Kathryn Harrison's 6 favorite books featuring parentless protagonists
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (Dover, $3.50). A plucky orphan determined to find the love her childhood lacked, a brooding Byronic suitor, a mad woman locked in an attic, dark secrets, vengeance, just desserts: This is a Gothic romance with a feminist twist. Jane may not be beautiful or wellborn, but she stands in the company of literature's greatest heroines.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (Dover, $5). Narrated by a male Cinderella with a wicked stepfather, this bildungsroman is my favorite among Dickens' novels. Dickens elevated and enriched the Gothic romance through humor and wild flights of fancy, and by creating a world that is often surreal in its rendering of very real social problems.
The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Wordsworth, $15). There's no better place to find an orphan than in a collection of fairy tales. I find Andersen's work chilling and irresistible. In "The Red Shoes," a girl falls in love with a pair of beautiful dancing shoes and is punished for her inability to put anything, even God, above them.
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (Dover, $3). The story of Lily Bart reads like the proverbial car wreck. It's going to turn out badly; human mistakes — even small ones — accrue to create dire traps. But we can't stop watching and hoping for the reversal that will save Lily.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (Vintage, $15). An unreliable narrator confesses his erotic fixation on a fatherless girl whom he spirits away, at the death of her mother, on a tragicomic road trip across America. Flamboyant in style, sharp in wit, cruel, comic, and morally ambiguous, this is no cautionary tale but a suspenseful examination of the complexity of human personality and the power of forbidden desire.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (Vintage, $15). The scientifically engineered orphans in this suspenseful, dystopian novel discover the purpose of their lives slowly — agonizingly so. Yet the reader, while following their search for understanding, becomes ever more invested in the characters' welfare, while being pulled through a landscape at once strange and familiar.