Born in North Carolina in 1957, Lionel Shriver has been using speculative fiction to plumb social and political issues since she began novel-writing in the late ’80s. Educated at Columbia University, she’d penned eight works in over a decade of obscurity before releasing her breakthrough book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, in 2003.
Delving into the psyche of a mother dealing with her son’s acts of violence, the novel earned Shriver immense critical acclaim, a dedicated readership, and the Orange Prize for Fiction. She continued to grapple with the intersection of personal and societal issues, tackling a swathe of touchy subjects in works like The Post-Birthday World, So Much For That, and The Mandibles.
In a reading list for The Times, Shriver shared 10 novels that have most influenced her life and work. From Edith Wharton’s lucid prose to Dostoevsky’s approach to virtue, dive into her recommendations below, and explore the bookshelves of other great writers here.
Lionel Shriver’s Reading List
“Of Dostoevsky’s novels, most writers would cite The Brothers Karamazov — I adored it in adolescence, but could not bear rereading it in my thirties. I hadn’t the patience. But rereading The Idiot — the tale of the holy fool Prince Myshkin — as an adult rewarded the return. I was then writing my second novel and grappling with how difficult it is to write about goodness. Virtue in literature, as it is often in real people, can be downright off-putting. The secret, I discovered, was to put virtue at risk — thus guaranteeing that our hero is misunderstood and persecuted. We can locate the same ingenious fictional strategy in the New Testament.” -LS
“Edith Wharton’s prose style is lucid, intelligent and artful rather than arty; she’s eloquent but never fussy, and always clear. A friend of Henry James, Wharton never seems to be writing well to show off. This poignant story, set in upper-class New York in the 1870s, illustrates the bind for women — the choice is a demeaning if relaxing servitude and a dignified if frightening independence. Should one follow desire or the demands of morality? The novel is romantic and frankly heartbreaking, but I’m a sucker for unhappy endings.” -LS
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warre
“When everyone was obsessed with finding novels that resonated with Trump’s election, I was surprised more people didn’t pounce on Robert Penn Warren’s loosely fictionalised biography of Huey Long, the populist firebrand governor of Louisiana. The Long character intertwines the personal and the political so much as to expose the distinction as artificial. Unfortunately, all Warren’s other books are disappointing. Years hence folks may be dismissing most of my own novels in the same manner, but if they’re still touting one title as good as this, then I’ll be dead lucky.” -LS
“Although I’ve never met a Richard Yates book I didn’t like, Revolutionary Road is my favorite, and it’s certainly his most celebrated. In 1955 Frank and April Wheeler have moved from bohemian Greenwich Village to suburban Connecticut. But the couple feel superior to their dumpy, culturally arid neighbors in Revolutionary Hill Estates and they plan to move to sophisticated Paris. Yates’s skewering of middle-class pretension and typically American anti-Americanism starts out gentle, but the story takes a sharp turn towards the grim. Matters don’t end well for the couple.” -LS
“An unusually evenhanded novel about the divisive subject of immigration. A Mexican couple, the woman heavily pregnant, illegally camp out on public parkland. Their paths cross with a wealthy American couple who live in a gated community after a car accident. Reader identification with the underdog is a narrative inevitability — fiction privileges disadvantage — but T.C. Boyle balances our sympathies, so the white American couple are allowed to have problems too. The climax is as comic as it is tragic, and the negative consequences of illegal immigration — for both the immigrant and the native-born — are not whitewashed. The book is political in the best sense: not about elections and candidates, but about a big, complicated issue that affects ordinary people. And the story is cracking.” -LS
As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann
“This underappreciated historical novel set in Cromwellian England is about a homosexual affair in a time when man-meets-man was a hanging offence. I relish the radical sexual tension Maria McCann generates between two male lovers gone awol from the New Model Army, without ever becoming sordid or even very blow-by-blow (so to speak), and the story is sexy even for hetero readers.” -LS
English Passengers by Matthew Kneale
“Seven years in the writing, this Whitbread-winning novel follows the hapless journey of a ship bound for Tasmania in the mid-19th century on an eccentric mission to find the original Garden of Eden. The novel demonstrates the value of good historical research, which is seamlessly woven into the text, and it’s hilarious. In adulthood, unlike childhood, it’s unusual to lose yourself in a story to the exclusion of all else. Yet for the duration of this book, I stopped working on my novel and curled for hours in the living room laughing aloud.” -LS
“Thirteen-year-old Briony sees her elder sister being raped by the talented housekeeper’s son; except she has misunderstood what she has seen. He is ruined. Ian McEwan assumes the point of view of a child in a way that isn’t nauseatingly sweet, and he doesn’t endorse cheap forgiveness. This book demonstrates that seemingly small sins can have enormous and permanently dire consequences. He offers his protagonist no expiation. Sometimes with guilt you just have to live with it.” -LS
The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne
“Well-off Europeans gather in Morocco for a wild, dissolute party, but driving to the do one of the guests runs over and kills a local Muslim youth. This is a terrifically realized encounter between the clashing values of traditional Islam and the hedonistic, secular West, and reminded me (in the best way) of Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky. Beautifully written, painfully resolved. All Lawrence Osborne’s novels are good, so if you fancy this one, try Beautiful Animals or The Ballad of a Small Player.” -LS
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
“An obsessive love story in which an eternally overlooked schoolteacher becomes infatuated with one of her students and both his parents. This novel is uncannily riveting and driven by a furious energy, its prose impeccable, its story peculiar. Good peculiar. One of those rare novels whose slightly unhinged, feverish atmosphere I can call up at will years after I read the book.” -LS
(via The Times; photo by David Azia)
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