If the stream of ‘must-read’ new novels means you’re struggling with cultural FOMO, then take a break with one of these brilliant books from the last century. Yes, they’re probably older than you are, but they still feel relevant.
Of course, this is a necessarily idiosyncratic list – so if you have any other 20th-century recommendations, let us know in the comments.
What to read if you’re…
…dreaming of the countryside
I Capture the Castle (1949) – Dodie Smith
Set in a decaying castle in the English countryside, this sumptuous novel by the author of The 101 Dalmatians is simple escapism. The young narrator, Cassandra, lives with her distant father (preoccupied with writer’s block), stepmother and flighty sister in not-so-splendid isolation, until the arrival of two American men changes everything. You’ll either find yourself unable to put this down or rationing out the pages to make your time with the Mortmain family last as long as possible.
A Certain Smile (1955) – Françoise Sagan
Françoise Sagan writes with all the charm and insouciance you’d expect from a French author, and this may help appease any longings for a European holiday. Sagan’s first coming-of-age novel, Bonjour Tristesse, written when she was 18, was an international success; this second book explores similar themes. Dominique, a university student, takes an older lover in a story that runs through Parisian apartments and streets to the sunny beaches of Cannes. It is witty and joyously French.
…longing for adventure
Goodbye to Berlin (1935) – Christopher Isherwood
In 1929, novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood left London for Berlin. There, as the decadence of the Weimar Republic gave way to the rise of Nazism, he observed a febrile moment in history when the city was alive with jazz clubs, cabaret and art. Goodbye to Berlin is inspired by the incredible characters he met on the way. It feels like nothing could be less interesting than our own socially distanced lives at the moment, so diving into Isherwood’s fascinating book is the perfect escape.
…in the mood for melodrama
Careful He Might Hear You (1963) – Sumner Locke Elliott
This precious book tells the story of PS, an orphan growing up in Sydney’s suburbs. PS’s world is turned upside-down when a custody battle arises between his two aunts, each offering a vastly different way of life. While there aren’t any mothers in this book, there is no shortage of maternal love and devotion – and if you’re really in the mood for melodrama, there’s a 1983 film of the book starring Robyn Nevin, too.
Cold Comfort Farm (1932) – Stella Gibbons
It can be surprisingly difficult to find funny books, but Cold Comfort Farm is one of them. The strong-willed heroine, Flora, is a 1930s Emma Woodhouse, or Elle Woods, who, after the death of her parents, embarks on a well-intentioned quest to ‘fix’ her gloomy family at Cold Comfort Farm. Hilarity ensues, and the book delivers on the romance and happy ending we all need right now.
…if you loved The Vanishing Half
Passing (1929) – Nella Larsen
Written during the Harlem Renaissance, a literary explosion of African American writing and culture, Passing tells the story of two mixed-race women in New York, one of whom is ‘passing’ for white. Just like Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half (a New York Times bestseller and PRIMER‘s last book club pick), Larsen’s novel explores the consequences of trying to outrun racial discrimination, in this case tragically. Almost one hundred years after publication, this short novel still feels relevant now.