Some books are more plot-based, while others hone in on the inner and outer lives of the people involved (aka, character-based). For certain books, pretty prose is a focus, and for others, they are more concerned with action or atmosphere.
If you relish reading about complex, memorable, compelling characters (note: this does not always mean a character is likable. In fact, some of the most famous, interesting, well-drawn characters are not likable), I highly recommend reading the books below.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. For me, Yanagihara is the most skilled I’ve read thus far in my life at character development. This book is also one you’ll never forget. It won’t be for everyone. There is a lot of graphic sexual abuse and trauma in this story (including self-harm). It’s also a story about the light, loyalty, tenderness, and love of friendship. This one follows four men and their friendships over the course of their lives since college.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. This one follows five inter-connected characters at Westish College on the shores of Lake Michigan. Henry, who throws an off-pitch that badly injures his roommate and friend, Owen. Mike Schwartz, the baseball team captain who realizes he is always coaching and leading others, at the cost of his own goals and career. Owen, who becomes caught up in an illicit, jaw-dropping affair on campus with high stakes. Guert Affenlight, the college President who, to his own shock, falls desperately in love with the wrong person. And Pella Affenlight, the President’s daughter, who comes to the college to escape her diminishing marriage and start over.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is one of my favorites. This is a dark one, rife with drug addiction, a seedy atmosphere, and loss. Yet, Tartt is a stellar writer. Her sentences glitter and conjure a sense of magic (at least, they did for me). Most of the characters in this book are loathsome. But they are such fun to read about. I blew through this 700-pager in one week.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Each chapter of this book follows a different person from within one complex family tree. They all take place in different cities and years, though everyone is related. Following every chapter, I thought, the next one can’t possibly top this last chapter, and each one did.
We Are Water by Wally Lamb tells the story of Annie Oh who, in middle age, leaves her husband of almost 30-years, with whom she is generally happily married, to marry Viveca, a swanky art dealer in New York, who helped promote and actualize Annie’s success. Annie’s impending wedding provokes some very mixed reactions though and opens a Pandora’s box of toxic secrets — dark and painful truths that have festered below the surface of the Ohs’ lives. This one is told in the alternating voices of the Ohs — nonconformist Annie; her ex-husband, Orion, a psychologist; Ariane, the do-gooder daughter, and her twin, Andrew, the rebellious only son; and free-spirited Marissa, the youngest Oh.
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans. A collection of short stories, each of them standing alone, these are still excellent in terms of character development. I don’t typically love short stories because I prefer the depth and detail of a novel. Evans is able to encompass this depth with her characters though, even in the abbreviated form of short stories.
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe. Mad Men meets Sex and the City, this book follows young working girls in New York City during the 1950s. Serious, Ivy-Leaguer Caroline. Dreamy, head-in-the-clouds April. Free-spirited, naive Gregg, and disillusioned, ambitious, single mother Barbara. This book is atmospheric, insightful, and really pulls you into the character’s lives.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. In this story, Susie Salmon is murdered at the age of fourteen. While parts of this book are dark and quite sad, much of it is incredibly beautiful. From heaven, Susie watches her family’s lives unfold below. She also sees her father hunting her killer, as well as, her killer himself on the run. It’s a page-turner, as well as, a deeply emotionally moving, luminous story.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. This one is a series of inter-connected vignettes. Each is a separate story (all of them are women), though they all are somewhat connected to one another. Some of these women are heterosexual, others are homosexual, a few love all sexes, and one does not identify as male or female. Some are married, others are not. Some are monogamous, others are not. This is a stellar read.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Ifemelu heads to America on her own, where she struggles through poverty and learning about what it means to be black for the first time. Obinze had hoped and intended to join her, but something happens that throws this off course. He ends up in London in a dangerous, undocumented situation. Fifteen years later, their paths will cross again. But meanwhile, the course of each of their lives, wow. This one is so good.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin. If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life? During the 1960s, four siblings visit a mystical woman they’ve heard is in their neighborhood who, supposedly, can foresee this. The prophecies inform their next five decades of their lives. There is a section of the book devoted to the life and perspective of each sibling, and these are so rich, and so well done.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents push hard to ensure that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. In this narrative, we get to know each of the family members intimately, and it’s a wild ride.
The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan. This is another one of my favorites. Evelyn has been happily married to her husband for forty years, but their son’s messy divorce and his not-so-great inner character has put them at rare odds; James, a beleaguered paramedic, has spent most of his marriage haunted by his wife’s family’s expectations and worries he’ll never be good enough as they barely scrape by; Delphine has thrown caution to the wind and left a peaceful French life (and marriage) for an impulsive, exciting romance in America; and Kate, partnered with Dan for a decade, has seen every kind of wedding and has vowed never to have one of her own, while still everyone judges hers and Dan’s relationship as “less than” since it isn’t “official.”
Needful Things by Stephen King. Leland Gaunt moves into town and opens a new shop in Castle Rock called Needful Things. Anyone who enters his store finds that the object of his or her lifelong dreams and desires happens to be there: a prized baseball card, a healing amulet, you name it. In addition to a token payment though, Gaunt requests that each person perform a little “deed” of his choosing. Usually, a seemingly innocent prank played on someone else from town. These practical jokes soon cascade out of control though, as something dark takes over the town.