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3. George Eliot,Middlemarch
It bears the subtitleA Study of Provincial Life, butMiddlemarch, George Eliot’s 19th-century masterpiece, and maybe the finest achievement in the history of English literature outside of Shakespeare, sometimes reads like a study ofeverything— a comprehensive portrait of the world and everything and everyone in it. To the modern reader,Middlemarchcan seem to have the thrilling sweep of a season of television, as the overlapping dramas of a cast of compelling characters are lavished with attention on an epic scale. It covers star-crossed romance and blackmail intrigue, municipal politics and scientific controversies. If it matters to life, it happens inMiddlemarch.
4. Doris Lessing,The Golden Notebook
When it was released in the early 1960s, everyone had an opinion aboutThe Golden Notebook. Doris Lessing’s frank, intellectual classic of feminism, socialism and women’s liberation was so provocative to readers and critics at the time that people seriously wondered whether it wouldn’t instigate a full-blown war of the sexes. Lessing’s honest portrayal of sexism and the clumsy buffoonery of even well-meaning men isn’t exactly shocking circa 2020, but her exquisite prose and sincere expressions of challenging emotions makeThe Golden Notebookas profound and engrossing today as the day it was published.
5. Flannery O’Connor,Wise Blood
Life under lockdown has a tendency to make the everyday seem somewhat insane. As it happens, everything in Flannery O’Connor’s fiction feels more or less the same way: normal, butoffsomehow.Wise Bloodconcerns the travails of one Hazel Motes, a veteran in the late 1940s whose experiences in combat have jaded him for life. But Motes has gone a little bit crazy, and his outlook on the world, coloured by a rejection of the church and his religious background, leans toward semi-deranged extremes. Richly populated with characters so strange they can only seem real, and written with exuberant verve, it feels weirdly relevant to what PR flacks have dubbed “these uncertain times.”