Hopefully you were inspired to read a book or two by the last post (thirteen of my favorite Southern reads graced the page yesterday), but if not, you might have more luck today. Most of this list consists of characters struggling with issues of identity – whether their own or the one placed on them by society’s standards – within settings (locations and socioeconomic statuses) of equal importance.
Region Two: The Northeast
Pittsburgh plays as much a character in this novel as its protagonist Art Bechstein. Art’s father is a money launderer for the mob, an occupation that influences Art’s decisions in both insightful and tragic ways. The novel explores Art’s sexuality as well as those around him in a straightforward manner not often found in works that have been bestsellers.
The mystery of who committed the murder plays out within a character study and continues to ask why instead of who. The story is tragic in the way that Greek tragedies are – human flaws and fate’s heavy hand dictate the outcome for an insular group of students in small town Vermont.
Fitzgerald’s second novel, largely based on his life with Zelda, follows complicated characters whose marriage and intimacy issues are discussed at length. It’s set in New York City’s café society of the 1920s, exploiting its glamour to get to the emptiness of it all.
Plath’s focus and understanding of mental illness, specifically clinical depression, is well-known and on full display in the world she created for Esther, her protagonist. The novel sets the scene of what should be a contented life: New York, a promising internship, friends, family, and suitors. However, Esther is anything but content after she loses her father and worries that she does not fit into the culturally-defined standard of womanhood. Her fears are similar to those of Plath herself, but her internment at a mental hospital and hopeful recovery are not.
Roth establishes what many Americans would consider the perfect life for his character Seymour: a former athlete who becomes a wealthy businessman with good looks, a beautiful wife and children, and New Jersey’s version of a white house with a white picket fence and 2.5 kids. Then Roth exposes it for the veneer that it is, both the character’s life and society’s expectations as a whole.
Charlie, the titular wallflower, narrates this story in the form of letters written to an unknown person. He’s an insecure, shy, and intellectually superior but socially inept teenager whose day-to-day life is filled with inner turmoil. He observes and understands those around him but can’t quite come to terms with, or understand, himself. The novel delves into drugs, sexuality, physical and emotional abuse, as well as the ordinary aspects of being in high school.
Diaz once again uses protagonist Yunior to weave this collection of short stories between Santo Domingo and New Jersey. Each story focuses on the failings of men, whether Yunior’s own or those from whom he has learned and both emulates and comes to despise. The male characters in this collection are mainly despicable, which is exactly how Diaz characterized them until in the final stories Yunior begins to see women as full human beings and not objects to be disgraced and tossed aside.
Albee’s play hinges on a middle-aged couple and the fallout of their marriage. They’re bitter, they’re angry, and they’re having it out in front of a much younger couple (and the audience).
The movie’s a cult classic, but the book is that much better. It all starts with an insomniac and a frustrated doctor who tells his patient that insomnia isn’t a real problem. An underground fighting club, real illness, and radical psychotherapy ensue.
Wallace explores family relationships, addiction and recovery, tennis, advertising and the entertainment industry among a slew of other topics within both a tennis academy and a rehab center set in a North American dystopia. This is not a light read, with its endnotes and a nearly 1000 pages, but its detailed world makes it worth the effort.
Lutie is a single mother of a young boy when she first steps foot into the Harlem apartment on 116th Street where the entirety of the novel centers. Petry explores Lutie’s dire circumstances, from poverty to assault and back again, in a most honest and direct way that induces education rather than pity.
A young Jewish immigrant, David, lives out his coming-of-age story in the immigrant ghetto of New York’s Lower East Side and in the pages of Roth’s novel. Familial relationships and the need for familial bonds weave this story together within a distinct neighborhood and experience.
A Bengali couple immigrates to the U.S. and begins their small family while the father attends MIT. Over the years, their son Gogol wishes to assimilate and his desire to do so puts barriers between himself and his parents. This study of a family caught between cultures with distinct social, ideological, and religious differences continues on with Lahiri’s previous short story by the same name as well as The Interpreter of Maladies.
– M. Ray Hall