The Books That Changed My Life

My love of books is no secret. I inhabit a room overflowing with them. Piles spill out from my shelves, covering the floor, desk, and chair. A room in our guest house hosts hundreds more.

I have always been a reader; at least, ever since Ruby the Copycat at the age of two. Since then, my tastes have matured slightly, moving on to authors like J.K. Rowling and Eva Ibbotson in elementary school, Harper Lee and Sandra Cisneros in junior high (all right, some YA fiction by Sarah Dessen and John Green may have snuck in there as well), and coming into full bloom in high school, when I devoured Jane Austen, Truman Capote, the Bronte sisters, Sylvia Plath, Charles Baudelaire, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and everything in between ever since.

Long ago, I kept a blog of favorite books by era. Most came from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which have always been my favorite periods.

Recently, as my attention wandered at the start of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, I began to think of the books that changed my life. There certainly hasn’t been a dearth of them, but some have resonated more than others. I realized, in compiling my list, that the books that changed my life are the books I list as my favorites.

A List of Life-Changing Books:

1. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

The magnitude of my love for Breakfast and Tiffany’s and Truman Capote knows no bounds. At fifteen, I grabbed the novella from the library shelf shortly after watching the movie. Knowing I often prefer the book to movie, I wanted to see if the novella could top Audrey Hepburn in her black dress and pearls. It did. I never talk about the lessons I learned from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I likely never will. The novella came at the time when I needed it most, and I will forever be grateful for picking it up when I did.

Several years ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article that says all I ever wanted to say about the brilliance of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. If you haven’t yet read it, please do. It may just change your life.

2. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

Chronologically, I suppose, The Virgin Suicides comes first on the list. My ninth grade English teacher assigned a project in which we had to choose and defend (or oppose) a novel as a “modern classic.” She passed out a list of books to choose from, and I immediately purchased three, well beyond the call of the assignment. From those three I bought came two of my all-time favorites: The Virgin Suicides and Never Let Me Go. I didn’t write about either.

The Virgin Suicides was the first book to seriously introduce me to contemporary literary fiction. Eugenides style flowed seamlessly and rhythmically. His style quickly became an inspiration for my own, and I analyzed every passage stylistically and structurally, hoping to learn from it.  I hated putting the book down. To this day, I can recite the last page and half of the novel.

A couple years ago, I was visiting Princeton, New Jersey, where I have family. While at Starbucks, I recognized Eugenides, who’s a professor there. I was too shy, starstruck, and anxious to go up and say anything.

3. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

My friend and I call one another by our Jane Austen nicknames– she is Jane Bennett; I am Elinor Dashwood.

Sense and Sensibility was the first Jane Austen novel I ever read. Its combination of wit and charm, which permeates all of her novels, immediately drew me in. With Elinor, though, I shared a particular affinity; never before or again have I so identified with a character. I reveled in her happiness and learned from her mistakes. Still, I hope a bit of Marianne has rubbed off on me.

All of Austen’s novels find their way into my “favorites” pile. Pride and Prejudice, for instance, certainly gives Sense and Sensibility a run for its money. Something about the trials and imperfections of the characters in Sense and Sensibility make it more relatable. We can’t all have Mr. Darcy.

4. Kensington Gardens by Rodrigo Fresán

Kensington Gardens is by far the most obscure and bizarre book to make the list. The novel melds modern times, the Swinging Sixties in London, Edwardian England, and Peter Pan. Are you still with me?

Best described as surreal, the novel incorporates a biography of J.M. Barrie and the writing of Peter Pan into narrator’s narrative. And this is where it gets confusing: the structure inverts. I have spent hours theorizing about the novel’s structure. The easiest way to describe it is that the primary plot inverts to the secondary plot and what is supposed to be the secondary plot becomes the primary plot. There’s a tertiary plot, but I’d rather skip that.

Kensington Garden opened my eyes to experiments in structure and non-linear form. Fresán, an Argentinian-born, Spanish-based author, manages to keep weaving in and building upon various elements of the plot while the structure seems in free fall.

I picked up the novel several years ago after seeing it prominently displayed in my school’s library. Natasha Wimmer’s translation is spot on. I’m always wary of translation and, in this case, was afraid that the original might not measure up to Wimmer’s English version. I bought a Spanish-language copy to check; it’s equally, if not more, entrancing.

The book didn’t garner especially rave reviews in the United States. Part of that may stem its difficulty to read. Several friends, many of whom share my love of Peter Pan, abandoned the novel about 50 pages in after becoming lost in the complexities.

The key to reading Kensington Gardens is commitment. A love of history, fairy tales, Peter Pan, The Beatles, and surrealism are also suggested.

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