Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (Picador, $15). At the center of this novel are two close sisters who have survived abandonments and deaths together. But after the arrival of their eccentric guardian, Aunt Sylvie, they drift apart. "Once alone," the eldest explains, "it is impossible to believe that one could ever have been otherwise. Loneliness is an absolute discovery."
Sula by Toni Morrison (Vintage, $15). Teenagers Sula and Nel are fierce friends, but they follow divergent paths: Sula’s toward rebellion, Nel’s filled with aspirations for a settled family life. A reader sometimes wonders what might have been if they made different choices, which makes the reality of the novel more poignant.
Villette by Charlotte Brontë (Bantam, $6). People sometimes call Villette a neglected sister of Jane Eyre. I have always loved Jane Eyre, but this novel is a more truthful portrait of a young woman’s struggle to find respect, love, understanding, and a place for herself in the world.
The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor (Penguin, $15). Eight-year-old Lucy’s parents are caught in the middle of the conflict between the IRA and the English army in the 1920s and decide to leave Ireland. Young Lucy refuses to flee, causing pain all around her. As time passes, she spends her life reading and keeping bees, eventually becoming a solitary figure and a symbol of a troublesome national past.
Persuasion by Jane Austen (Dover, $2.50). Anne Elliot lets a friend convince her to dissolve an engagement with her beloved. Eight years later, when he reappears, she grieves yet does not let her grief overwhelm her judgment. Persuasion was Austen’s last and most mature novel, one that, uniquely, relies on things unsaid and feelings left unexpressed.
A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen (Anchor, $14). The Death of the Heart is Bowen’s best-known novel, but the same brilliance can be found here. Jane, a 20-year-old Anglo-Irish girl visiting relatives, finds love letters from years ago. The discovery spurs her to explore the history of the last generation, which serves as a path to finding her own first footing in the world of love.
— Yiyun Li is the award-winning author of The Vagrants and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. In her new novel, Kinder Than Solitude, a mystery inspires three women to reflect back on the friendships they shared growing up in Beijing.