Favorite books: Everyone has one. Whether it’s War and Peace or The Very Hungry Caterpillar, one is entitled to their own opinion. For a lit major like myself, revealing my choice often results in one of two things: immediate friendship, or thinly veiled judgment.
Another attribution of lit majors is that we can very rarely pick just one. Most of us will offer up a list of five to ten in rotating order, but a few decisive persons may covet one above all. Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, and other cult-followed authors get the majority here, but others choose from the lesser known—as a teenager, I worshipped The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson (whose name, when dropped, is sadly not often picked up on). Nelson’s masterpiece, which to the naked eye appears to be just your average YA novel, actually moved me so much that I vowed to devote myself to writing. I hope that one day, my words will give someone else the feeling that hers gave me. For writers, our beloved first pick often turns out to be the one that inspires us to adopt our trade.
A favorite book may provide us any number of pleasures: a reprieve from the toils of everyday life, a brief glimpse into lives unlived, or, perhaps, a reason to get up in the morning. As comforting to hold as the plush stuffed-animals of youth, the smell of turning pages can bring back memories as redolent as a pie on a windowsill.
Of course, within every choice of novel, there comes yet another divide: the nature of the ending. If you’re like my best friend, who vehemently refuses to read any book that does not end happily, I hope this piece peaks your curiosity of the other side. I am of the opposite propensity: in fact, I love sad endings most of all.
During all icebreakers and getting-to-know-you games, I say that my favorite book is The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. As I believe I mentioned in my introductory blog post when I began here at CambridgeEditors some months ago, I am a consumer of the inexcusably sad; I bask in the melancholy of fiction; I relish tragedy at arms length; I find solace in tragedies that never actually happened, safe in the infinite unreality of the written word. I can’t deny that I find some beauty in the deep blue hues of a broken heart. For this reason, I came very close to proclaiming A Farewell to Arms as my favorite novel, but there is one important difference here. While Hemingway employs a masterfully sad ending, Eugenides’ sadness covers the entire length of the novel in an all-consuming blanket. Beginning with the death of thirteen year old Cecelia, the next few hundred pages are colored with that tragedy, as if it had spread like a drop of paint bleeding onto a clean watercolor canvas. Up to this point in my life, I have found no book that surpasses the delicate dreariness that Eugenides conjures up. It hangs in the air from the very atmosphere, as if in breathing the Lisbon sisters were already doomed.
Of course, sadness for sadness’ sake does not a classic make. Nor is it healthy to admire something solely for this purpose. No need to remind me–I am well aware of the dangers of romanticizing depression. The sense of “masturbatory reminiscence”—as one Goodreads user so aptly complains—that Eugenides employs in his narration actually is there to bother us. In fact, that is just the point he hoped to make. The white, middle-class American boys who witnessed and commented on the deterioration and eventual suicide of the Lisbon girls serves specifically to point out society’s ever-present male gaze, and its toxicity when applied to the lives of teenage girls.
While reading this novel, I thought to myself, My God—a middle-aged man has somehow succeeded in portraying the plight of the teenage girl better than my own middle school diary. I was awed over and over again by the sentences, at once descriptive and analytic, that populated every page:
“At night the cries of cats making love or fighting, their caterwauling in the dark, told us that the world was pure emotion, flung back and forth among its creatures, the agony of the one-eyed Siamese no different from that of the Lisbon girls, and even the trees plunged in feeling.”
I staggered through this novel, mouth agape at how plain the horrors of the sisters lives appeared to the onlookers surrounding them on all sides, and their stubborn refusal to acknowledge that the poison was spreading.
Rather than having a realization about the anonymous voice of literature, you may be thinking to yourself, my God, this is depressing. Yes, I know. But there is a purpose behind every leaden word. It’s there to make us feel something: to encourage us, the readers, to mourn for something that couldn’t be—to notice what is lacking, and to inspire us to make it right.