelong commitment to him.   

By Kazuo Ishiguro,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked The Remains of the Day as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel Klara and the Sun is now available to preorder*

The Remains of the Day won the 1989 Booker Prize and cemented Kazuo Ishiguro's place as one of the world's greatest writers. David Lodge, chairman of the judges in 1989, said, it's "a cunningly structured and beautifully paced performance". This is a haunting evocation of lost causes and lost love, and an elegy for England at a time of acute change. Ishiguro's work has been translated into more than forty languages and has sold millions of copies worldwide.

Stevens, the long-serving butler of Darlington Hall, embarks on…

Being There

By Jerzy Kosinski,

Book cover of Being There

Why did I love this book?

Chance is an illiterate gardener with childlike social limitations who, nevertheless, through being forced to move from the residence he has known for much of his adult life, is let out into the world and, thus, stumbles into the life of a respected political advisor (Rand).

As a result of this association, his scant vocabulary and phrasing eventually becomes mistaken for wisdom – and soon he becomes somewhat of a media phenomenon, despite his mental limitations rendering him incapable of any real awareness of being so.  A truly inspiring idea, depicting in a unique and humorous way how celebrity can so often be created by happenstance, and what the results of it can be.

By Jerzy Kosinski,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Being There as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The hero of this astonishing novel is called Chance - he may be the man of tomorrow. Flung into the real world when his rich benefactor dies, Chance is helped on his life journey by Elizabeth Eve, the young, beautiful, resourceful wife of a dying Wall Street mogul. Accidentally launched into a world of sex, money, power - and national television - he becomes a media superstar, a household name, the man of the hour - and, who knows, perhaps the next President of the United States of America.


By Arthur Miller,

Book cover of Focus

Why did I love this book?

Focus was the sole novel written by acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller. And while Miller would go on to be known primarily as a dramatist, Focus is an exceptional novel with a timely and engaging premise. 

The protagonist is a somewhat introverted man (Lawrence Newman) who is moderately successful in his field, working in New York City, while residing in Queens. Set in 1945, Focus is set during a particular time of unrest, especially in New York City, where many are resentful of the U.S.’s involvement in WWII. This resentment comes to a head when Lawrence needs to be fitted for glasses due to his developing near-sightedness. 

Yet as a result of how he looks with his glasses, people start to assume that he is Jewish, even though he is not. This misidentification not only leads to him being the unwilling recipient of anti-semitism but also leads to his own resentment of Jews solely as a result of what he experiences. 

The premise of this book is striking and it sheds light on a certain hostility that many might not know existed among Americans, particularly New Yorkers. Miller shows great economy in this work, which is short at under 300 pages, but it packs a punch regardless. 

Unfortunately, this book is currently out of print, and is even difficult to find used – therefore, one’s best bet may be the library. Nevertheless, it is a very worthy read.

By Arthur Miller,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Written in 1945, Focus was Arthur Miller's first novel and one of the first books to directly confront American anti-Semitism. It remains as chilling and incisive today as it was at the time of its controversial debut. As World War II draws to a close, anti-Semitism is alive and well in Brooklyn, New York. Here, Newman, an American of English descent, floats through a world of multiethnic neighborhoods indifferent to the racism around him. That is, until he begins to wear glasses that render him "Jewish" in the eyes of others, making him the target of anti-Semitic prosecution. As he…

The Stranger

By Albert Camus,

Book cover of The Stranger

Why did I love this book?

Camus’ 1942 classic short novel, The Stranger, focuses on a protagonist who, not unlike other protagonists in this list, has certain emotional limitations.  However, in the character of Meursault, Camus’ main character has a particular desensitization from tragic events in his life, which culminates when he is tried for shooting a man, otherwise referred to in the book as “the Arab”. 

The emotional removal that Meursault exhibits throughout this unusual and engaging character study becomes the ultimate focus of his trial, as others reflect on his emotional disconnection from various aspects of his life, including his own mother’s funeral, to which he had displayed little more than apathy. 

The Stranger is astonishing in its depiction of a traditionally “unlikable” character who nevertheless we follow in the hopes of some sort of catharsis.  

By Albert Camus,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Stranger as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With the intrigue of a psychological thriller, The Stranger—Camus's masterpiece—gives us the story of an ordinary man unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach. With an Introduction by Peter Dunwoodie; translated by Matthew Ward.

Behind the subterfuge, Camus explores what he termed "the nakedness of man faced with the absurd" and describes the condition of reckless alienation and spiritual exhaustion that characterized so much of twentieth-century life. 

“The Stranger is a strikingly modern text and Matthew Ward’s translation will enable readers to appreciate why Camus’s stoical anti-hero and ­devious narrator remains one of the key expressions of…

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