Every artist has their magnum opus–the greatest work of their career. For Nobel Prize winner John Steinback, this was East of Eden. Set in the fruitful lands of Salinas Valley, the novel follows two families whose destinies intertwine, and explores the everlasting human search for identity and love. If you found yourself drawn to Steinback’s multi-generational family drama, here are some titles that should be on your reading list.
1. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
It’s hard to think of a novel more absorbed into American culture than Gone with the Wind. A 2014 poll found it to be the second favorite book of American readers, immediately behind the Bible. The novel takes place in Georgia during and after the American Civil War. It follows the story of young Scarlett O’Hara, a spoiled daughter of a rich plantation owner. The events of Sherman’s March to the Sea, a military campaign led against the Confederacy, disrupt her life and deprive her of wealth. But Scarlet is determined to find a way out of poverty.
Mitchell’s novel is a coming-of-age story that captures the essence of the culture of the South. It was adapted into the 1939 movie starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, which received the Academy Award for Best Picture and is considered one of the greatest movies ever made.
2. We, the Drowned, by Carsten Jensen
We, the Drowned is an epic tale about family, unrequited love, violence, and the destructive power of the sea. Spanning four generations and two world wars, the novel focuses on the inhabitants of Marstal, a small port town in Denmark. Marstal’s men set off to sail the world and fight the enemy, leaving their women and children behind and engaging in numerous adventures on the high seas. Not all of them come back, and those who do are never the same.
Filled with humor and terror, We, the Drowned is a tribute to Jensen’s hometown. Through the eyes of various characters, readers see Marstal’s development through wars and industrialization, leading up to the creation of modern Denmark.
3. Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich
Erdrich’s debut novel Love Medicine is set on fictional Ojibwe reservations in Minnesota and North Dakota, and it follows the lives of five Native American families. Encompassing the period from the 1930s to the 1980s, this collection of stories delves deep into the characters’ lives. They explore land and tribal identity, folklore, mythology, but also love, injustice, and betrayal. And when you add magic and humor to the mix, you have a recipe for an instant classic!
4. One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez
One of the most influential novels of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a multi-generational story about the Buendía family in the fictional town of Macondo. The novel begins with José Arcadio Buendía and his wife Úrsula leaving Columbia and founding the town of Macondo on the side of the river. Soon after its foundation, Macondo becomes the setting of extraordinary events that carry on throughout the seven generations of the Buendía family. Márquez explores the discrepancy between the need for love and desire to be alone. He crafts a captivating tale that’s grounded in reality but also features magical elements–a genre known as magical realism.
5. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
A Prayer for Owen Meany follows an 11-year-old John Wheelwright and his best friend Owen Meany as they grow up together in a small New Hampshire town. According to John, Owen is an exceptional boy with an unquestioned belief in the purpose of all things. He considers himself to be an instrument of God, destined to fulfill the fate he imagined for himself. During a Little League baseball game, Owen hits a foul ball and accidentally kills John’s mother. Owen doesn’t believe in accidents, and the ill-fated game sets his life on a new course, full of self-delusion, comedy, and tragedy.
6. Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernières
The famed author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernières once again delivers a powerful story about individuals swept away by historical events outside their control. The novel is set in a small village in Anatolia, as the Ottoman Empire slowly vanishes. Various characters narrate the story and express their own point of view: a beautiful Christian girl Philothei; her fiance Ibrahim (a Muslim boy); Rustem Bey, a wealthy (and brokenhearted) agha; Leyla, his Circassian mistress (with a big secret); and more. Their stories unfold against the backdrop of World War I and growing Turkish nationalism, with life-changing consequences.
7. The Razor’s Edge, by William Somerset Maugham
William Somerset Maugham was one of the most popular writers of his era, and his vast opus contains many gems, such as The Razor’s Edge. The novel centers on Larry Darrell, an American pilot traumatized by his experiences in World War I. After getting wounded and losing a comrade, Larry returns home from the war determined to change his ways and rise above the materialistic side of life. His search for spiritual meaning is at odds with the conventional lives people close to him lead, including his fiancée Isabel and her snobbish uncle Elliot. Maugham himself is a minor character in the novel, a writer who occasionally appears to witness the struggles of the main protagonists.
8. The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver’s bestselling novel The Poisonwood Bible is a story about a devoted evangelical baptist named Nathan Price. He takes his family to the Belgian Congo in 1959, with the intent to bring enlightenment to African people. The story is narrated by Nathan’s wife Orleanna and their four daughters. Over the course of three decades, the four girls grow up and evolve in different ways. They acclimate to life in an African village and deal with the political upheaval in Congo during the 1960s. Kingsolver explores the clash between western imperialism and local culture, depicting the good and the bad of both sides and reminding readers to keep an open mind and an open heart.
9. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dostoevsky’s last novel The Brothers Karamazov is a philosophical piece that deals with the questions of morality, free will, and God. It combines several genres, featuring elements of murder mystery, courtroom drama, and romance.
The novel focuses on the lives of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov and his three sons–Dimitri, Ivan, and Alexei. The three brothers are very different–the eldest son Dimitri is impulsive and hedonistic, while Ivan is rational, isolated, and intellectually bright. Alexei, the youngest, is a wide-eyed, immensely likable boy whose faith in God contrasts the atheism of his brother Ivan. Fyodor Karamazov takes no interest in his sons, and their fractured relationship is at the core of the story, set against the social and political climate of 19th-century Russia.
10. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
An epic of the frontier, Lonesome Dove depicts the relationship among several aging Texas Rangers as they drive a cattle herd from Texas to Montana. On their last great adventure, the grumpy Rangers come in contact with a variety of colorful characters, from bandits to heroes, as they face the cold, stormy weather. In his novel, McMurtry explores themes of friendship, unrequited love, aging, and death. He creates an authentic, dramatic, and joyous story that stands as a landmark of the American West. Lonesome Dove was adapted as a TV miniseries in 1989 starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall.
11. Roots: The Saga of an American Family, by Alex Haley
Published in 1976, Roots: The Saga of an American Family has enthralled and provoked readers ever since. The novel is based on Haley’s family history and it tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th century African. He was captured, sold as a slave, and transported to North America when he was 17. The novel depicts Kinte’s life as well as the lives of his descendants in America, all the way down to Haley.
Haley spent 10 years researching his family history and traveling across three continents before he was able to uncover the full story of his ancestors. The result is an electrifying read that spurred the interest in African American genealogy and increased the level of appreciation for African-American history. The novel isn’t just about black and white people–it’s dedicated to people of all races as a testament to humanity’s unyielding nature.