The Top Three Book Recommendations From an Epic Novelist Praised by Stephen King

American author Lauren Groff reflects on a few of her favourite reads from last year.

Lauren Groff is an American novelist unafraid of the epic. Her lauded bestsellers, praised by Stephen King and Barack Obama, are always ambitious in scope. Fates and Furies dances readers through decades of a glamorous and secretive marriage. Matrix charts the fortunes of Marie, a 12th-century teenage prioress. And most recently, The Vaster Wilds—a best book of 2023 by NPR and Time—follows a servant girl running from early-colonial Viginia’s Jamestown settlement and into the American wilderness.

 

 

Groff is also an eclectic and enthusiastic reader, bouncing between genres, periods, and forms. She diligently tracks her yearly reading in a spreadsheet, trying to read equally both historical and contemporary books—fitting for a novelist who is skilled at animating disparate centuries.

NUVO sat down with Groff to reflect on her favourite reads of 2023.

 

Biography of X by Catherine Lacey

You can tell when a writer is having fun, Groff muses. She enjoys when a novel has what she describes as “bonkers joy.” For Groff, one book that inspired that sense of unbridled playfulness was Catherine Lacey’s The Biography of X: “the book that blew me out of the water this year.”

 

 

The Biography of X follows its narrator, CM, as she attempts to pen the biography of her late wife, X, a famous artist. Digging into X’s history not only uncovers calamitous personal secrets but also pulls the reader into an alternate history of the United States of America. Blending fact and fiction with aplomb, The Biography of X earns Groff’s praise for its ingenuity.

“I thought it was just so inventive and weird and magnificent and funny and strange. I just love that. It’s like a satire of the United States of America at the moment, and Catherine is so funny, so clever. It was a glorious exercise in joy,” says Groff says. “There are a lot of books that I read this year that didn’t feel as joyous as that one, for sure.”

 

 

An Oresteia by Anne Carson

Groff has been reading a ton of plays, reflecting her next choice. “As a fiction writer who tends toward maximalism,” she says, “having these pared-down narratives that are just as powerful has also changed the alchemy of my thinking.”

One standout that has reshaped her thinking is poet and classicist Anne Carson’s An Oresteia. A Greek tragedy told through three plays, it weaves together versions from three major Greek tragedians—Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles—and modernizes the gripping saga of a royal family who turn on one another again and again.

 

 

The translation is studded with Carson’s striking observations. “She’s my favourite living author. I love her so desperately,” Groff enthuses, praising Carson’s keen vision of millennia. With her eye simultaneously on the 21st century and Ancient Greece, Carson’s Oresteia connects Groff to a larger vision of time, action, and emotion—and is deeply instructive about how the old can both remain and be remade new.

 

 

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Since reading Middlemarch when she was young, Groff regularly returns to it and the entangled lives of the inhabitants of the eponymous town: their infatuations, their petty politics, their rivalries. The novel is a constant touchstone in her life as a reader.

 

 

Groff rereads Middlemarch as it provides comfort. “It’s this vision of humanity that’s so realistic and yet so generous,” she says. “This idea that humanity is actually good feels more and more alien, at least to me at the moment. So it is deeply, deeply comforting to read someone who sees humans so deeply and loves them anyway.”

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