“Favorite” is a bold claim, and not one I like to use in the singular sense. But I’m going out on a limb today to talk about a favorite—perhaps my very favorite—sort of book, the kind I informally label as “emotionally resonant fiction.”
If you’ve hung out around here for long, this comes as no surprise, as this sort of realistic fiction consistently fills my favorite books of the year lists and I shared many such titles in our recent What Should I Read Next episode devoted to my best books of the year.
These books don’t slot neatly into any one section of the bookstore—I can find it in contemporary or literary, sometimes in fantasy or YA—but I know it when I see—er, read—it.
These are the stories that make me think of Emily of New Moon and her experience of “the flash.” Have you read her? The Emily trilogy is LM Montgomery’s lesser-known (though, I’d like to think, not less-loved) counterpart to the Anne of Green Gables series. Emily, an aspiring writer, called “the flash” her poor description for a feeling she could not name—though she knew that “when the flash came to her Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.”
In my own version of Emily’s flash—which captures beauty, of course, but also plenty of pain—these stories hold moments of piercing insight into what it means to be human, appealing to my mind and heart by capturing exactly how life isor how I imagine it could be. Sometimes an author is able to put into words an emotional truth I’ve experienced for myself but have never been able to articulate myself, making me think, Yes, that’s it. Sometimes an author, through the power of fiction, is able to take me deep inside the minds and experiences of characters whose lives bear little resemblance to my own. A friend once described my favorite books as “real people, real problems.” Sounds about right.
These are often stories of high stakes—although with the fiction I’m most drawn to, the threat is likely not the potential end of the world but the end of a relationship. And the richness of my reading experience comes not just from the story and its characters but how I experience those things: it’s as though I can feel that moment when their heart is in their throat (as in Tara M. Stringfellow’s Memphis), or threatens to break entirely (as in Maggie O’Farrell’s After You’d Gone), or the breathless, complicated relief of a near miss (as in Susan Conley’s Landslide), or the perfect symmetry of a triumphant, full-circle ending when they get what they need and sometimes what they want, too (as in Lily King’s Writers and Lovers, and Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, and Marjan Kamali’s The Stationery Shop, and basically every book on this list).
(Of course an emotionally resonant novel can end in total devastation—but those are rarely my favorites.)
Different things evoke that sense of emotional resonance—that flash of insight that makes you think, Yes, this is how it is—in different readers. These connections are often deeply personal, and may come down to specificity of circumstance and timing. For you it could be love or work or faith or a certain sort of loss. For me, the stories with the most emotional resonance often come in the form of a novel about a family in a tricky situation.
Today I’m sharing a small collection of adult fiction (though I could go on all day, truly), but I’ve felt this way about YA books (Julie Buxbaum’s Tell Me Three Things and Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X spring immediately to mind), and plenty of memoirs generate that sense of the flash: Suleika Jaouad’s Between Two Kingdoms, Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart, Tambi Locke’s From Scratch, and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, for starters.
We read Kamali’s poignant novel together in the MMD Book Club in 2019, and it remains one of our group’s favorites to this day, meaning I’m not the only one who appreciates an emotionally resonant novel. In 1953 Tehran, a young man failed to meet his betrothed in a Tehran square. Sixty years later and half a world away, the woman, now grown old, is about to discover why. This sweeping love story spans 60 years and two continents, taking the reader between contemporary New England and 1953 Tehran, thoroughly immersing the reader in the volatile political climate of 1950s Iran. More info →
I love sibling stories and meaty family sagas, as well as stories told with a reflective, wistful tone. This one delivers on all counts. Cyril Conroy means to surprise his wife with the Dutch House, a grand old mansion outside of Philadelphia. But a symbol of wealth and success for some is a symbol of greed and excess to others—including, crucially, Cyril’s wife—and the family falls apart over the purchase. In alternating timelines, we get the whole story, over five decades, from Cyril’s son Danny. The ending is perfection. More info →
This novel follows aspiring writer Casey Peabody, who is mourning the sudden death of her mother, plus a messy break-up, in 1997 Massachusetts. Lost without direction, 31-year-old Casey waits tables to make ends meet while she works on her novel in a cramped and dingy rented room. While her friends have given up on their artistic ambitions in favor of stability and the next phase of life, Casey still harbors creative dreams and firmly grasps her youth. When she finds herself in the middle of a love triangle, it becomes all the more difficult to balance her art with “real life,” and she just might reach her breaking point. I absolutely adored the exuberant ending. More info →
When her husband is confined to a Nova Scotia hospital after a terrible fishing accident, a mother not much older than me is left to parent her teenage boys—”the wolves”—alone. But things have been hard for a while now: in this insular Maine fishing community, the fish aren’t biting like they once did. Money is perpetually tight. Not long before, the family was dealt a terrible blow, and one son is still wracked by grief. And even absent an immediate crisis, parenting teenage boys is grueling. I did not want to put this down, although I paused many times along the way to text my fellow parents of teenage boys. I loved the bracing portrayal of a family on the brink, the gripping tone that says with every line I’m not sure how I’ll get through this. My whole heart was wrapped up in this short family story. More info →
I’m an O’Farrell completist, and this, her 2000 debut, may be my favorite of her older works. Told from multiple points of view, in multiple timelines, it took me a few chapters to find my footing, but once I did I blew through this compelling mix of love story, mystery, and compelling family saga. You should know that terrible, seemingly random tragedies beset characters in O’Farrell’s novels, yet in her plots these surprising turns don’t feel cheap, but all too true to our own real life experiences. (As one character muses, “Why isn’t life better designed so it warns you when terrible things are about to happen?”) More info →
Stringfellow’s grandfather was a World War II veteran who served as the first Black homicide detective in Memphis—before being lynched by his own all-white police squad. Her grandmother was among the first Black nurses in Memphis. This dual legacy of excellence and injustice permeates the novel as it traces a legacy of violence and matriarchal strength through three generations of Black women living in this historic city from 1937 to 2003, unflinchingly portraying both its strong communities and grim history of racism and violence. Readers should know this novel depicts horrifying events, yet it also lovingly and fiercely conveys the resilience, grit, love, and even joy of these women and their community. More info →
What is your experience with emotionally resonant fiction? Is this a category that speaks to you? What novels have evoked that feeling of the flash for you?