08/30/2013 01:32 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2013

Readers Live for That Occasional Transcendent Novel

We read fiction for many reasons -- including excitement, enjoyment, diversion, comfort and education. I'd like to add another: the hope that, every once in a while, we'll stumble across a book that's absolutely wonderful.

Most novels I read range from good to excellent. (It helps that many of them were enthusiastically recommended -- vetted! -- by the knowledgeable commenters under my posts.) But then there are those amazing, sometimes-unexpected literary experiences that occur two or three times a year, if we're lucky.

I just had such an experience with A.S. Byatt's ultra-compelling Possession, which is about two 20th-century scholars who unearth evidence of a secret love affair between two (fictional) 19th-century poets -- even as the scholars' own interaction might turn into a relationship. In addition to the intense romantic and clever detective-fiction elements, there are funny moments tweaking academia and more. Adding to the appeal is the way Byatt creates many pages of poems, letters and diary entries in the distinct voices of several 19th-century characters. At times, I just gaped at this multilayered book, wondering how one author could simultaneously be so erudite and entertaining.

Possession (recommended by commenter Porini) is challenging at times. For instance, the poems -- though superb and relevant to the story line -- can be a bit frustrating to get through when one wants to return to the absorbing narrative. But, by the end, Byatt's 1990 book became one of my favorite novels ever. You know a novel is stellar when you stay up late several nights in a row to finish it, when you can't stop thinking about it after you're done and when you repeatedly return to its pages to relive scenes.

Of course, a book that's transcendent for one reader might not be transcendent for another. Still, the hope of finding novels we personally consider extraordinary is one of the draws of loving literature.

I keep a list of books I've read, and the other A-plus ones I've enjoyed during the past two years include One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood and The Sea Lady by Margaret Drabble (Byatt's sister). Hmm ... mostly women authors! I expected the first three novels to be terrific (they're renowned books, of course), but was stunned by how good the last two also were.

While Garcia Marquez's pioneering magic-realism opus is probably more original, I found Allende's novel to be a little more accessible and emotionally involving. But both of those multigenerational sagas are memorably personal, political and heartbreaking.

The Age of Innocence focuses mostly on three characters (A-plus novels don't have to be sprawling), but the story of a conventional woman, an unconventional woman and a man torn between conventionality and unconventionality is unforgettable.

The Robber Bride also has a trio of main characters: three women friends who were all grievously hurt by a fourth woman that the novel's title refers to. And is that fourth woman dead or alive?

Like the above Atwood novel, The Sea Lady is kind of intricate but quite readable. It's about a flamboyant woman and a low-key man who were once married and who are lured by a mysterious third party into meeting again.

I first read various other novels I think are A-plus much earlier than two years ago, which is why I didn't mention them earlier in this piece. They include Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle, Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, Erich Maria Remarque's The Night in Lisbon and Sir Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian, to name just a few. In the realm of "popular fiction," I could add works such as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Jack Finney's Time and Again and Darryl Brock's If I Never Get Back.

What are some of the A-plus novels you've read, and how often are you lucky to find a book you think deserves that high grade?


In his part-humorous Comic (and Column) Confessional memoir, Dave Astor recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists, columnists and others such as Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Ann Landers, Hillary Clinton and Coretta Scott King. Contact Dave at to buy an inscribed copy of the book, which includes a preface by Heloise and back-cover blurbs by Arianna Huffington and Gary Larson ("The Far Side").