Elizabeth Kostova's Favorite Books

Bestselling author of The Historian shares with The Daily Beast her four essential books always at her elbow. Her new novel, The Swan Thieves, is out now.

Anna Karenina
By Leo (Lev) Tolstoy (Tolstoi)

Happy families are all alike. Girl meets boy. Girl is previously married to bureaucratic dud. Boy is dashing officer. Not a good combination. With two other major plots thrown in; 25 percent more free. Hundreds of pages later, the reader has learned everything there is to know about the downward spiral of illicit love, but also (if the reader happens to be a writer, or interested in the craft of the novel) how a large cast can be handled with a natural, realistic, sweeping brush—if, of course, one is Tolstoy or Tolstoi.

Middlemarch
By George Eliot

Like Anna Karenina and The Portrait of a Lady, this book plays on the magnificent 19th-century theme of a woman trapped in unhappy marriage (a problem solved more easily by widowhood or even murder, in those days, than by divorce; see also Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Actually, this book is about money. I read it every 10 years because it is completely different each time. The heroine is so flawed and lovable and courageous that I wish she were one of my sisters.

The Portrait of a Lady
By Henry James

This novel seems to me to contain some of the most beautiful sentences written in English in the 19th century. The first one, for example: "Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea." Pull a chair up to the delicate little outdoor table, pour yourself a cup, and stay for the whole show. A few minutes later the lovely, bright, rich, strong-willed Isabel Archer will walk on stage, and a few acts later she will marry the wrong man. Gilbert Osmond, aesthete and slime-bag, is one of the century's most satisfying, subtle villains; he even falls in love, to the best of his abilities. My great-grandmother's favorite book.

Great Expectations
By Charles Dickens

This is another novel that cries out to be read every decade of a reader's life. I first encountered it in a college class; it is partly a very dark, disturbing story—boy (Pip, an orphan) helps a criminal and receives too much help in return—but Dickensian characters and their characteristics are often so funny that I found I couldn't read the book in the college library because I inevitably began to laugh aloud, that kind of laughter that makes silent tears run down your cheeks, while you snuffle and grope for a tissue and end up having to blow your nose. In the end I read the book in my dorm room, where I could laugh and cry and wipe my nose freely. Great Expectations is a partial autobiography, a meditation on getting both too much and too little of what one wishes for, and a spectacle of war between the sexes—among many, many other things. Dickens is always best read aloud, as he often was in his day, if you have stamina and a box of Kleenex and a listener who loves you enough.