Last week I talked about excellent late-career novels. This week, the focus will be on some of literature’s best debut novels!
First books are often a mixed bag, with many novelists in that situation still getting the hang of the fiction-writing thing. But a number of them hit the ground running — some helped by having had short stories or other non-novel fiction previously published.
For a sampling of great debut novels I’ve read, let’s go chronologically, shall we?
Jane Austen’s first published book was Sense and Sensibility (1811) — pretty darn good for a fiction debut!
Mary Shelley wrote the 1818-released Frankenstein in her late teens, and that precocious work is still riveting and influential in its bicentennial year.
The Pickwick Papers (1837) remains one of the funniest books ever written, and jump-started an amazing run of novels for Charles Dickens over the remaining 33 years of his life.
Adam Bede — George Eliot’s 1859 debut novel about a young man, a young female preacher, and more — gets a bit overlooked in that author’s canon. It’s a tremendous book that would be the best of many an author’s efforts, but Eliot went on to top it with The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda.
Like Dickens, Colette started her novel-writing career with a hilarious book — 1900’s Claudine at School — before moving on to deeper, more serious fare.
Eight years later came L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, my favorite young-adult novel ever.
Two exceptional debut novels of the 1940s included Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. McCullers’ 1940 book, written when she wasn’t much older than Mary Shelley had been when penning Frankenstein, is a compelling chronicle of several characters. Michener’s 1947 book is an example of related short stories coalescing into a novel.
Ray Bradbury’s haunting novel debut The Martian Chronicles (1950) is also a book of loosely connected tales.
Isabel Allende’s first novel was the ambitious, multigenerational, magic-realism-studded The House of the Spirits (1982).
A decade later, the college-set The Secret History (1992) became an impressive career opener for Donna Tartt — though that author’s The Goldfinch would eventually surpass it in quality.
In the action-thriller realm, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher debut novel Killing Floor (1997) is almost unbearably exciting.
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) juggled all kinds of characters and multicultural situations in a way that was both deadly serious and hysterically funny.
And Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003), set in both Afghanistan and the U.S., was an intense and powerful debut.
Then there are authors who had only published novel, which made that book not only their debut but also their swan song. Memorable examples include Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, to name a few. (The last two came out after the authors died.) Of course there are gray areas when it comes to whether one-novel authors are really one-novel authors — for instance, Ellison’s Juneteenth was edited into publishable form and released posthumously, while Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was marketed as a distinct novel but was probably an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.
What are some of the debut novels you admire most — either the ones I mentioned or the many I didn’t?
Speaking of impressive debuts, here’s a live version of the first single from the great Irish band The Cranberries, whose singer Dolores O’Riordan tragically died last month at the too-young age of 46.
My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — a Gettysburg Address parody — is here.