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Terse, heart-wrenching love stories, powerful American drama, Irish writers and an Australian gem top the novelist's "you absolutely have to read this!" list.

Books That Made a Difference to Anita Shreve

  1. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

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    "It was also in high school that I read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Each of us has a work that first introduced the joys of reading, and for me this is it. I'd been assigned the book for English class and had left it until the last possible minute—a snowy Sunday afternoon. I began to read, rather grudgingly at first, about a ruined man glimpsed by the narrator on the steps of a post office. Immediately, the narrator (and the reader) begins to wonder what could possibly have happened to this man to cause him to look so ravaged at the age of 52. I was drawn in; I was enthralled; I was knocked out. The universe within Wharton's enduring tale is snowbound and isolated, just as frozen and stark as the world outside my window that day. Never before had I experienced reality and fiction merging so powerfully. I have said often that this book was the beginning of my life as a novelist. Certainly, it was the beginning of my lifelong addiction to reading.


    As a child, what was the one book that most made you want to be a writer yourself? Do you have favorite authors from the past that inspire you still today?

    ETHAN FROME by Edith Wharton is that one book, but I also was and am still inspired by Eugene O'Neill, Nathaniel Hawthorn, and Edith Wharton. "

  2. Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill

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    "One of my favorite pieces of arresting fiction is a play: Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill. I read this while still in high school and was so moved and intrigued by the wrenching and entangled relationships within a family during a single day at a vacation house in New England that I then set out to read everything Eugene O'Neill ever wrote. I'd never done that before—systematically tackling one author's oeuvre—and I'm not sure I've done it since. None of the other plays was quite as moving as the first, but I found much that amazed me—both in the work and, later, in the life of O'Neill himself, my first introduction to the romantic angst of a tragic writer, something that in my teens (though decidedly not now) I desperately wanted to be."

  3. Too Far to Go by John Updike

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    "Early in my career as a writer—and as a reader—I came across a piece by John Updike collected in the 1976 edition of the O. Henry Prize stories. Entitled "Separating," it's about a couple trying to tell their children at the dinner table that they are going to separate. The effect of the short story on me was immediate and visceral. I began to cry before I'd finished the first page. The heartache of the father as he has to tell his four children that their family (as they have known it) is now over is beautifully rendered. Ten years later, I remembered that experience and wondered, in a more technical sense, what had so powerfully triggered my emotional response? I decided to take a cold, hard look at the work. I hadn't reached the bottom of the first page before I was again overcome. If ever there was an example of the power of the written word to evoke strong emotion, I believe this is it. ("Separating" can be found in Too Far to Go.) "

  4. Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle

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    "William Kotzwinkle's Swimmer in the Secret Sea first appeared in Redbook in 1975 and was subsequently published alone in a single slim volume. It is the tale of a young couple who live in a northern woods and are on the brink of giving birth to their first child. I cannot bear to tell you here what happens; suffice it to say that there is not a single unnecessary word in this exceptional tale. It can be read in about an hour. I know this because I once read it aloud to a writing class, and at the end of the hour, there wasn't a dry eye in the room."

  5. Cal by Bernard MacLaverty

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    "I must like short, spare novels about love affairs, because another of my favorites is Cal, by another Irish writer, Bernard MacLaverty. A reluctant IRA soldier, Cal, is the getaway driver during the killing of a Protestant policeman. Cal is later attracted to a librarian at his local library, at first not realizing she's the policeman's widow. He seeks her out despite learning that she is, in fact, the dead man's wife, and he becomes too emotionally involved to remove himself from her life. We know the situation, but the widow does not, a brilliant device that ratchets up the tension and delivers a clever twist on the time-honored story of Romeo and Juliet."

  6. Lies of Silence by Brian Moore

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    "Brian Moore's Lies of Silence is a short novel about a love affair told in spare and simple prose. The manager of a Belfast hotel is held hostage by the IRA and given an impossible task: he must agree to plant a bomb in his own hotel, which will slaughter a Protestant reverend and his group of supporters, or the IRA will kill his wife, whom they also hold. To complicate the matter, the hotel manager has been thinking about leaving his shrewish wife for a woman he loves. The moral dilemma is excruciating. My breath was tight and short during the reading of this electric novel, and its ending is the most shocking—and entirely earned—of any book I have ever read."

  7. The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

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    "I have a penchant for short, spare works (as well as for Irish writers), but my favorite novel of all time is not short, not spare, and is written by an Australian expat: Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus. Hazzard, who recently won a National Book Award for The Great Fire, wrote this novel more than 20 years ago. A friend recommended it, and I read it at once. I called my friend the minute I was finished. "I can't believe it," I said, nearly speechless. "Neither can I," she said. Since then, the book has become our litmus test for novels. "I read a great book last week," I will say. "Is it Transit?" she will ask. "Well…no…" I'll have to reluctantly confess, "…but close." A love story embedded within an ingenious plot, Hazzard's book is one that must be savored slowly. I have read this masterpiece half a dozen times, and during each reading I discover something new in its gorgeous prose.

    These books have been with me for years; they have their own special shelf in my office. I take them down from time to time, like someone going to the well, but simply seeing their titles can reawaken the thrill of discovery, the sense of escape into a literate and absorbing universe very different from my own. I should point out here that my shelf isn't filled yet and that there's room for a few more volumes—which is why I'll be overjoyed the next time I'm at the dry cleaners and run into a friend who will lean over, touch me on the arm, and utter that most welcome of all sentences."

  8. The Ladies Man by Elinor Lipman

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    "Another book that I really love is Elinor Lipman's THE LADIES MAN. "

  9. The Music Lesson by Katharine Weber

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    "I'm reading the new Caroline Preston novel, LUCY CROCKER 2.0, and THE MUSIC LESSON by Katharine Weber"

  10. Lucy Crocker 2.0 by Caroline Preston

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    "I'm reading the new Caroline Preston novel, LUCY CROCKER 2.0, and THE MUSIC LESSON by Katharine Weber"

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Why should you listen to her?

Anita Shreve is the author of the novels The Pilot's Wife, The Weight of Water, Eden Close, Strange Fits of Passion, Where or When, and Resistance. She divides her time between Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Anita Shreve began writing fiction while working as a high school teacher. Although one of her first published stories, "Past the Island, Drifting," was awarded an O. Henry Prize in 1975, Shreve felt she couldn't make a living as a fiction writer so she became a journalist. She traveled to Africa, and spent three years in Kenya, writing articles that appeared in magazines such as Quest, US, and Newsweek. Back in the United States, she turned to raising her children and writing freelance articles for magazines. Shreve later expanded two of these articles -- both published in the New York Times Magazine -- into the nonfiction books Remaking Motherhood and Women Together, Women Alone. At the same time Shreve also began working on her first novel, Eden Close. With its publication in 1989, she gave up journalism for writing fiction full time, thrilled, as she says, with "the rush of freedom that I could make it up."


  1. The Weight Of Water by Anita Shreve

    Book Cover: The Weight Of Water by Anita Shreve
    (literature and fiction, mystery and thrillers)

    "Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction Best Novel nominee (1998) : The Weight of Water"


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