Paula McLain: My Top 5 Books

Paula McLain: My Top 5 Books

The Hours – Michael Cunningham

Told in alternating chapters, three interwoven novellas unfold to reflect three women’s experiences of Mrs. Dalloway. There is “Mrs. Brown,” set in California in 1939, as housewife Laura Brown thinks of how she might escape her suffocating marriage and family life; “Mrs. Dalloway,” set in 1990’s New York City, as Clarissa Vaughn prepares a celebratory party for a dying poet friend; and “Mrs. Woolf,” set in 1923 as Woolf herself, as imagined by Cunningham, struggles with the opening of her novel, and her own desperate plunging into nervous instability and illness.

This novel is completely and disgustingly beautiful, and also functioned as my personal go-to bible when I was writing The Paris Wife: the book I kept on my desk to read and reread in small gulps every day, trying to take in by a kind of osmosis how Cunningham manages to get at the core of his characters, and particularly Virginia Woolf, until her consciousness shimmers palpably from the page. Cunningham’s treatment of real life historical figures challenged me to follow my own passions to tackle them myself. And then there are his beautiful sentences, his museum quality sentences. Ultimately the book is a powerful emblem for how literature can change lives, make lives, and connect us all at the deepest level.

The Master – Colm Tóibín

In this, Tóibín’s fifth novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2004, the Irish writer makes a dazzling and audacious leap into the life, times and mind of Henry James.

Like The Hours, I turned to this book as a master text, if you will, for how to dramatize and illuminate an historical figure, someone who actually lived, so that the result feels real, true, and decidedly human. Tóibín narrows his scope to four years in James’ life (1895-1899) and chooses to plumb a select few of his subject’s relationships, and the effect is like peering into an exquisitely constructed box by Joseph Cornell. While it’s fascinating to get the inside scoop on James’ process, his family history, “industry” gossip and his formative romantic obsessions, what stayed with me is how Tóibín’s version of James chooses, even carves out, a pristine island of loneliness and emotional control so that he might save his resources for his work.

I found it devastating and gorgeous through and through—and developed such a professional crush on Tóibín that once, when we were featured at the same book festival together, I got too flushed and “fan girl” to approach him at a cocktail party. Major regret. I want a re-do!

Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway

The most romantic of Hemingway’s books, and one of the most moving and enduring war novels of our age, A Farewell to Arms tells the story of Lieutenant Frederick Henry, a young ambulance driver serving in the Italian Army in WWI, and his doomed love affair with Catherine Barkley, an English assistant nurse working in a British hospital.

The novel is based on the fleeting but emotionally wrenching romance Hemingway experienced with his war nurse, Agnes von Kurowsky, whom he met in Milan after he was wounded on the Italian front. I first read it as research for my novel on Hemingway, but very quickly forgot I was working as the pages fell away and I was swept into the story. Full confession and spoiler alert: I’m a fool for a sad ending. This one makes me cry like a baby every time I read it.

Evening – Susan Minot

As sixty-five year old Ann Lord wrestles with late-stage cancer, drifting in and out of consciousness, aloft in a haze of morphine injections, she recalls a fateful and pivotal romantic encounter from her twenties that has continued to shape and reverberate through her life.

I cannot properly describe how much this book affects me. Much of the writing is stream-of-consciousness to reflect Ann’s nebulous mental state. Her life passes before her eyes, as the cliché goes, but everything about this book defies cliché. Ann’s memories flash before us in ecstatic, searingly particular bursts, while the grounding love story, which the novel returns to episodically, cutting back and forth through time, works to show the way we carry others with us our whole lives even (or perhaps especially when) we lose them. You must read this book.

Euphoria – Lily King

The novel is set in Papua New Guinea in the 1930’s and loosely based on the life of cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, which Lily King mines for a doozy of a love triangle. Nell Stone and her husband Fen, fleeing professional failure in their study of the Mumbanyo (all the tribal names are invented), form a charged friendship with another anthropologist, the intriguing Andrew Bankson, who leads them to a female-centered tribe called the Tam, in an area along the Sepik river close to his own observation of the Kiona. Cue gripping drama and sexual tension!

One of the most marvellous things about this book, aside from the fact that I have a towering crush on Andrew Bankson, is how King breaks with fact to liberate the story and her own powers of invention. According to an essay about her process with Euphoria, once King decided to launch away from history and Mead’s actual experience, and into what she calls “the jungle of my imagination,” the book truly took off for her, and she never looked back. The result feels fearless: taut and lucid and arrow sharp. I admire all of King’s books, but this is one I wish I’d written!

Click here to read Richard and Judy’s reviews of Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun