If you’re looking for more books like Pride and Prejudice, which experience do you want to repeat?
If you’re looking for another literary masterpiece, try Peace Like a River or Hannah Coulter. If you’re drawn to novels that excel in character and plot, read The Widows of Malabar Hill or The Virginian. If you’re intrigued by the era of swishing skirts, pick up Little Women or Sense and Sensibility.
Some books rise to the top, even within an author’s own body of work. The right idea and the right characters hit at the right time in history to catapult a literary work to the top of the heap.
Pinning down the reasons why a certain book captures the collective imagination of readers for generations can be a slippery business. There’s mystery and magic behind it that can’t be bottled and sold, no matter what the writing experts say.
What is it about Pride and Prejudice that we love so much?
Certainly it’s the likability of the main characters. Who can resist opinionated, impulsive, fiercely loyal Lizzie Bennett and aloof, misunderstood, hiding a heart of gold Mr. Darcy? Really, they’re people you’d like to have move in down the street to become your best friends. In addition, the plot and pacing of the novel works well.
I think modern women are also drawn to the time and place: the era of swishing skirts. There’s something compelling about the notion of chivalry and defending a woman’s honor. A time and place when society dictated different roles and expectations for women than exist now. I think it intrigues us.
Then, it’s also beautifully written, a literary masterpiece. The courtly, formal language, the gorgeous prose and the depiction of human nature so vivid we can pull from our memories acquaintances who resemble Jane Austen’s characters.
The qualities you love most about Austen’s classic determines which list you choose for your next great read.
Another Literary Masterpiece
Some writers create such gorgeous works that you have to call them art. All the elements of greatness capture the admiration of readers across decades and centuries.
Only a few can pull it off. Even fewer can do it repeatedly.
When you stumble across a literary masterpiece, all you can do is stand in awe and admire it like an exquisite painting.
I made a list of my favorites. The time periods vary. The characters and stories vary. What they have in common is beautiful writing.
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
Eleven year old Rueben narrates this novel. He lives with his father, his older brother Davy and younger sister Swede in Minnesota.
When crisis hits, the family strikes out on a westward journey in search of family, faith and healing.
Just the prescription needed to restore your faith in humanity and the supernatural. A story that transcends the mundane of daily life. Brilliant. Currently my favorite novel.
Jewel by Bret Lott
Jewel is one of my favorite novels of all time. Based on the story of the author’s grandmother, it’s one of the best literary depictions I’ve found of a mother’s fierce love for her child in the midst of prejudice and ignorance.
“It is 1943 in the backwoods of Mississippi. In the land of honeysuckle and wild grapevine, Jewel Hilburn and her husband Leston – whose love for his wife is the surest comfort she’s ever known – are truly blessed. They have five fine children who embrace the world as though it were a sumptuous table set for a feast; and when Brenda Kay is born, Jewel gives thanks for yet another healthy baby, last-born and most welcome.”
“Bret Lott has created one of the finest and most indomitable heroines of contemporary American fiction.”–Goodreads
I think it resonates with every mother who has struggled to help a child navigate a lonely and little understood journey. Mothers make sacrifices for their kids as a rite of passage.
Bret Lott describes this journey and it’s ripple effects so beautifully for me it was soul-touching.
Beautifully crafted. A pleasure to read.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is captivating and compelling. It’s hard not to love Francie Nolan. It’s hard not to get emotionally involved with her.
Just like all the great novels, if this one is for you, your own world melts away and you’re transported to turn of the century Brooklyn. You can feel Francie’s embarrassment, her financial insecurity, her need to be protected from the dregs of society.
Francie Nolan develops the grit and humanity she needs to survive her tumultuous life.
Francie lives and breathes as surely as all the brilliantly written heroines of fiction.
Masterfully written. A joy to read.
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
Hannah Coulter takes the panoramic view of a person’s life, the progression of a lifetime.
Sometimes when we sit down to a novel, we are looking for perspective, to find meaning for the daily grind. We need to see that what we do day after day matters. Hannah Coulter gives us a clue. For many women, all those meals cooked, all the time serving and caring others adds up to a lifetime of meaning.
Then there’s the small town, rural community. I think our deep longing for community resonates with what happens in small, rural towns where people know each other and care for each other, where lives intertwine in romance, conflict, partnership, friendship and commerce. And no man lives as an island, no matter how solitary they choose to live their lives.
Finally, there’s the strong female protagonist in Hannah Coulter. You might not realize she’s strong. Not at first. She’s the type of woman that is the glue of a community. Keeping her family together. Working the long hours to grow, process and prepare the food that keeps the whole engine running. She tends to the sick, stands by her man and brings up her children. She’s the backbone, the unsung hero. Being unassuming makes it hard to recognize her as strong.
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
So many of the elements of Hannah Coulter are in Jayber Crow, even the same rural small town with the same citizens.
The complexity of human relationships is a theme here and where one fits in the pecking order of society.
The main character, Jayber, is a likable character and the story traces his earliest years to his latest. He loses his parents early in life, and even though he moves away, an almost magnetic force brings him back to the community of his roots.
I admit feeling conflicted the first time I read this novel. I liked it better the second time.
The Chosen by Chaim Potok
Chaim Potok brilliantly captures the internal struggles of two boys growing up in Jewish homes in New York City beginning in the 40s.
There’s clashes with their fathers, wrestling with what they believe about faith, community, family and their own future. Potak so vividly paints the world he grew up in, it feels like you were dropped onto the sizzling New York City asphalt yourself.
It contains less a plot and more a journey.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
I can’t remember the last time a novel made me cry. This one did.
Ove is near the end of his life, but this novel takes us back to his family, his first love and his losses. It is a bittersweet exploration of what really matters in relationships and what gets in the way.
Love, friendship, community and social awkwardness. It’s the recipe for a great novel and demonstrates in brilliant colors that no man is an island.
Novels that Excel in Character and Plot
One of the great literary debates is whether a novel is plot driven or character driven.
Maybe it’s an overgeneralization, but novels from the last century tend to be rich in characters with slow moving, almost non-existent plot.
Novels from this century tend to be about action, what happens, without worrying too much about developing rich, deep, well-rounded characters.
What if a novelist can do both equally well? I consider that a real feat and I stand in awe. Relatable well-rounded characters that show growth from the beginning of the novel till the end plus an unpredictable, well-paced and sufficiently complex plot makes an over-the-top winner in my book.
The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
Based of the life of the first female lawyer in Bombay.
Not only does this fictional account weave a riveting tale, it highlights the culture and customs of 1920’s India.
Limited educational opportunities, arranged marriages, gender segregation and inequalities. These were real obstacles.
Navigating that world and winning is a real feat.
Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
Maise Dobbs is a detective in Vitorian London. Coming from modest means, she is indebted to her benefactors for her education and mentoring.
The work of a sleuth is different in the days before cell phones and fingerprints. An ability to understand human nature and get to the truth are the skills that are needed.
Independent and likable, Maise Dobbs is a heroine to cheer for and skillful plotting of the story keeps you turning pages.
When Crickets Cry by Charles Martin
Reese first meets little Annie Stephens at her lemonade stand. It doesn’t take long to see that she’s fighting serious health issues while fiercely holding to a dream of a long and healthy life. She’s lost her parents and lives with her aunt.
Reese is hiding from his past life in the medical profession.
The plot could be considered predictable, but the journey to get there is so enjoyable. Charles Martin has the magic touch to draw you in and practically force you to fall in love with his characters.
Christy by Catherine Marshall
The setting is rural, but can hardly be called small town. Set in the mountains of Kentucky, Christy is the school teacher to children who don’t always wear shoes, who don’t always have the means to pack a lunch.
Confronted with a culture so different from the one she grew up in, Christy is forced to examine her own beliefs about life. She also discovers deciding who to love can be difficult.
Classic for a reason, Christy will draw you in to the pathos and the drama of the human condition.
The Virginian by Owen Wister
Owen Wister has been credited with starting the genre of the Western, with his story of the unnamed cowboy, the Virginian.
Wister explores the justice of the newly settle West, the relationships, the quest for man to build their own kingdoms and fence them. The country was captivated by the tales of the people who lived untamed lives on untamed land.
The Era of Swishing Skirts
I think there’s something appealing about any era when expansive, floor-length dresses were part of daily life.
Certainly men’s and women’s roles were different in those periods of history. Even though women’s opportunities were restricted, there’s something that resonates with a culture where fathers, brothers and uncles defended a woman’s honor and improprieties were scandals. Maybe we like the idea that there was a society where virtue was prized, whether that reality actually existed or not.
Part of the appeal of fiction is the ability to slip into a world more beautiful than where we currently live. Maybe it’s a longing for heaven.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Austin fans often agree that Pride and Prejudice tops the list as the author’s greatest work. What comes in the number two slot can be debated. Some prefer Emma, others Persuasion.
I vote for Sense and Sensibility.
After the death of their father, the three Dashwood sisters, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret and their widowed mother must leave the family estate and dwell in a humble cottage.
Of course, the suitors come to call. Finding income to sustain the family is a constant challenge. Each of the sisters navigates their way in the midst of the challenge.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
This is a wildly funny story. Written as a play, it has great characters plus an interesting plot. The dialogue is so engaging, little narration is needed.
Young adults who wrestle with matters of the heart and older adults who counsel them but also struggle with secrets of the past. The story is filled with lovable caricatures of real people who espouse theories so ridiculous it makes you chuckle.
Young people in love and decades old secrets set the stage for a good story. Hilarious dialogue and intriguing subterfuge add the ingredients for Wilde’s masterpiece. Sometimes a great work of art is just a matter of having all the pieces of the puzzle. This one has it.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
A classic for a reason, generations have grown up with the escapades of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy.
Patterned after the author’s own home life, the stories of the four sisters ring true. Each sister is endearing in their own way.
The author seems to plumb the depth of virtually every human emotion from humiliation to fierce devotion to utter despair. Timelessly relatable.
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Anne is a herione universally loved by girls and remembered fondly by women. Of course, so much of the charm is Anne herself–spunky, competitive, fiercely loyal, throughly human.
And who can resist Gilbert Bythe who shows his affection in the manner of red blooded boys everywhere?
But some of the appeal of Anne is the wistfulness of small town community where the gossips whisper and pass judgment and the sons and daughters marry their neighbors and hearts are broken never to see healing through the decades.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Mr. Walter Hartwright, a drawing master, is employed by the Fairlie family to teach the two young ladies of the house. En route to his assignment, he has a strange midnight encounter with a mysterious woman dressed all in white.
The setting is 1800s England, where social class, nobility, fortunes gained and lost and rural community gossip rules the day.
Maybe because I have an overdeveloped sense of moral justice, I found this novel to be satisfying.
I wouldn’t say that the characters were highly developed, but by the end they were relatable and certainly honorable. It fully satiated my desire to sojourn in the era of swishing skirts.
The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
Valancy Stirling, age 29, lives with her mother and aunt. She’s stifled by the expectations of her relatives and her coping method is to build a dream castle in her imagination.
One day she receives unexpected news that radically changes her outlook. With new freedom, she throws off convention to begin living her own life.
Throughly relatable to anyone who’s ever daydreamed and wished they could walk away from stifling convention.
Have you read the other posts in the Read Alike series?
Find more great books in Books Like Hannah Coulter.
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