Isn’t it a thrill to read, for the first time, what turns out to be one of your very favorite novels? It’s an experience hard to duplicate. You can reread the book, and greatly enjoy it again, but it’s not quite the same as that initial “adventure.”
Yet one can partly re-create the experience by reading what’s considered an author’s second-best novel. You’ll get a percentage of the aforementioned thrill — and also get the opportunity to think about what’s similar to the favorite book, what’s different, and why one novel is better than the other.
Of course, what you think is an author’s first- or second-best novel is subjective, and may differ from the critical and popular consensus. For instance, The Brothers Karamazov is actually a more impressive accomplishment than Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s amazing Crime and Punishment, yet I like the latter a bit better. It has a leaner narrative, and a feverish intensity that the more rambling, albeit even deeper The Brothers Karamazov doesn’t 100% match.
Jane Eyre is by far Charlotte Bronte’s most famous book — and, as some of you know, it’s my favorite novel by any author. But I got a good dose of satisfaction reading Bronte’s excellent Villette — whose lonely, brooding, self-reliant, buffeted-by-life Lucy Snowe protagonist reminds me of Jane, and whose crusty M. Paul Emanuel character has elements of Jane’s romantic partner Edward Rochester. Still, the set-in-France Villette doesn’t have quite the unforgettable heartache and primal passion of Bronte’s earlier book, though it does have plenty of melancholy that partly stems from being penned after the early deaths of Charlotte’s sisters Emily and Anne.
My favorite John Steinbeck novel is The Grapes of Wrath — a powerful, compassionate book that cries out for social justice while never losing sight of the need to have that cry filtered through the prism of memorable, three-dimensional characters like Tom Joad, Ma Joad, and Jim Casy. But I also got a lot of pleasure reading what I and many others consider Steinbeck’s second-best novel: East of Eden. The book doesn’t quite pack the emotional wallop or economic-inequality indignation of The Grapes of Wrath, but it’s actually more ambitious in certain ways — with its multigenerational drama covering decades, and its frequent use of biblical symbolism.
The Great Gatsby is of course thought of as F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s best novel, and that iconic book indeed contains beautiful prose and more (even if one wants to sometimes say “who gives a … about these rich people” 🙂 ). But Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night also offers readers much to enjoy and admire, despite not having Gatsby‘s near-perfect construction.
Then there’s the case of George Eliot. Middlemarch is her most impressive novel, and it’s my favorite of hers in a way. Among other things, it’s hard to find troubled marriages dissected as expertly as the two unions spotlighted in that book. But the lengthy Middlemarch can be a slog at times, unlike Eliot’s very readable yet still multidimensional Daniel Deronda, Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, and Adam Bede. Heck, I think I prefer the riveting Daniel Deronda over Middlemarch.
A similar discussion can be had about Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Not surprisingly, the epic One Hundred Years of Solitude is my favorite novel of his; there are few literary works that as compellingly and comprehensively cover “the human condition.” But the legendary novel can be confusing at times — partly because of all those similar names! Love in the Time of Cholera is a very respectable second for me among Garcia Marquez’s works, as it depicts many facets of romance while maintaining a fairly linear story line.
Also not surprisingly, the acclaimed The Poisonwood Bible is my favorite Barbara Kingsolver novel. It unsparingly looks at the devastation of colonialism and evangelicalism while three-dimensionally depicting the Price family: the vile missionary father, and the beleaguered mother and four daughters. Prodigal Summer is my second favorite of Kingsolver’s other excellent novels; it’s less ambitious than Poisonwood, but does nicely challenge and entertain the reader with three separate story lines that come together at the end.
Mass-audience novels? If one considers the Harry Potter series to be one long book, then that’s my favorite J.K. Rowling work. Her much different The Casual Vacancy is a distant but satisfying second despite its grim subject matter and its much smaller canvas. But if one looks at the Harry Potter series as seven books (which it is!), my favorite is the initial one: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Not as complex and well-written as the later novels, but the thrills of first discovering Rowling’s wizard world are many. The series’ third installment — Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — is my second favorite, and a memorable read.
Well, I could go on and on, but it’s time for this week’s questions: What are examples of your favorite and second-favorite novels by an author? Does the second book give you some or a lot of the thrill of the first? What makes your favorite books better than the runners-up?
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.