Summer is all but over for readers in the Northern Hemisphere. But for those with a few days left and for readers in the Southern Hemisphere who are drawing up their summer reading lists, here is a list of more than fifty 500-page doorstops.
In a sense, all fiction is a romance between the author and the reader. An engagement with some novelists is short and sweet. But that is not necessarily the ideal. Other courtships are long and involved. Discovering an unfamiliar imaginary world and living there for a while can be an immense pleasure.
We have grouped these novels under several headings. Authors are represented by only one novel. We are absolutely sure that we have left out some obvious candidates – please pass on your suggestions for next year’s list.
Don Quixote (1605)
The defining masterpiece of Spanish literature about the mad knight errant and his earthy sidekick Sancho Panza. Long and rewarding.
Honoré de Balzac
Eugénie Grandet (1833)
Balzac was the supreme chronicler of greed. In this instalment of La Comédie humaine, Eugenie is a young woman with a miserly father who falls desperately in love, but discovers that her lover is more interested in money than her happiness.
William Makepeace Thackeray
Vanity Fair (1848)
A satire with a moral purpose about early 19th century English society, particularly courtship and marriage rituals constrained by class and money. The intricacies of the plot open a perspective on the whole of English society.
David Copperfield (1850)
Story of a boy who loses his parents at an early age, and who escapes the torture of working for his pitiless stepfather to try to make something of himself and, with any luck, find true happiness.
Barchester Towers (1870)
The second in a series of six novels set in a fictitious English cathedral town in the mid-19th century, this one satirises hostilities between the High Church and Evangelicals. A sympathetic figure, Septimus Harding, reappears from the first Barchester novel, The Warden.
Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
Hardy’s novels are all gloomy, passionate and melodramatic but compelling. A great way to explore the hidden dramas of 19th country life in England.
A German masterpiece about four generations of a merchant family, their rise, riches and downfall. A wonderfully absorbing novel.
Joseph Conrad’s dense novel about revolution, betrayal and intrigue in South America.
Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928)
Best-known for his war poetry, Sigfried Sassoon based this novel on his own youth and encounters with various comic characters. It is regarded as an English classic. The story is continued in two sequels: Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston’s Progress.
Crime and Punishment (1866)
A rivetting psychological thriller about a medical student, Raskolnikov, who kills an old woman and her sister simply to prove that he is above bourgeois morality.
The Moonstone (1868)
The earliest and perhaps greatest of detective novels by one of the rivals of Charles Dickens. Who stole the Moonstone diamond from Rachel Verinder’s bedroom on her 18th birthday?
After an automobile accident, novelist Paul Sheldon meets his biggest fan, a psychopathic nurse. She wants Paul to write his greatest novel, just for her. She has a lot of ways to spur him on. One is a needle. Another is an ax. And if they don’t work, she can get really nasty…
Body of Evidence (1991)
Kay Scarpetta, chief medical examiner of Virginia, investigates the brutal stabbing death of romance writer Beryl Madison.
Void Moon (2000)
Cassie Black, a resourceful ex-con, plans to burgle a Las Vegas casino’s high roller suite where, five years before, a previous attempt resulted in her arrest and the death of her lover.
One Step Behind (2003)
Three role-playing teens dressed in 18th Century garb are shot in a secluded Swedish meadow. Then a trusted colleague of Inspector Kurt Wallander is also killed.
The Murder Room (2004)
Everyone has something to gain from the murder of a trustee of a museum devoted to famous murders. Commander Adam Dalgliesh has to enter the mind of a ruthless killer.
Famous for introducing Count Dracula to vampire lit, this novel tells the story of Dracula’s attempt to relocate from Transylvania to England. Stoker spent seven years researching European folklore and stories of vampires.
The Glass-Bead Game (1943)
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the German Nobel laureate describes an elite cult of intellectuals who play an elaborate game that uses all the cultural and scientific knowledge of the Ages.
The Lord of the Rings (1954)
If you haven’t read it, there is something wrong with you. If you have, read it again.
Watership Down (1972)
This is said to be the best-selling Penguin Book of all time. It’s an epic tale of a group of rabbits who move to escape the destruction of their warren. It’s not a cute fairytale, but a desperate and heroic struggle for survival.
Harry Potter series (1997)
All seven novels amount to far, far more than 500 pages in this epic Bildungsroman about the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. We can’t say any more or we’ll spoil it for you.
Complete Short Stories (1930)
Most of these stories are only three or four pages long, but there are lots of them. They all share the cynical humour expressed in sparkling epigrams which was typical of the Edwardian period.
Imperial Blandings: “Full Moon”; “Pigs Have Wings”; “Service with a Smile” (1930)
A typical Wodehouse novel is about nothing in particular, except possibly the foibles of the idle rich. They always end happily and are full of the most delightful humour and sparkling prose. The three novels in this omnibus revolve around intrigues in Blandings Castle, a rural estate in England.
The Master and the Margarita (1937)
A very strange and influential Russian novel about the Devil’s visit to resolutely atheistic Russia in the 1930s. Some consider it to be one of the best 20th Century novels.
Guys and Dolls and other writings (1940)
These hilarious stories from Prohibition-era America are soppy, sentimental and cliched, but they are marvellously related in Runyonese, with its colourful slang and exclusive use of the present tense. Many were made into movies.
The Heart of Midlothian (1818)
Perhaps the best of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, with its rich characterisation, deep Christian sentiment and splendid portrait of life in early 18th century Edinburgh. The plot is quite involved, but the central character is Jeanie Deans, a young woman who travels to London to seek a royal pardon for her sister, who has been unjustly accused of infanticide.
The Betrothed (1842)
The novel by which all other Italian novels are judged. A deeply Christian, story about 17th century Italy under Spanish oppression. The description of the plague in Milan is fantastic, the characters are wonderfully true to life and incredibly varied.
The central character is Judah, prince of the Hebrew house of Hur. Judah grows up in Jerusalem, during the turbulent years around the birth of Christ. His best friend is Messala, a Roman. As adults Judah and Messala become rivals, each hating the other, which leads to Judah’s downfall and eventual triumph.
With Fire and Sword (1884)
This 1884 Polish novel set in the 17th century and first appearing as a serial was as popular as Dickens. It was written to “lift up the heart” of the Polish nation during yet another troubled era, and has been translated in to English and most European languages.
Kristen Lavransdatter (1922)
This trilogy led to Undset being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1928 “for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages”. A totally engrossing saga that follows the life of the heroine from childhood to death from the plague in middle age. Family, faith, human frailty and heroism are woven together in a believable drama.
Henry Handel Richardson
The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1929)
Australian writer Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson published this three-part, semi-autobiographical novel under a pseudonym. It is about the slow decline, owing to character flaws and an unnamed brain disease, of a successful Australian physician and businessman and the emotional/financial effect on his family.
Northwest Passage (1937)
All of Kenneth Roberts’ novels about colonial New England are rollicking adventures. This story about the French and Indian War centers on Robert Rogers, the charismatic leader of colonial rangers fighting with the British.
Empire of the Sun (1984)
A young British lad struggles for survival in Japanese-occupied Shanghai.
The Mill on the Floss (1860)
A long and complex melodrama about growing up, falling in love, the frustration of love and a biting indictment of middle-class smugness.
The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
Love and marriage intrigues among the late 19th century trans-Atlantic aristocracy work to reveal a strong female character who accepts the consequences of her choice of husband, albeit with stoicism rather than a Christian attitude to suffering.
A Passage to India (1924)
A psychologically-rich story about racism and nationalism. A young woman claims that she was assaulted by an educated Indian companion. But at the trial, she cannot support her claims.
The Sound and the Fury (1929)
Faulkner was daring, experimental novelist and this is a difficult but rewarding story told from four points of view about a decaying family in the Old South.
Brideshead Revisited (1945)
Waugh’s “magnum opus” (as he originally considered it) is a novel about divine grace and redemption, revealed through a severely flawed but deeply Catholic aristocratic English family — the Marchmains. Most of the major characters undergo a conversion in some way or another.
The Book Thief (2006)
The Australian author draws on family history to create a story of wartime Nazi Germany with the experience of a young girl, fostered by a working class couple, as the focus. A highly unusual narrative technique creates vivid cameos and an irresistible momentum.
North and South (1855)
A stirring novel about the wretchedness of poverty and oppression at the hand of hard-hearted manufacturers in the Industrial Revolution in England.
In Chancery (1920)
The second novel in The Forsyte Saga about the personal affairs of a wealthy upper middle class English family.
The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
A passionate depiction of the plight of the poor “Okies” the American dustbowl during the Great Depression who migrate to California. This was the book for which Steinbeck won the 1962 Nobel Prize.
Robert Penn Warren
All the King’s Men (1946)
A poetic but dramatic novel about the political ascent and governorship of Willie Stark, in the American South during the 1930s. A cautionary tale of how idealism becomes corrupted by power.
The Last Hurrah (1956)
Frank Skeffington, an Irish-American machine politician, runs for the very last time as mayor of his bustling and corrupt city (a fictionalised Boston), but loses out to a younger man. One the of great American political novels.
Doctor Zhivago (1957)
Doctor Zhivago’s quest for feminine love and affection is mingled with his gradual disillusionment with the Russian revolution, which crushes him as an individual. A great novel which won Pasternak the Nobel Prize in 1958 — but the Stalinist regime forced him to renounce it under pain of exile.
The Corridors of Power (1963)
The ninth book in Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series is based on his experience as a scientist in the British civil service. It is concerned with the attempts of an English MP to influence the country’s policy on nuclear weapons in the 1950s.
The First Circle (1968)
Great Russian novel about life in a Soviet prison camp under Stalin. This is the book for which Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize.
The Three Musketeers (1844)
The supremely romantic novel about palace intrigue in 16th Century France. A young man, D’Artagnan, links up with experienced guards Athos, Porthos and Aramis and learns about the danger and glamour of the court.
Moby Dick (1851)
The Great American Novel. A mad sea captain with a peg leg. A white leviathan with a chip on its shoulder. A whale of a story.
The Caine Mutiny (1951)
As World War II draws to a close in the Pacific, an erratic and cowardly captain drives the men under him to mutiny. But were they really justified?
The Mauritius Command (1977)
Captain Jack Aubrey and the naval surgeon Stephen Maturin set sail for the Indian Ocean to capture Mauritius during the Napoleonic Wars. Splendid fun, with vivid characters and lots of action.
A markedly flawed heroine matures thanks to the forthright yet patient friendship of the man who becomes her husband – providing certain contrasts with George Elliot’s Middlemarch.
Anna Karenina (1877)
Tolstoy’s greatest novel tells the story of two figures: the rebellious, sensual Anna and the self-doubting, agnostic Levin and the struggle of both for fulfillment and happiness.
The Age of Innocence (1920)
This novel turns on marriage and the snares surrounding it among the New York upper class of the 1870s. It won Edith Wharton a Pulitzer prize at the age of 58.
Daphne Du Maurier
Jamaica Inn (1936)
An eerie historical novel set in Cornwall in 1820 about a group of murderous wreckers who run ships aground, kill the sailors and steal the loot.
Gone with the Wind (1936)
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” is a line from the movie, not the novel, but it is faithful to the flavour of this passionate romance set in the American Civil War and the Reconstruction period.
The Joy Luck Club (1989)
Sixteen interlocking stories about the lives of four Chinese immigrant women and their four American-born daughters, the structure reflecting the game of mah jong which is the core business of the club.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.