The Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic). Although it’s now hard not to picture her as Emma Watson, Hermione Granger was originally introduced as a girl with a “bossy sort of voice, bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth”—a know-it-all who’s sometimes not easy to like. That she sets aside her books to join Harry in pursuing Voldemort into some really scary places is a testament to loyalty and pure friendship.
Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout (Random House, $14). The wildly original eponymous character in this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel makes cameo appearances throughout the book, a trick that reminded me of Hitchcock meandering through his own films. She’s large and lumbering, harshly judgmental of the other characters as well as herself, yet somehow she’s the ultimate truth-teller, director of the show.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Wordsworth, $5). With Clarissa Dalloway, Woolf magically exposes the complexities and contradictions of an ordinary woman’s life through the course of one single brave day. While reading it, everything that’s possible in fiction suddenly hangs in perfect equilibrium.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin (HarperCollins, $4.95). Like her or hate her, Edna Pontellier, the famous adulterer from Chopin’s great novel, was decades before her time in her quest to “find herself” and shake off social convention. Her story, published in 1899, was roundly criticized and even banned, yet remains today a vividly sensual and modern evocation of a time and a place.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (Picador, $14). Housekeeping would also be on my list of all-time best books. Sylvie, the eccentric, dreamy aunt to Ruth and Lucille, arrives to take care of the children, but her “housekeeping” leads to disaster. With its lyrical, deeply resonant prose, Robinson’s first novel is heart-rending, and her Sylvie unforgettable.
All Souls by Christine Schutt (Mariner, $14). In Schutt’s gorgeous, razor-sharp novel, Astra Dell is the “sick girl” whose illness devastates the insular community of a privileged Manhattan girls’ school. Astra’s absence looms over the lives of all the other characters, granting them—for a moment—a certain crystalline clarity of will.