by Kelsey McKinney)
February is a brief month that lingers. The days are short on sunlight and long on emotion. The newness of resolutions fades far more quickly than the piles of snow growing in the streets. Valentine’s Day doesn’t help matters, breeding dread in much of the population and causing emotions to run riot — despair, fear, love, and some unholy combination of all three.
The titles below are novels that embody February. Some are turbulent and choppy, while others are beautifully lyrical; some bleed hard truths, and some are easy reads. All of them are short and brimming with emotion.
Tinkers by Paul Harding
George Washington Carver is dying. The elderly clock repairman withers on his deathbed throughout Paul Harding’s remarkable debut novel. Amidst delusion and suffering, Carver remembers his life and his father, Howard. In the living room of the house he built, Carver evaluates the life he’s leaving. Tinkers is a slow, contemplative, and quiet book with long, beautiful descriptions of snow, dirt, and ticking clocks vivid enough to fill your senses for days.
Recommended for: The literature lover who wants to slow down. And those trapped inside because of massive snow drifts.
Sula by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is best known for her Nobel Prize-winning novel Beloved, but her second novel Sula also features the emotional heft, racial analysis, and strong female protagonists for which Morrison is known. The novel follows the growth of Nel and Sula’s friendship as they fight to overcome overwhelming trauma throughout the course of their lives. Sula is more than a story about female friendship; it is a novel about how people live when reconciliation isn’t an option and betrayal becomes expected. Devotion in many forms is the backbone of Sula, whether it manifests as a dangerous, bulletproof love or a fiery, unforgivable passion.
Recommended for: Anyone interested in the impact that race in America can have on personal lives, and anyone with a best friend for a valentine.
Night by Elie Wiesel
Night is a story of the Holocaust. In this slim book that straddles the line between memoir and novel, Elie Wiesel guides readers through his experience with his father in the Nazi concentration camps. Wiesel’s father dies in the camps, and so does his belief in God and goodness. Everything is destroyed for Elie and his father in just over 100 pages. Despite its brevity, Night isn’t an easy book to read. With lines like, “They went by, fallen, dragging their packs, dragging their lives, deserting their homes, the years of their childhood, cringing like beaten dogs,” Night is a story about that which cannot be resolved.
Recommended for: Readers who love history, and those who want to feel the words that they read like bricks in their stomachs.
The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
Twelve-year-old Frankie Addams loves her brother and his new wife so much that she is almost certain they’ll let her join them on their honeymoon. Frankie is bored with her life in her small Southern town, and — to amuse herself — takes on a very active role in her brother’s wedding, letting her unbridled imagination run free. But despite the humor that arises from Frankie’s delusions, The Member of the Wedding is a dark, brooding novel. Within McCullers’ depiction of Frankie’s awkward adolescence, there lies a powerful critique of race and gender in America.
Recommended for: Those suffering from extreme self-delusion and people who love Sylvia Plath.
The Body Artist by Don Dellilo
Grief can transform people completely. After her much-older husband commits suicide, Lauren Hartke throws herself into her performance art. Inside the house they once shared, she spends most of her time practicing aerobic training and stretching in preparation for her “body work.” The novel takes a surreal turn when Lauren begins to communicate with a man who transfigures each time she finds him in her deserted upstairs rooms. The Body Artist is a short book — especially for DeLillo — that focuses on the philosophical questions that saturate grief and death.
Recommended for: Those haunted by the ghosts of relationships past and readers of David Foster Wallace and science fiction.
All The Living by C.E. Morgan
Aloma is an orphan and a loner until she meets Orren. Their love is brutal and quickly swallows Aloma and the life she had planned for herself. She moves from the boarding school where she has been teaching piano to live with Orren on his father’s tobacco farm in Kentucky. The farm is a lonely place and Aloma is left to find her own creative stimulation as Orren becomes more and more withdrawn. All the Living is a story of young broken love, and Morgan’s writing is nothing short of phenomenal.
Recommended for: Anyone struggling to understand what happened to what was once head-over-heels love.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness has a bad reputation from being over-assigned by high school teachers, but Conrad’s mystical story about a journey up the Congo River is more than a travel narrative. The story revolves around Charles Marlow, a British ivory trader, who travels through a land that devastates and demoralizes him in order to find a rogue ivory trader named Mr. Kurtz. This gripping and horrific tale of human suffering depicts the trials of colonization and the danger of imperial power.
Recommended for: Lovers of heavy plot lines and people who feel like February is a journey that never ends.
Silas Marner by George Eliot
Silas Marner has one of the worst best friends in literary history. William Dane frames Silas for stealing money from their Calvinist congregation and then promptly steals the woman Silas was supposed to marry, leaving him alone and hopeless. But Silas Marner is a tale of love and hope. When Silas discovers a young orphan girl named Eppie, he raises her on his own to become the beauty and the pride of his new village. His case is never cleared, but Eppie delivers him redemption. George Eliot’s famous tome Middlemarch is the subject of book groups across the country right now, but Silas Marner is its slimmer, religious cousin.
Recommended for: Those who want to escape into another world just as complex as their own.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
After their mother commits suicide, Ruth and her younger sister Lucille are raised by a rotating cast of relatives in Fingerbone, Idaho. Housekeeping is a novel about abandonment and eccentricity. The sisters fight as Ruth adjusts to their unconventional and uncomfortable lifestyle and Lucille returns to normal society. Robinson’s prose wraps her characters in a haunting, lyrical novel that can be as cold and dark as the frozen lake the story revolves around.
Recommended for: Those whose greatest lost loves were their relatives and readers who value metaphor.
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Nicole Krauss’ second novel A History of Love takes place in the lifetimes of two very different characters. The first, 15-year-old Alma Singer, is a young girl learning to cope with her father’s death and her mother’s withdrawal. She is named after the character in her parents’ favorite book, which, coincidentally, was written by the second major character, the now very old Leo. Krauss weaves a masterful story about love and loss that spans both generations and cultures.
Recommended for: Those who enjoy a novel that will leave them lying on the floor for days, and people who believe that a beautiful love is a hard one.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Clarissa Dalloway is a 52-year-old English socialite who will do almost anything to make sure that her upper-class party goes off without a hitch. Mrs. Dalloway takes place on a single day in June, as Clarissa busily prepares for her evening party. But Woolf’s prose goes everywhere, winding through the entire lives of each of her characters through flashbacks. The bulk of the novel focuses on Clarissa and a World War I veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Woolf’s novel, though centered around a celebration, is more concretely about social structures and the alienation they can enable.
Recommended for: Those who feel alone at the party.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Sandra Cisneros strikes the reader with the abruptness of her prose. The House on Mango Street is structured as a series of very short chapters, sometimes consisting of only two or three sentences, told from the perspective of the adolescent Esperanza. With its themes of poverty, immigration, family, and the impermanence of home, this novel is incredibly revealing of the human condition. Lines like “Sally got married like we knew she would, young and not ready but married just the same,” comment on gender and, later, abuse, but keep the reader close to Esperanza and her perspective as a young woman growing up in a difficult, impoverished community.
Recommended for: Those in a hard place, and readers who are interested in the struggle of integration after immigration.
Billy Budd by Herman Melville
Hailed as a masterpiece by D.H. Lawrence and other great modernists, Herman Melville’s only posthumous publication is also his shortest. Melville, who is known for the great American tome Moby-Dick, wrote Billy Budd in the last five years of his life. The story follows a charismatic seaman named Billy Budd, who is accused of staging a mutiny. Soon, due to quickly escalating circumstances, Billy finds himself on trial for murder and condemned to be hanged. Melville’s writing here is just as stacked with symbolism as Moby-Dick but more approachable in its lyricism and length.
Recommended for: People who want to read a great American canonical work without the fear of an 800-page tome.
Passing by Nella Larsen
Passing is one of the best short novels about race in America. Written in 1920 and set in Harlem, New York, Passing is the story of two childhood friends and their struggles to “pass” as white. The central tension of the story emerges when Irene discovers that her friend Clare is married to a racist white man who believes Clare is white as well. Love, in Passing, is full of struggle and misunderstanding, and friendships crumble when they are built on a past that no longer exists.
Recommended for: Those who might need to leave a lover, or reunite with a past friend.
O! Pioneers! by Willa Cather
O Pioneers! is Little House on the Prairie for grown-ups. Alexandra Bergson comes from a family of Swedish immigrants living on the prairie. When her father dies, she becomes the matriarch, as well as one of the only prosperous farm owners in the Nebraska countryside. The novel tracks her abandonment by her favorite brother and love interest and her decision to fight forward for a better life for herself. It is a story of the redemptive power of great tragedy, the loss of close friends, and the struggle to survive.
Recommended for: Those who are waiting for a lost lover to return.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein isn’t just a green mask children wear on Halloween. It’s also a compelling winter read. Mary Shelley’s story of the creation of a mad monster by a possibly insane scientist is one oft-retold in American popular culture, but the nuances of Shelley’s original tale are lost in translation. The doctor, Victor Frankenstein, is himself a lonely man who creates a creature who longs for love. The Creature is remorseful, self-conscious, worried, and lonely, but he is also incredibly destructive. Frankenstein quietly evaluates the emotions that compose humanity and the connection between man and his creation.
Recommended for: Lovers of science fiction, and those desperate like the creature for a mate.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Before Hemingway and Faulkner, there was Kate Chopin. Her most famous novel, The Awakening, revolves around Edna Pontellier, a wife and mother who isn’t sure that she wants to be either. While on vacation, Edna falls in love with a man who is not her husband and fights to reconcile her feelings of maternal duty with her desire to be with her lover. Edna struggles to understand her own desires, and begins to realize that her true wish is for independence. The Awakening is not a happy book with a happy ending, but Chopin’s depiction of the trapped housewife is astute and frustratingly accurate.
Recommended for: Women who do not yet know what they want in love or in life.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
When Their Eyes Were Watching God hit bookshelves in 1937, it was immediately criticized for featuring black characters who didn’t try to conform to the standards of white society. The novel centers around a 40-year-old African-American woman named Janie Crawford, who tells the stories of her three marriages to three very different men. Janie must battle feelings of abandonment, loneliness, and frustration throughout her journey through love. She questions the meaning and the import of marriage and, as a result, is faced with nasty gossip from the women of her hometown. Zora Neale Hurston writes clearly in a conversational tone, but with the complexity and lyricism of the best poets.
Recommended for: Readers feeling lost in love.
Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
Truman Capote’s novel is about more than Audrey Hepburn’s famous rendition of the protagonist Holly Golightly. Holly is a country girl transplanted into the upper echelons of New York high society. She lives in an Upper East Side brownstone with the narrator, whom she nicknames “Fred” after her brother. He pays for her rent and frivolities by socializing with Manhattan’s elite men. Unlike the famous movie, though, Capote’s story does not end on a light note. Holly is left in the end stranded on Manhattan without a single substantive relationship. Despite the dark undertones of the story, Capote’s prose is light and utterly precise.
Recommended for: Hopeless romantics and those who struggle to value their relationships.