The Hours

Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. Picador (New York: 1998).

The HoursBrilliant novel that weaves together the lives of three women: Virginia Wolfe, the author; Clarissa, a modern day Mrs. Dalloway (as a gay, 1990’s New Yorker); and Laura, a depressed 1950’s housewife who is reading Mrs. Dalloway. Wolfe’s struggles with mental illness are depicted with haunting insight. Death bookends the novel as Clarissa faces the suicide of Richard, her dear, gifted, terminally ill friend. Yet despite all the depression and death, this book, like Mrs. Dalloway herself, manages to celebrate life. For writers: A tour-de-force demonstration of reimagining. Cunningham has created something new that is moving and profound in its own right, while paying homage to a classic.

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Digging to America

Tyler, Anne. Digging to America. Vintage Books (London: 2007).

Digging to AmericaOne of the milder of Tyler’s novels, centered around a set of character studies. Iranian immigrant Maryam realizes that she’s defined herself as an outsider — and yet somehow, in spite of herself, she becomes part of an unlikely pairing of families, and comes to care about the very type of Americans that she thinks she’ll never understand. For writers: Less is more here, but it works. The problems have an everyday quality, but the people are brought to life with such particularity in how they act and what they say, that we can’t help becoming invested in them. Like Maryam, we end up caring about these characters, in a deft application of “show, don’t tell.”

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Memoirs of a Geisha

Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a Geisha. Vintage Contemporaries, Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc. (New York: 1997).

Memoirs of a GeishaWritten as if it were a memoir, this novel about a girl sold out of her home to be trained as a geisha is well crafted, imaginative, full of tension, and by turns funny and sad to the point of tears. For writers: The first person voice rings true throughout, with even the metaphors confined to the exotic but narrow world of this girl. The attention to historical detail is remarkable. But what impressed me most was how, even with extended interiority, this author made me want to keep turning the page. The tension is increased by how deep we go, as her personal stakes become ours.

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