If you’ve been reading this blog, perhaps you’ve got a sense of my quirky taste in fiction, including my predilection for historical fiction. I tend to read about as many nonfiction books as I do novels, and I probably read almost as many mysteries and thrillers as I do the other two categories together. (No, I don’t include books fairly labeled as mysteries of thrillers in the novel category, even if they’re exceedingly good.)
With fair warning, then, that the following list consists entirely of historical novels, here (in alphabetical order by author) are the books that most convincingly and thoroughly catapulted me into another place and time and made me feel as I though I’d had the opportunity to become acquainted with people I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to meet:
- Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book. Brooks follows the history of the legendary Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated Sephardic manuscript created in 14th Century Barcelona, from the Inquisition through Nazi-dominated Europe and the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. This tale spans continents and centuries yet somehow manages to retain its coherence and narrative power.
- E. L. Doctorow, Homer & Langley. Doctorow’s infatuation with the history of New York combines with his brilliant style to bring this quirky tale to life. The two brothers who are the protagonists of this novel were once front-page news in the city and may well be the prototypes of the mythical urban hermits who live for years in solitude in the midst of ever-growing mounds of newspapers and trash that climb to the ceiling in every room of their home. Doctorow somehow makes them both credible and sympathetic, and in following their stories over the decades between the two World Wars casts light on the vibrant and growing organism that was New York City in that era.
- Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies. This sprawling tale of life in the Raj in the years leading up to the Opium Wars with China is pure delight for any lover of the English language. Ghosh’s many characters speak the authentic dialects of the age, with rhythmic cadences and colorful word choices that evoke the lifestyles of sailors, opium traders, farmers, and their British overlords.
- Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl. Perhaps some day the age of the Tudors will lose its fascination for novelists and historians, but it’s difficult to imagine that. In this immensely complicated story peopled by dozens of characters, Gregory re-tells the now-familiar tale of Anne Boleyn’s rise and fall in mid-16th Century England from the perspective of her sister, Mary, who preceded her as King Henry VIII’s mistress. This is one of Gregory’s many historical novels about the lives, loves, and intrigues of the English court during that fateful period.
- Dennis Lehane, The Given Day. Lehane illuminates life and politics in Boston in the years following World War I by interweaving the stories of two remarkable families, one white and one black. He mingles their stories with those of historic figures, including Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge, W.E.B. DuBois, and Attorney General Mitchell Palmer. In The Given Day, the harsh reality of that time — the influenza epidemic, the Red Scare, the Boston Police Strike of 1919 — leave the pages of the history books and become human events, fraught with life-and-death consequences.
- Jill Lepore and Jane Kamensky, Blindspot. The authors, professors of history at Boston and Brandeis Universities respectively, depict rough-and-tumble life in Boston in 1764 by unfolding the unlikely story of two lovers caught up in pre-revolutionary politics and a murder trial that spotlights the “blindspot” of the times, slavery. The book is written in the hilarious style and fashion of the novels of the time.
- Robert Littell, The Stalin Epigram. A “serious” novel unlike the spy stories he’s been writing for decades, The Stalin Epigram brilliantly portrays the horrific conditions of life in Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s. The story focuses on Osip Mandelstam, one of Russia’s most illustrious poets, and it reflects Littell’s long career as a reporter for Newsweek, during which he appears to have interviewed many of the real-life characters in this novel.
- Gore Vidal, Burr. Vidal brings to life one of the most fascinating characters in U.S. history: Vice President to Thomas Jefferson, murderer of Alexander Hamilton, and, allegedly, leader of a conspiracy to split the young American nation in two. Vidal’s extraordinary way with words is on display in all its glory in this very satisfying novel.
- Jonathan Rabb, Rosa. Set in Berlin immediately after the end of World War I, Rabb speculates on the mystery of Rosa Luxembourg’s corpse, which disappeared for four months following her execution as a revolutionary in 1919. His agents are two police officers who trace the story of the notorious activist, founder of Germany’s Communist Party, through the nooks and crannies of German society in a time of seemingly unprecedented confusion and upheaval.
- Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife. Sittenfeld imagines the life of Laura Bush, or someone difficult to distinguish from her, as a young woman and later the life of a more-or-less accidental Governor (Wisconsin, not Texas, but hey: something’s got to be different so they can call it fiction). The Governor, of course, becomes President and launches an unpopular war, which reawakens the latent liberalism in the First Lady. Lots of fun, but don’t read it if you’re a Republican.