My top picks of novels reviewed in 2016

A large chunk of my year 2016 went into reading and reviewing bestselling novels.

In preparation for my annual choices of the best novels whose reviews I posted that year,  I looked back through the bestseller lists for 1966, 1956, 1946, 1936, 1936, 1916, 1906, 1918 and 1908.

I saw many titles whose stories I couldn’t remember.

Other novels I remembered because they were creatively awful.

Only a few stuck with me as stories that I remember for the right reasons: good storytelling, credible characterization, lucid prose, stimulating ideas. From those, I chose one novel for each of the nine years.

The best of the bestsellers

None of these nine novels will disappoint readers:

The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, 1966
The Tribe that Lost Its Head by Nicholas Monserrat 1956
Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque, 1946
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell 1936
The Hounds of Spring by Sylvia Thompson, 1926
The Real Adventure by Henry Kitchell Webster, 1916
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, 1906
A Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter, 1918
The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg by Louis Bromfield, 1908

(Normally I would have ignored The House of Mirth because my review was posted in 2015, the anniversary year for the first time the novel hit the bestseller list, and it was one of my top choices for that year. The other bestsellers of 1906, however, were so weak that there wasn’t even a runner-up to choose this year.)

My favorites of the best bestsellers

My favorites of the bestsellers are not the best novels on the list: They are merely the ones that, for one reason or another, have most appeal for me personally.

The Fixer by Malamud

I dithered between choosing between two dark novels about resistance to oppression: The Fixer or the Arch of Triumph.  Both created shiveringly clear images of their ineffectual, almost pathetic, leading character’s suffering under political oppression.

My choice is The Fixer. I chose it mainly because in English translation Remarque’s novel feels ponderous and outdated. Since Malamud wrote in English, it seems more immediate.

The Real Adventure by Webster

I can’t deny part of the charm of The Real Adventure for me is the illustrations by R. M. Crosby. They made Rose Stanton come alive in all her scatterbrained young charm and maturing womanhood.

Webster’s story of the suffragette’s daughter raised with no ability to do anything but lead the sort of decorative, trophy wife life suffragettes said they despised stuck me as being psychologically spot-on.

So, too, did Rose’s ridiculous attempts to develop interests in subjects that interested her husband and his failure to recognize the motivation that underpinned them.

And Rose’s older sister, Portia, who resents having to pay the bills for her mothers’ and sister’s upkeep is so real you would recognize her on the street.

For 1916, Adventure was a real departure in fictional discussions of what marriage ought to be.

It’s still a real departure from what most marriages become.

I’ll remember The Real Adventure long after I’ve forgotten many better novels.

A Daughter of the Land by Stratton-Porter

A Daughter of the Land is a indefensible choice for a top novel.

It simply appeals to me.

Kate Bates is a country girl. She’d have been happy to marry before she was out of her teens if should could have had advantages equal to those her father gave her seven brothers: a house, a 200-acres of land, and farm stock

She knows she’ll get nothing, so at 16, Kate packs up and leaves home.

Kate makes many mistakes, but she learns from them, picks herself up, and goes on.

Life makes her more resilient but not harder.

Daughter is not as good a novel as The Real Adventure but it’s equally unusual for its day in its attitude toward women’s rights and marriage.

And Kate isn’t as appealing as Rose, but she’s someone you’d be glad to have as a neighbor and friend.


That finishes up 2016.

I hope you’ll be back in 2017 as I finish up my self-appointed task of re-reviewing all the bestselling novels published between 1900 and 1969.

Happy New Year.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

My picks of the 1916 bestselling novels

Picking the most enduring bestselling novels from 1916 presented a bit of a problem. Of the four that I found were best-written on worthwhile topics, I could remember only the barest information about three of them by the time I needed to pick my favorites.

The good novel I remember (I remember quite a bit about the novels I thought were awful) is The Real Adventure by Henry Kitchell Webster.

It, and two other good but forgettable novels, explore marriage in the twentieth century.

The Real Adventure

Director questions well-dressed Rose about her qualifications.
Rose asks for a job in the chorus.

Webster focuses on a bright young woman whose suffragette mother and University of Chicago education didn’t prepare her to do anything except be a society hostess.

After Rose Stanton becomes Mrs. Rodney Aldrich, however, she wants to be more than social hostess and mother to Roddy’s children.

She wants to be worthy of the same level of mutual professional respect Roddy accords his male friends.

That means Rose needs to find something she can actually do.

Adinner guest’s remark that the chorus line was the only good-paying line of work open to good-looking, unskilled young women with moral principles sticks in her mind.

After her twins are born, Rose packs a suitcase and leaves home.

She gets a room a few physical blocks but hundreds of Chicago socio-economic miles away.

As she hoped, Rose gets a job in a chorus line.

She has no talent for dance, but she’s good-looking, works hard, and gets along with everybody.

When new costumes are needed quickly, Rose volunteers to design and sew what’s needed.

Rose has found her niche.

She still has to develop a professional career on a par with that of her lawyer husband.

Webster makes the differences of Rose’s and Roddy’s response to settling into marriage seem perfectly plausible.

And Webster doesn’t take sides.

He makes the making of the Aldrich marriage a real adventure.

Life and Gabriella

Gabriella sports fashionable bobbed hair as she sits sewing
Frontispiece by C. Allan Gilbert for “Life and Gabriella.”

I suspect that Life and Gabriella: The Story of a Woman’s Courage is a better-written novel than Webster’s work, but Ellen Glasgow chose a more ordinary life for her heroine, one that had been used repeatedly in other novels.

Good, reliable Gabriella Carr sacrifices herself to take care of her irresponsible family and later her even more irresponsible husband.

I enjoyed Glasgow’s writing while I was reading it—her workmanship is delightful—but Gabriella herself made little impression.

She’s just one more self-sacrificing heroine in a long string of indistinguishable, self-sacrificing heroines in novels.

The Heart of Rachael

The Heart of Rachael is another kettle of fish entirely. Nobody would call Rachael Fairfax self-sacrificing or principled.

Rachael always chooses the path of least resistance.

She married a divorced man whom she did not love because that looked like an easy way out of spinsterhood.

Later she divorces him and marries another man when that looked easier than coping with an alcoholic husband and rebellious stepdaughter.

Kathleen Norris makes Rachael believable, but she can’t make her likeable: Rachael has too little core for readers to care about.

Norris focuses her attention on the topic of divorce. Even there her attention to detail is admirable, but not memorable.


© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Real Adventure harmonizes big ideas, great story

Rose Stanton’s mother, a women’s rights advocate, made a little money writing, but her daughter Portia was the real breadwinner, sacrificing to put her two brothers and Rose through college.

Unwittingly, Mrs. Stanton left Rose unsuited for any job but socialite wife, which is what Rose becomes shortly after meeting millionaire lawyer Rodney Aldrich on a tram.

Rose holds tight to Rodney's arm during their whirlwind courtship.
The lovers, Rose and Roddy

The Real Adventure by Henry Kitchell Webster

R. M. Crosby, Illus.  Bobbs-Merrill, 1916.  1916 bestseller #6.
Project Gutenberg eBook #15384. My grade: A.


The third week of their honeymoon, Rose panics when Rodney, pausing in reading a German textbook, tells her, “The insanity has worn off.”

How can she hold him apart from sexual attraction?

She wants to be someone he can respect for her work, as he respects his male friends.

What Rose does to earn Roddy’s friendship—and how it affects everyone around her—is the heart of the novel.

Henry Kitchell Webster not only has a yarn to spin through a host of crisply drawn characters, but he also has a subject to explore.

Webster wrote The Real Adventure as a serial, which would be the best way in which to read it:  The single-volume format makes it far too tempting to skip ahead to see what happens.

You’ll lose the book’s enduring value if you skip over the passages in which Webster probes the question of what makes a marriage good for both husband and wife.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni