The World of Tomorrow, Brendan Mathews's engrossing debut novel, tracks three Irish brothers tumbling through New York during an eventful two weeks in June 1939. With the wit of a ’30s screwball comedy and the depth of a thoroughly researched historical novel, this epic novel grabs the reader from the beginning to its suspenseful climax. Mathews picks 10 of his favorite epic page-turners.
The world is full of long novels—even epically long novels—that cast their spell early and before you know it, you find yourself on page 400, racing toward the end. These are books that make you miss your stop on the subway. That make you stay up into the small hours, despite that six-thirty alarm clock. That you wish for on a long flight, when you’re faced with the prospect of binge-watching home improvement shows on a five-inch screen.
What follows is an idiosyncratic list of Epic Page-Turners. Here, “epic” means a minimum of 400 pages. As for “page turners”—these are books that I, a ponderously slow reader, devoured in the same way my children once raced through each new installment of The Magic Treehouse series.
Every one of these books invests deeply in the creation of vivid characters, and at the same time puts those characters in motion in ways that make the stories read like a fever dream. I often turned to these books as I worked on my own first novel—which clocked in at a feverish 550 pages—hoping to crack the code that made each such a joy to read.
1. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
The novel that gave us Becky Sharp, one of the great anti-heroines of British fiction, along with a chapter titled “How to Live Well on Nothing a Year” that explains how Becky and her dashing soldier husband impoverished half the tradesmen in London. With its intermingled tales of war overseas and financial ruin at home, it’s sometimes eerily on the money for our current moment. And its cast of characters—virtuous (but dull) Amelia, odious Lord Steyn, pretentious Jos, and many more—will out-vamp the cast of any reality TV show.
2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Somehow I managed to major in English without ever reading Jane Eyre. Not until my forties did I tackle what has since become one of my All-Time Favorites. Jane’s voice is wise, principled, and sometimes—as when she unleashes her temper in the Lowood chapters—sharp and cold as iron. When she utters the iconic line “Reader, I married him,” you will smile, sigh, weep, or all of the above.
3. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Just what was in the water at the Brontë house? No sibling authors have ever equaled Charlotte and Emily Brontë (not to mention their sister Anne Brontë, who was no slouch herself). While Jane Eyre doesn’t stint on the strange and otherworldly—Rochester dresses as a fortune-teller, Bertha lurks in the attic, St. John Rivers has odd ideas about marriage—Wuthering Heights takes Gothic passion to new, well, heights with its multigenerational tale of Heathcliff, Cathy, Cathy Junior, a ghost, and a ramshackle house high above the Yorkshire moors.
4. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Any contender for the title of Great American Novel must reckon with Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece, which sends the nameless narrator on a scorching picaresque from the rural South to the urban North. But honestly, you don’t need me to tell you to read Invisible Man. If you’ve read it, then you already know. And if you haven’t, then put this on the top of your fall reading list.
5. The World According to Garp by John Irving
The first really big novel that I ever read, Garp taught me in high school that a novel was limited only by the author’s audacity and imagination. This one pulls together wrestling, writing, “gradual” students, parenthood, marriage, infidelity, Ellen Jamesians, trans football players, memoir-writing mothers, and more into a novel with a heart that’s even bigger than its 650 pages. It’s Irving at his most Dickensian.
Donna Tartt, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her mammoth novel The Goldfinch, knows a thing or two about high-page-count novels. Her debut was a mystery/thriller set on the campus of a New England liberal arts college where louche, classics-obsessed students commit a crime and then unravel under the weight of the consequences. As a professor at a New England liberal arts college, I can assure you it’s all fiction. Well, almost all of it.
One sister recounts the story of her younger sister, who died when her car plunged off a bridge. Sound simple enough? Not with a novel that mixes 1930s politics with noir-ish chapters about two doomed lovers and a mysterious sci-fi novel that gives the book its title. Just who is (are?) the narrator(s)? And how are these stories connected? Atwood keeps you guessing, and then parcels out the answers only as the novel races to a close.
Zadie Smith’s rambunctious debut novel brings London to teeming life in the story of the Jones and Iqbal families. Smith has an eye for spotting fundamentalism in many forms—religious, political, and scientific—and her intermingled cast of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Chalfenists, and members of KEVIN and FATE collide spectacularly at the public unveiling of FutureMouse. Keeping up with it all might set your head spinning, but every page is rich with the sights, sounds, and scents of a city on the brink of a new millennium.
Michael Chabon’s sweeping novel of New York in the Golden Age of comic books begins with the unexpected arrival of Josef Kavalier, who has fled Nazi-occupied Prague in a giant coffin. Joe and his cousin Sammy Klay join forces to create a new superhero, and the story that follows is full of surprises (Salvador Dali makes an appearance) and heart-rending turns of fate, but the whole enterprise is illuminated by Chabon’s obvious love for these characters and this era.
Edward P. Jones’s first novel, an early contender for Best Book of the 21st Century, imagines a family of black slaveowners in 1850s Virginia. Jones narrates from multiple points of view, moving among the inhabitants of fictional Manchester County, with occasional detours that draw in a 20th century graduate student and even God Himself. Jones slides effortlessly through decades, from intimate moments to a sudden frenzy of peril, when a lifetime of struggle seems compressed into a minute. Can a book be both lyric and epic? This one certainly is.