Top-tier authors are often known mostly for certain novels, and some people read only those books without delving into the writers’ lesser-known work…unless they do.
If they do, they might find gems or disappointment or a combination thereof. But, not surprisingly, it’s frequently worth the effort.
My latest foray into this realm was with James Fenimore Cooper. Before last week, I had only read the novels with which he is most associated — the five “Leatherstocking” books featuring Natty Bumppo’s wilderness and frontier life, and his memorable interactions with Native Americans (most notably Chingachgook) and other characters. All five novels are excellent, with The Last of the Mohicans the most known and The Deerslayer my favorite.
But Cooper penned about 25 other novels, so I decided to try one of them: The Spy, set during the Revolutionary War. It’s…okay, not much more. Perhaps partly because it’s James F.’s second novel, and not all fiction writers find their footing that early in their careers. Still, The Spy has some anniversary cred — it was published in 1821, exactly 200 years ago.
I’ve usually had more positive experiences trying the lesser-known novels of notable authors. One example is L.M. Montgomery, who’s of course most remembered for Anne of Green Gables. But some of the Anne sequels are also quite good (especially Anne’s House of Dreams and Rilla of Ingleside), Montgomery’s semi-autobiographical Emily trilogy is excellent, and her standalone novel The Blue Castle is fabulous. All set in Canada, of course.
Speaking of that country, Willa Cather’s Quebec City-set Shadows on the Rock is an under-appreciated gem by an author who’s remembered primarily for Death Comes for the Archbishop and secondarily for My Antonia. Her The Song of the Lark is pretty compelling, too.
The six words most associated with Erich Maria Remarque are those in the title of All Quiet on the Western Front — his antiwar masterpiece. The riveting Arch of Triumph is probably his second-highest-profile novel. (As with All Quiet, it didn’t hurt that the book inspired a major movie.) But equally good or perhaps even better books in Remarque’s canon are his less-famous The Night in Lisbon and A Time to Love and a Time to Die.
Indeed, an author’s best-known novel is not always his or her best novel. Consider Colette, whose supposedly signature work is her late-career Gigi even as quite a few of her earlier books are better than that rather slight concoction. The Vagabond, for example, and even her debut novel Claudine at School — one a semi-autobiographical look at a music-hall performer who values her independence and the second…well…just plain hilarious.
Edith Wharton is most remembered for her novels The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome — all stellar — but her ghost stories are also as good as that genre gets.
I’ve obviously only scratched the surface here. What are some of your favorite novels that are not as known as other novels in the canons of famous authors?
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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a leaf-blower ruling and some COVID-related matters — is here.