The best time-jumping novels with multiple protagonists

Molly Patterson Author Of Rebellion
By Molly Patterson

Who am I?

I’ve always loved “big books,” novels that are described as sagas and chronicles yet whose primary focus is on singular, nuanced characters. I like seeing the ways that lives intersect and reflect each other across decades, and I enjoy being immersed in one world and then dropped, with the turn of a page, into another equally engrossing one. I am the author of the novel Rebellion as well as numerous short stories and essays. Raised in St. Louis, Missouri, I spent several years living in China and a year as the Writer-in-Residence at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C. I now live in Wisconsin, where I write and teach creative writing.

I wrote...


By Molly Patterson,

Book cover of Rebellion

What is my book about?

Two sisters at the end of the nineteenth century embark on very different journeys, one to China as a missionary, the other to the flat landscape of Illinois as a farmer’s wife. Six decades later, a daughter fights to maintain control of the farm in the aftermath of her husband’s untimely death. As the twentieth century turns to the twenty-first, a young woman finds her Chinese town rapidly changing, even as she feels frozen in place. Each woman, constricted by the expectations of family and society, faces a choice whose consequences reverberate through the years. A vibrant story set against a century of complicated relations between China and America, Rebellion portrays with compassion and complexity those who pursue their own thrilling fate.

The books I picked & why

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White Teeth

By Zadie Smith,

Book cover of White Teeth

Why this book?

Zadie Smith published this novel when she was only twenty-five, a fact that fills me with envy and awe—it’s too good to have been written by someone so young! I first met it when I was about the same age, have returned to it many times, and only love the book more each time I read it. The voice is big and daring and outrageously funny. The characters are real in both the loveliest and cringiest of ways. The novel spans centuries and at least three continents, but what I love most about the book is its verve: you never know where the narrative is going to take you next. 

The Hundred-Year House

By Rebecca Makkai,

Book cover of The Hundred-Year House

Why this book?

Some time-jumping novels take you all over the globe. Others unearth the history of a single place. Rebecca Makkai’s novel takes the latter approach and pushes it to the extreme: its setting is a house in a suburb of Chicago, which, as a Midwesterner, I am bound to be excited about. Moving backward through time, the book is a masterpiece in terms of construction, but Makkai’s touch is so light she makes it feel easy. I stayed up late several nights in a row rereading this book recently, and given that I’ve got three kids under the age of five, that should tell you everything you need to know.

China Men

By Maxine Hong Kingston,

Book cover of China Men

Why this book?

I first read Maxine Hong Kingston in college, but I can’t remember if I was assigned China Men or The Woman Warrior (the more famous counterpoint to China Men). All I know is that whichever one I read, I loved it so much that I immediately sought out the companion piece, which I also loved. In China Men, Kingston weaves together fiction and nonfiction, history and myth, story and memory. Is it a novel? A tapestry? I’m not quite sure what to call it, and that’s part of what I love about the book. Brief interludes of two or three pages present a single scene; longer stories narrate entire sagas. I love that this volume covers so much literal ground but ultimately feels incredibly personal.

Build Your House Around My Body

By Violet Kupersmith,

Book cover of Build Your House Around My Body

Why this book?

Not many books are both frightening and funny, but Kupersmith’s debut novel certainly checks those boxes for me. Like Winnie, a young American in Vietnam, I taught English abroad for a couple of years in my early twenties, and I laughed in recognition of her experiences and outlook early in the novel. But as I turned the pages, I found myself more and more spooked by the hauntings and possessions (not to mention the snakes), and ultimately very moved by the characters and plot. Kupersmith lays out several narratives and then plaits them together, but it’s so gradual that you don’t see how enmeshed all the characters are until you’re neck-deep in the book. It’s horror and humor and history, all rolled into one.

The Plague of Doves

By Louise Erdrich,

Book cover of The Plague of Doves

Why this book?

I can never decide which of Erdrich’s books is my favorite, but The Plague of Doves is definitely a major contender. Erdrich’s novelistic style is more like a chorus than a solo: she presents various stories involving different characters in different times, but the stories are in orbit around the central conflict, in this case, a pair of horrific crimes committed long ago. Yet even when the content is dark, her writing is so beautiful that my primary feeling reading it is joy. For me, the title of this book perfectly captures that contradictory experience. 

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