Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the books that stay with you long after you’ve finished them. This could be anywhere on the spectrum of Emotional Reactions to Things You Have Read (this isn’t a real thing, yet) : it could be books you hated to your very core, or it could be books you loved so much that you feel actual heartbreak when they’re finished. For me, the books that stick to my ribs are the ones that I either love so much it hurts, or they’re the ones that challenge me to think differently about the world. These are not mutually exclusive criteria. They overlap, sometimes. Here are a few of the books that come to mind when I think of the books that have stayed with me and even shaped me (as a person and a reader, natch).
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: I first read this book in high school, and I revisited it in college when I took a (terrible) freshman-level English class that the instructor turned into a dystopian-themed course (because that’s what his dissertation was on, obviously). I loved the book when I first read it and found the entire thing incredibly haunting. When I revisited it as a depressed, displaced 20-year-old (I refer to my early college days as my “Dark Days,” and that, my friends, is a story for another time), I found that I still loved it, but that I also identified with it in new ways.
Like Offred, I felt incredibly stifled by my life and longed for the days gone by, when things were easier and freer. Obviously I wasn’t living in a patriarchal society in which women weren’t allowed to read and the few fertile women were sold to powerful older men to basically be Baby Machines, but there were aspects of the book that stood out to me I had missed the first time through. I suspect if I were to revisit the book now, nearly 10 years later, I would find other things.
Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty: This one is harder to explain, mostly because my relationship to it is more complicated than my relationship to the other books on this list. I first came across McCafferty’s funny, achingly real Sloppy Firsts when I was 19 or so. My cousin had recommended it. Although it can sometimes be found in the adult fiction section, it is definitely YA, and at that point in time, I didn’t read YA, I didn’t understand YA, and we weren’t yet in the publishing boom that is YA today. So my frame of reference was super warped and limited.
I remember reading this book and staying up all night to finish it, because Jessica Darling and I were, like, totally the same girl. I mean, not even remotely at all the same girl, because I didn’t run track and I definitely didn’t have anyone as challenging or intriguing as Marcus Flutie interested in me, but apart from that, we were totally the same person. Before reading Sloppy Firsts, I had no idea that YA fiction could be so great, that YA fiction could be funny and really smart and so real that sometimes it was like holding up a mirror to myself. Before this, my frame of reference for what YA books looked like was Sweet Valley High novels. So this revolutionized my view of books and reading.
I credit McCafferty for being my gateway author into the weird, wonderful, rich world of YA. If you’ve spent a second of time with me in real life, read my Twitter, or taken a look at my blog, you know that YA fiction is where my passion is. So this book—this entire series, really—has stuck with me and shaped me into the passionate (sometimes crazy) reader that I am today.
The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver: I like to joke about this one, because it might be the book that took me the longest time to read, like, ever. By the time I finished Shriver’s smart, thoughtful, Sliding Doors-esque novel about a woman with two different timelines splitting off from one moment in her life, I’d been reading the book for close to a year. I’d read some, put it down, and come back to it sometime later. I didn’t start over. I just kept going.
Shriver’s book really is excellent—and I remember that at the time I couldn’t believe how immersed I’d become in these characters’ lives only to drop them again without really meaning to. But it would happen, again and again. And yet, I kept coming back to the novel. I found myself thinking about the characters during those in-between times, which must mean something.
Here’s the thing: I read The Post-Birthday world years ago, back before I started blogging and reviewing books. I’ve read literally hundreds of books since then. But I still think about Irina and Lawrence and Ramsey Acton (you have to say his full name, because reasons). I still wonder about those richly drawn characters, and I feel this weird pull to revisit them now. I’m closer in age to them than I was when I read it originally. Would I root for one of Irina’s timelines more than I did before? How would my growth as a person impact my reading of it if I were to pick this one back up now?
That’s the thing about books that stick with you: they change as you change.