I often find it impossible to pick my favorites "of all time" in any category. And with books? Forget about it. There's too many to choose from that should be on the list.
And yet, when Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, asked me (in the book) to pick my top three novels, I took some time to think about it.
These are the three books I came up with:
Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk
Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor
Three Without Fear by Robert C. Du Soe
I've read all three of these books so many times I've lost count. Indeed, I have whole passages practically memorized. And Marjorie Morningstar sits at the top of the list because no matter how many times I read it, I always cry at the end.
Having picked the top three, the next question Maass asks is "What do they have in common?"
I'll start with what all three have in common: A fantastic sense of location. In Marjorie Morningstar, Wouk creates a Manhattan so compelling that as a teenager (when I first read it) I couldn't wait to visit the city. Winsor does the same for 17th century London in Forever Amber. And finally, Du Soe creates not a city, but a region–Baja California, and the adventures that lay in wait for three children travelling to San Diego on their own. Each of these books evokes a time and place that are magical, and utterly takes readers out of their own worlds and thrusts them into new and exciting places.
Marjorie Morningstar and Forever Amber are very similar in their themes, if not in their times and locations. Both novels feature beautiful young females with strong senses of themselves and no real concept of defeat or failure. It's not that they don't experience setbacks, it's that they confront every situation with a degree of confidence that makes their failures bittersweet and their triumphs all the more satisfying. I first read both of these novels when I was around 13 or 14, a time in my life when self confidence was a commodity I had little of. I wanted to be these women, it didn't matter if they made mistakes–I wanted to take life by the horns and experience it. Hard to do in the little California town I grew up in.
The final question Maass asks is (I'm paraphrasing) "What do you bring into your own novel from your top three favorites?"
One of the things I'm bringing to my own novel is obvious–it's set in 17th century London, just like my beloved Forever Amber. Mine is set about 15 years later though, which does make a major difference in some ways (think about a more modern story set in 1980 versus 2005).
The second thing I'm taking is a female lead with a strong sense of self. My heroine is the 17th century version of an amateur sleuth and she's about 12 years older, but she shares some of the same characteristics of Amber St. Clare (Forever Amber) and Marjorie Morgenstern (Marjorie Morningstar) that I found so compelling.
So I leave you with this question:
What are your top three novels of all time?