50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Romance

Rebecca

Hello again, class.

Most of the novels on the list require a bit of work—especially the older ones. This 50-books library is the kind of selection that focuses on the great works, not the most entertaining ones. There’s entertainment in novels like Pride and Prejudice or Hamlet, but that’s not why you need to read them before you die—you need to read them because they do what no other piece of entertainment did before, and significantly changed what literature was and could be. In almost every book on the list, entertainment may be there, but it’s always secondary.

Rebecca is one of the exceptions to this trend—it seems to be entertainment first. It delights in its own extravagant writing and startling twists, and the story is melodramatic and absorbing. It’s not a happy story—it’s more like a nightmare, honestly—but it exists somewhere between a classy horror movie and a turbulent romance. It’s not great art—but it’s not simple, either. It plays with its plot for dramatic effect and was more engrossing than I could have predicted. Rebecca belongs on the list because of the simplest reason of all: it’s exciting and suspenseful, and it made its mark on literature and popular culture of the time.


With most of the novels from the list, I don’t worry much about spoilers—I couldn’t really “spoil” The Divine Comedy, if you know what I mean—but I have to be very careful about Rebecca. This is the story of a newly married woman, who is beginning a new life with her husband. One thing I appreciated early on: this woman goes unnamed for the entire novel. I can barely imagine how difficult that might have been for the author—her protagonist is referred to ambiguously for the opening chapters and, after marrying, is referred to by last name only: Mrs. de Winter. We never learn her first name or her maiden name, and all we know of her identity is in character traits, not details. She is a complete character, but one without identity.

Actors Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine as Mr. and Mrs. de Winter in the movie adaptation of Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

This nameless woman marries a widower, Maxim de Winter, whose first wife is the eponymous Rebecca. Rebecca died before the narrator met Maxim, and Rebecca is some hideous unspoken secret in their new marriage. Nonetheless, they attempt to live happily in de Winter’s estate of Manderley, a large and beautiful house that is as much a character as the narrator—it’s given personality and even agency in what happens to the characters living there. The servants and guests at Manderley all seem to know something about Rebecca that they want to keep from the narrator, and because of that, Rebecca herself seems to haunt Manderley. She is around every corner, threatening to ruin the narrator’s marriage and life.


More than once, I wondered if this was a supernatural thriller—a literal haunting, with Rebecca’s spirit poisoning the house. While the narrator never sees the ghost of Rebecca walking down the halls, that seems to be the only difference between the haunting in Rebecca and something like Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol. This story is the closest you can get to the supernatural while still existing in the real world.

Author Daphne du Maurier

And even though it’s not quite fantasy, either, it’s got a healthy dose of the unrealistic. Everything is hyper-characterized and played for drama or suspense, not to the point that it’s unnecessary, but entertaining for certain. It uses melodrama like it uses hints of the supernatural—instead of getting in the way of the story, they make the story fuller.

The author, Daphne du Maurier, seems to have gone to the Stephen King school of storytelling (or, rather, King went to the du Maurier school of storytelling). King believes that story matters above all. The best stories aren’t about character pieces or technical brilliance, but about telling the best story you can. Rebecca is the perfect example of an author telling the best story she can, and it’s such a good story that it earned its way onto the list of 50 books to read before you die.


Next up, I’m finishing Catch-22, which does exactly what Rebecca doesn’t—and to fantastic result. Catch-22 is almost an anti-story, with plot that folds in on itself and character-driven vignettes that refuse to bear a story. And yet, it’s every bit as thrilling as Rebecca, and infinitely funnier. Though I certainly loved RebeccaCatch-22 is more my speed—but let’s drive down that route next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

The Way We Live Now

Good morning, class.

Money: A Suicide Note and The Way We Live Now are a lot alike. Both are about greed and corruption, individually and globally. Both focus on terrible people—those who have decided on a certain lifestyle that hurts themselves and others. Both criticize the world and the poor choices people make to hold on to money or to get it by any means.

But I can’t stress this enough—I hated Money: A Suicide Note. For all it did to successfully criticize the corrupt and greedy world of the late 20th century, I couldn’t enjoy it and I couldn’t wait to be done with it. That wasn’t the case with The Way We Live Now, which wasn’t my favorite book of all time, but it was definitely more enjoyable. The Way We Live Now did for the 19th century what Martin Amis’ Money did for the 20th—portrayed a society that was as successful and wealthy as it was deplorable, with all the humor, darkness, and drama that comes with the territory.


Unlike with Money, which told everything from one biased perspective, The Way We Live Now is about the lives of a full cast of characters and shifts focus between different intersecting plots. A few main threads keep everything together and keep things moving, such as the love-life drama of Paul Montague (blatant Romeo and Juliet reference), the upcoming election for a seat in British Parliament, and the repeatedly disastrous behaviors of Sir Felix Carbury.

Author Anthony Trollope

Sir Felix is a spoiled son of reasonable wealth—except that he spends all his time and money gambling. His mother, too afraid of driving him away, enables him by giving him money she doesn’t have, despite what it does to her unmarried daughter, who is far less spoiled and yet far less appreciated. But Sir Felix’s spendthrift ways are nothing compared to his commitments to two different women, both of whom he cares very little for, except that they might be able to provide him with more wealth if he plays his cards right. He is the story’s source of carelessness and insincerity—the purest example of insatiable greed and the path it can lead one to.

But honestly, Sir Felix is redeemable, unlike the novel’s true villain—Augustus Melmotte, a man new to the area running for a seat in Parliament, and doing anything he can to get it. He is a typical political evil—a careful liar, a corporate-level thief, a two-faced celebrity, and a cultural phase that brings out the worst in people on a worldly scale. He steals and attempts to cover it up, abuses people close to him that would traditionally be loved ones, and refuses to accept anything that doesn’t go his way. Melmotte is a smiling, charming criminal, and is everything Sir Felix is but worse. Sir Felix is always just out of reach of being his better self, but Melmotte is nowhere near being redeemable.

Paul Montague’s story is the novel’s redemptive quality. His story is about his attempts to remain a good gentleman in the midst of his chaotic love-life—he no longer loves a woman he is intended for, and he loves someone that his closest friend hopes to marry. He makes some serious missteps, but his intentions are never unclear—he means to be a good person no matter what. He juggles his relationships to find the perfect balance, so that he can maintain his friendship, sincerely end his old engagement, and begin anew with the woman he cares for.

An illustration from The Way We Live Now, featuring Winifred Hurtle and Paul Montague

Then, the threads intersect—Montague’s love is Henrietta Carbury, Sir Felix’s sister; Sir Felix is in a threadbare relationship with Marie Melmotte, Augustus’ daughter, and Augustus disapproves of the relationship; Sir Felix is in an even more threadbare relationship with a girl named Ruby, who, after being kicked out of the house for being involved with Felix, finds herself in the same establishment as the woman Paul is trying to disengage with—an American woman named Winifred Hurtle; Melmotte, Paul, and Felix, as well as several other wealthy people, are involved on the governing board of a North American railway company. Every chapter is like a roll of the dice, and no one knows what social, political, or romantic disaster might happen next—and that does make it an exciting read.


Shifting from character to character is a strength—one that author Anthony Trollope uses to his advantage. Trollope sometimes writes from Paul’s perspective and shows Felix as deplorable as he seems, but then he writes from Felix’s perspective, without changing Felix’s actions or motivations, and makes him sympathetic (or we get to hear from the perspective of his mother or sister, to make things that much more complicated). This is a bolder move than it seems, especially for the time—the novel shows its age by having an overly helpful narrator, referring to us as the reader and guiding us on this journey. There’s some of that throughout the story—a balance between the traditional and the changing future, between the conservative and the progressive. It’s a story as time-tested as Shakespeare, and as experimental as Money.

And for all that, the reason it made the list is in the title—The Way We Live Now. This is a snapshot of English culture in the later half of the 19th century, an era more modern than it used to be and not as modern as today. Trollope’s goal was to point out how greed and corruption were plaguing English society, and with this novel, he does that with as much intrigue as balance. By focusing on that theme in its entirety, The Way We Live Now tackled a wide scope of ideas and truly reflected the world at the time, and with good writing to boot, it’s no wonder it made the list.


Next up, I’m working my way through Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier—another novel that serves as a snapshot of the era, the early 20th century. More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: Romeo and Juliet

Welcome back, class.

I’ve been back and forth on this one—there have been times when I couldn’t stand this play. But no matter if I like it or not, this Romeo and Juliet really deserves to be read by everyone, if only for the lesson it teaches—don’t let yourself be carried away by the passions of youth. That’s absolutely why we all read it in high school: so that our English teachers could remind us not to throw our lives away on “young love” and hurt others in the process.

Thankfully, the story is more than that—it is Shakespeare, after all.


It’s a story old as time—two teenagers, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, become instantly infatuated with each other at first sight, even though their families are involved in an ongoing feud. They decide to get married, and in a complicated plot to get their families to stop fighting, Romeo kills a man and is banished, Juliet pretends to die to get away from her family, Romeo thinks Juliet is really dead and kills himself, and Juliet kills herself shortly after. Tragedy abounds.

People like to call Romeo and Juliet the greatest love story of all time, but the main characters are senseless, hasty, and melodramatic in their so-called love. It is an infatuation between two teenagers, built on feelings alone—not dependability, companionship, compatibility, rationality, or forethought.

Shakespeare makes them sound much less one-dimensional than my analysis, so the story is much better than that. His writing throughout Romeo and Juliet is romantic and beautiful, which helped Romeo and Juliet stand the test of time. But I also bet Shakespeare new exactly how dumb his main characters were, as they took their own lives for each other for the sake of what looked like love, but was actually a crush.


A Portrait of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare also gives his main characters a little credit when it comes to their families, which are pure chaos. The Montagues and Capulets are little more than rival gangs (hence the adaptation with a twist, the musical West Side Story), and they give Romeo and Juliet little choice but to marry in secret. Even the Friar that marries them has an ulterior motive—to unite the families through this marriage, end the feud, and stop the constant violence in the streets. The lesson to learn from Romeo and Juliet isn’t just for the children, but for the rest of the Montagues and Capulets that let passion guide their hearts towards violence.

That lesson—don’t let passion carry you away, for the sake of love, violence, etc.—is important in its own right, but I’ll admit it can diminish the story too. It’s easy to talk about Romeo and Juliet now, having read it almost 10 years ago, but no matter how much I made fun of it or hated reading it, it was one of the first real tragedies I’d ever read. The two main characters are partly at fault for their fate, but so are their families. This is a story about two people who committed suicide when there were so many other options available . . . all because they had dedicated their lives to a person they had known for less than a week. It’s infuriating and depressing, and a careful reminder of how far our reckless hearts can force us to go. In some twisted, backwards, cynical way, I think that makes Romeo and Juliet required reading for everyone.


Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet (1996)

But if that’s not a good enough reason for you, I’ve got at least one more—Romeo and Juliet is everywhere. There are references to it in so many books, movies, TV shows, short stories, and poems that everyone deserves the chance to read it just to pick up on the subtleties of half of all art. Since teenagers with crushes is one of the most universal human stories in history, it’s applicable in every medium. On the list of the 50 Books alone, Romeo and Juliet is featured in one major form or another in Wuthering HeightsThe Great GatsbyBrave New WorldThe Way We Live NowHuckleberry Finn . . . just to name a few. Romeo and Juliet pervaded the cultural landscape and staked it’s claim on teenagers with feelings, and everything that came after is a reflection of the original Shakespeare.

All in all, I may not like Romeo and Juliet all that much, but that makes it no less important. It deserves to be on the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, and there are several books worth kicking off to make room.


I’m finishing up Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, which I’ll write about next. Romeo and Juliet may be a better “love story,” but Birdsong is, in its way, a better story about love. There isn’t as much warning against runaway passion, but Birdsong seems more dedicated to the idea of love bringing people together, even in ways society looks down upon. Had Romeo and Juliet been stronger characters, it’s possible their long lives would have looked like the tortured lovers’ lives of Birdsong—but I’m getting ahead of myself. More on Birdsong next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey