Low-Key Novels That Are High in Memorability

OveHave you ever read a novel that’s mostly low-key, subtle, understated, and even seemingly simple yet is compelling or charming or funny or emotionally wrenching or all of the above? Sure you have, and I have, too.

The latest for me was A Man Called Ove, which I finished a few days ago. That 2012 novel by Swedish author Fredrik Backman initially appears to be a few-frills tale of a very grumpy 59-year-old loner until it sneaks up on the reader — with help from a gradually unfolding back story — to become a wonderfully quirky, romantic, inspiring, humanistic, multicultural, heartbreaking, better-have-tissues-handy book. A novel so good that it powerfully reinforces one of the reasons we read fiction: hoping for that occasional can’t-put-down work. (The above photo, from the movie, shows a young Ove at the time he meets his future wife Sonja.)

Another understated novel is Mrs. Bridge, which is more downbeat overall than A Man Called Ove but shares a certain outward plainness that masks many beneath-the-surface themes: in this case, Evan Connell’s tale of a well-to-do family says a lot about class, conformity, unhappiness, the emptiness of too much materialism, and more.

There’s also Being There, the satirical Jerzy Kosinski novel with a flatness literally embodied in its flat protagonist: the simple-minded gardener Chance who somehow becomes considered an oracle of sorts. The book is far from flat; that’s just its veneer.

Gigi is nowhere near my favorite Colette work — the novel is sort of frivolous and its central relationship doesn’t grab me. But it’s beautifully written in its low-key way, and is more complex than it seems.

How about A Christmas Carol? A short, fairly straightforward morality tale from the usually more intricate Charles Dickens, but there’s a reason why it has endured for more than 175 years: It skillfully depicts many recognizable human (and ghostly 🙂 ) traits.

And The Remains of the Day. Kazuo Ishiguro’s story of a butler is extremely understated, but strong emotions and secrets boil under the surface.

Then there’s James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips — about a gentle, long-tenured boarding school teacher who’s at first conventional and kind of stiff before his brief marriage makes him a looser, more tolerant person and educator.

Many of Fannie Flagg’s novels — including her most recent, The Whole Town’s Talking (2016) — also sort of fit this category. Those books are folksy and sentimental, yet quietly take on issues such as racism, sexism, and homophobia.

And Henry James’ writing (especially in mid- and late-career) is FAR from simple but almost always understated — as in The Ambassadors. Strong passions are repressed, but never totally repressed.

Even in low-key novels, beleaguered protagonists might eventually erupt in some way. That’s the case in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls — and in A Man Called Ove, too.

Your favorite works that fit this topic?

My 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 piece — which includes humorous fake answers to a superintendent-search survey — is here.

56 thoughts on “Low-Key Novels That Are High in Memorability

  1. Oh Dave, I’ve had the worst weekend, and probably the only people who will understand are the people here. I’ve been helping out at the local second hand bookshop restocking their fiction sections. Yesterday I was asked to reorganise the urban fantasy section. I hadn’t even heard of the genre until then. I was basically told that anything with a half dressed werewolf or vampire on the cover had to be taken out of the ‘good’ fantasy, and put in the urban fantasy, or paranormal romance section. I had to touch books with titles like Mr. Darcy, Vampire and Darcy Bites and Jane Goes Batty which might have been about Jane Eyre, but I think was Jane Bennet. I was too scared to look for too long!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Dave. I’m so glad I’ve got this site to share traumas like these.

        I also just checked out your first interview with Clanmother, and that’s helped me get over it a little bit as well. I’m looking forward to checking out the other two interviews later in the week.

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    • Having seen, with horror, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” on the shelves of a charity shop I haunt, I feel your pain, though vicariously, as I never had to touch them.

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      • Sadly, not only have I touched IDarcy Bites but I’ve actually read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies after it was described to me as the funniest book ever. I don’t mind the odd parody, as long as it’s clever and tasteful. Sadly, this wasn’t any of those things. It was Pride and Prejudice with the same story, and even the same phrasing… just with zombies!

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  2. As a reader who wants sensation out of what he reads, I have spent less time among books that provide little of the spectacular or shocking than I probably should have, and more time reading ghost stories and detective fiction than can be defended on intellectual grounds.

    But I did read, a few years ago (and I got you, Dave, to read it too!) “Cranford” by Elizabeth Gaskell, which just might fit the bill for our theme of the week– a small town bit of charm centering on small events that all together paint a picture of life at the edge of great changes to come. I do think occasionally about the book, and more often than I think back on mystery novels, and recommend it for those readers who might like to spend vicarious time in an England that is soon to be swept away by industrialization and locomotives and international trade.

    I have another motive for writing in today, directed at the possibility that you ,Dave, might be storing up trivia for a second volume of authorly lore. I read today, in “The Guardian”‘s review of his exhibition at the Tate, that Aubrey Beardsley, who came to international fame as illustrator for “The Yellow Book” and Oscar Wilde, created some of his most outlandishly erotic pictures– those that illustrate Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata”– in a room at the Spread Eagle Hotel in Epsom, Surrey.

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    • Thank you for the comment, jhNY! Sorry for the delay in responding — it has been one of those days. Seeing a relative, food shopping…

      I totally understand the desire to read fiction that’s not so understated. A mix of that and more subtle fiction seems to work. 🙂

      The excellent “Cranford” is indeed pretty low-key while, as you know, not avoiding some of the trials and tribulations of life and “progress.” (Thank you again for recommending it!)

      Interesting bit of trivia! I have no plans at this point to do “a second volume of authorly lore” (I like the way you put that 🙂 ). When it comes to books, I like to change things up, and have something very different in mind if I find enough time and desire to go the long project route again.

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  3. What could be more low-key than writing your thoughts about the mundane? Karl Ove Knausgaard does this with his 6 book fiction series My Struggle and the Seasons Quartet in the most compelling way since Dostoevsky IMHO. Knausgaard’s excruciating introspection is so relatable, because he’s so embarrassingly authentic. He reminds us our banal lives are fraught with inner and interpersonal psychological dramas which are heroic in themselves and which compare with the best fiction ever written.

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    • Thank you, Mary Jo! I like that line/question “What could be more low-key than writing your thoughts about the mundane?” and the descriptiveness of your comment in general. I’ve never read Karl Ove Knausgaard, and am intrigued! (Like many other people, I’m a big fan of Dostoyevsky.)

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  4. You can add me to the Ove fan list. I love low-key novels. They have a way of wrapping themselves around you and you can’t unstick them from your memory. (Is unstick a word?). One of my favorites is Paulo Coelho’s, The Alchemist. Simply written but leaves a strong imprint.

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    • Thank you, ceilwarren! The “Ove” fan roster is VERY large (sort of like Ove’s heart under all the curmudgeonliness 🙂 ). And your description of how low-key novels can affect readers was eloquent.

      I’ve wanted to get to “The Alchemist” for a very long time. Always checked out of my local library. 😦 (I know I should get on waiting lists for certain novels, but when one isn’t at the library I just move on to another that is. 🙂 )

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  5. I read “A Passage to India” by E.M. Forster so many years ago that I can’t remember the details at all, but the memory of the book has stayed with me. It was so subtle and understated.

    I know I’ve mentioned “A Single Pebble” by John Hersey many times, but it is such a haunting, memorable book about a disappearing way of life in the face of “progress”. So low key, but so absorbing!

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    • Thank you, lulabelle! I read “A Single Pebble” a few months ago on your recommendation, and agree that it was a very compelling book — as you note, mostly low-key but it indeed says a lot about “progress,” cross-cultural misunderstandings, and more.

      And I appreciate the mention of “A Passage to India,” which I must read one day!

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  6. I too loved “A Man Called Ove.” “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” is the book that immediately comes to mind as falling into the low-key but memorable category. Funny you should mention “The Ambassadors.” I was assigned to read it in grad school, and I could only read it in 15-page increments. After 15 pages I’d fall asleep.

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  7. Dave, you know I love your blog. I love the comments and the varied off topic conversations. But there is one flaw. Before I started commenting here, I already knew that I would never get to the end of my TBR, but now I know it even more. This week I’ve added A Man Called Ove and Miss Pym Disposed. They both sound refreshingly different.

    The first book I thought of was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, (probably could have mentioned this one last week too as it has a quirky syllable count). It’s written from the point of view of a 15-year old boy who suffers from Asperger’s. The language is quite simple, as is Christopher’s view of the world. The book is filled up with lots of colours and numbers, and yet, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. Mark Haddon has a wonderful way of telling a really intriguing story just by telling us what Christopher sees, even though Christopher doesn’t really understand what he’s looking at.

    I don’t know if they quite fit, but I’ll mention two books that I recently read. The Secret Life of Bees has – probably not surprisingly – a lot of bees in it. There’s honey and beekeeping and singing and eating and lots of fun, though it’s actually quite a traumatic book when looked at in its entirety. Same goes for Jasper Jones which has fewer bees (though still more than I’d like) and lots of cricket and silliness, but like The Secret Life of Bees, there’s lots of trauma and racism and painful coming of age stuff. Jasper Jones has been compared to To Kill a Mockingbird which might also be an understated book. It obviously hits the top of all the lists now, but the depth of the book is wonderfully told by Lee who surrounds the story with lots of fun and frivolity and a kind of naive view of the world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan! Ha! 🙂 I hear you — this week’s topic is generating even more excellent book recommendations than usual. Clearly, some reading lists will soon have enough novels on them to last ’til the year 3020…

      Your very apt mention of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” reminded me that Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” is another “simple”-but-not-simple book with a protagonist facing some mental challenges.

      And, yes, “To Kill a Mockingbird” IS rather understated when one thinks about it. Astute observation!

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  8. bebe here Dave, couple of years ago I was gifted by the librarian the book A Man called Ove. The public libraries also promoting the book to be on the reading list. A small paperback book caused a sensation, I loved it too.
    There was a movie as well, nicely done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bebe! Another “Ove” fan! 🙂 And I can see why libraries wanted to promote Fredrik Backman’s book.

      Glad the movie was done well, too. Not surprised the novel spawned a film. Though low-key in many ways, the book has a number of cinematic moments.

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  9. I really enjoyed A Man Called Ove as well as The Remains of the Day. But, unless I’m forgetting a car chase scene, one of my favorite low key reads from many years ago was Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I sobbed big ugly tears at the end of that one

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Betsy! “Ove” and “Remains” ARE both enjoyable in different ways.

      The thought of a car chase in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel — hilarious! 🙂 🙂 “Love in the Time of Cholera” is a very memorable work topped off by that very memorable boat ride (but not a boat chase).

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  10. Great topic, Dave, and I loved “A Man Called Ove!” I’m reading a book right now that I think qualifies. It’s called “All the Way Home,” written by David Giffels and is a memoir about a family who buys a crumbling house to restore. There’s so much more to the book than what’s at the surface, though, such as family, life, struggles, fatherhood, and growing up. Very enjoyable!

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  11. Sounds like I might add “A Man Called Ove” to my list! 🙂 When I was reading through this post, I thought a lot about “Olive Kitteridge” and the very recent sequel, “Olive Again,” by Elizabeth Strout. The books are written as a series of short stories, but they all kind of center around this woman Olive. The stories are pretty straight-forward with no need for epic fanfare, yet they all hint at some very serious issues that face people on a day-to-day basis. It ends up feeling very real and easy to relate to. They’re both worth a read if you haven’t already. I haven’t seen the HBO series yet but might try to give it a watch. I also might toss Ernest Hemingway as a whole into this segment, as his writing is so short and snappy, yet he has A LOT to say underneath the surface of such simple dialogue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! I’ve read “Olive Kitteridge,” and that short-stories-as-novel with its rather prickly protagonist is definitely written in a mostly straightforward way but says a lot.

      Great point about Hemingway! His prose is indeed usually spare and unadorned, but his themes are by no means simple. His work often has a little too machismo for my tastes, but I did find “For Whom the Bell Tolls” riveting.

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  12. Last night was stressful, hours of heavy snow, no electricity, but plenty of candles left over from Christmas.
    Sleep being impossible, I re-read that quietly low-key crime novel, Miss Pym Disposes, moving, almost faultlessly, from charm and beauty to a ruthless psychopathic killing. One problem – the automatic post WWII racism.

    I’ll look out for A Man Called Ove.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, catonthedovrefell! Sorry about the stressful night, but reading can definitely offer some solace. 🙂

      “Miss Pym Disposes” sounds excellent, albeit flawed, and you described it evocatively. Now on my to-read list. I had been meaning to try Josephine Tey’s work one of these days…

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      • Dave, I’d highly recommend any novel by Josephine Tey, one of my very favorite mystery writers, and I’ve read them all several times. My favorites are “The Franchise Affair,” “Brat Farrar,” and “Miss Pym Disposes.” I may have mentioned before that “The Daughter of Time” is on my top ten list of greatest mysteries of all time. There I go again making lists in my head! 🙂 Anyway, I don’t recall there being any overt racism in any of her books, though I’ll have to reread “Miss Pym Disposes” to be sure. Although if so, I would most likely attribute it to being a generational thing, as seen at times in other authors of that period, such as my much loved Dorothy L. Sayers..

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        • Thank you, Kat Lit! I remember you mentioning Josephine Tey and “The Daughter of Time” — and I hope to finally try her work in the not-too-distant future. So many authors and books on my to-read list that I haven’t gotten to yet. 😦

          And, yes, racism (whether subtle or not) is often a given when the subject comes up or a person of color appears in novels of a certain time. Unfortunately.

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  13. Dave, I also enjoyed “A Man Called Ove” very much, though I can’t remember much about it. That’s usually the case for me, that I can’t retain what I’ve read but remember my experience of reading it, if that makes sense. It’s why I reread so many books, not just for remembering the plot, but the emotions I felt and what I learned from it. Anyway, while researching the years books were published from your column last week, I came across “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” by Helen Simonson, a novel I loved and read well over ten years ago. I did have to refresh myself on the plot this morning, but I do remember finishing it on a Nook while on a long weekend with friends in the Vermont mountains, and I just sat there for a long time just thinking about the book. It’s a charming and delightful story about a British ex-Army officer and a Pakistani shopkeeper, Mrs. Ali, living in a small English village, and they bond over their love of reading and the grief over their loss of a spouse. They naturally fall in love and then face disapproval from family, friends and neighbors due to race, class and cultural differences (nothing heavy-handed, of course). It’s still on my NOOK, but I want to reread it in a paper format, not digital. 🙂

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    • Thank you, Kat Lit! Glad you enjoyed “A Man Called Ove”! Not surprised. 🙂 And you expressed very good reasons for rereading novels. I don’t do that much myself, but I see your points!

      Also, thanks for your mention of 2010’s “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand,” which I just put on my to-read list after seeing your great description of it. Sounds really compelling.

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  14. I remember dreading reading “Of Human Bondage” a 1915 novel by W. Somerset Maugham. It was required reading for my final year of high school. It was a difficult read for me because I became immersed with the unfolding story and with the character. And yet, to this day, it is one of my most powerful memories of redemption, of courage, of moving forward. Perhaps we understand a story more as we move forward on our personal timelines. Life is never the simple, is it? Perhaps it is our narratives that allow us to imagine alternatives and other possibilities.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Clanmother! “Of Human Bondage” is indeed tremendous — the best novel by an author who wrote a number of excellent ones (“The Moon and Sixpence,” “The Painted Veil,” “The Razor’s Edge,” etc.). It IS inspiring that the Philip protagonist eventually overcame a lot of what was inflicted on him and what he inflicted on himself. And re the eloquent last several lines of your comment, yes, “Of Human Bondage” is one of those novels that we probably appreciate more when we’re somewhat older; I didn’t read it until several years ago.

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