The best books with multiple timelines

The Books I Picked & Why

Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel

By Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel

Why this book?

This was the first Vonnegut book I ever read and, as with lovers, you never forget your first. All of Vonnegut's books have cleverness and an inimitable style, but he's also a humanist and there's a striking morality that undercuts his satire and humor. Don't believe you bookseller: though technically sci-fi, Slaughterhouse-Five defies easy categorization and would be equally at home in plenty of genres. The weaving of fiction and autofiction is surprisingly modern while the anti-war themes remain sadly relevant. I also love the book purely for its craft. The key to a good multiple timeline story is to weave them all together so they have a chance to inform each other in exciting and unexpected ways. 


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Arcadia

By Tom Stoppard

Arcadia

Why this book?

I don't usually recommend reading plays without first seeing them on stage - remind that teacher trying to make you read Shakespeare that plays are meant to be performed - but Arcadia is such a strong script that I'm going to make an exception. It's one of Stoppard's greatest achievements (the other being Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) and it's so fiercely clever in the way it toys with its two storylines. One is set in 1809 and the other in 1993 and, naturally, the actions in the past end up influencing the ones in the future. The dialogue is a delight and Stoppard explores a vast array of intellectual ideas while never losing sight of the emotional truth of his characters. Still, if you can track down a production, make sure to check it out since, like any play, it only reaches its full potential when the actors, designers, and other artists all get involved. 


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The Hours

By Michael Cunningham

The Hours

Why this book?

This was one of those books I picked up early one night and read in one shot, a rare phenomenon for me in our age of distraction. It's a good way to experience the book because there's so much stream-of-consciousness and, while it has chapters, it's better not to break the flow. The book is complex and serves as a great companion piece to Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. However, you don't really need to know Mrs. Dalloway to appreciate this book (I didn't my first time through) and Cunningham skillfully weaves the various storylines together while drawing enough thematic connections to fill a few master's theses. 


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Where the Crawdads Sing

By Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads Sing

Why this book?

The book's popularity since its publication is well-deserved. Owens does a terrific job intertwining the two timelines of the story as the life of Kyra, a "marsh girl" slowly starts to context to a murder investigation in which Kya becomes a suspect. As someone who loves looking at how stories are structured, the novel gave me the same pleasure that, I suppose, a composer must have when dissecting an elegant composition. The non-linear structure adds suspense and tension to the overall story and allows for plenty of strong surprises. 


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The Great Believers

By Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers

Why this book?

Told across several decades, Makkai's book leaps between 2015 and 1980s Chicago, allowing for a poignant story that weaves the fictional characters with historical events, chiefly the 1980s AIDS crisis. Again, the book tells a compelling story written with elegant prose while also being a delight from a craft perspective. I love epic novels that take place over many years and the decision to tell the story in a non-linear fashion is a rewarding one when handled with this sort of skill. 


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