What does a publisher at the world’s biggest publishing house read for pleasure? (And how does she find the time?) Jane von Mehren is the Senior Vice President and Publisher of Trade Paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group. Every now and then, she’ll be featuring her favorite reads in her Reader’s Circle column, Jane’s Bookshelf—books that she thinks you’ll love, whether you read them solo or with your club! And if you’re on Twitter, you can follower her tweets at @janeatrandom.
I’ve been thinking about historical fiction lately. It seems to me that when I was growing up, there were three kinds of historical novels. First were the classics that might have been written contemporaneously to the time they depicted but were historical to a late 20th century reader, whether it was Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE or Sir Walter Scott’s IVANHOE. Then there were the books that explored life in ancient cultures like Mary Renault’s THE KING MUST DIE or Irving Stone’s THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY. And of course, there were portraits of kings and queens of yore in the novels of Jean Plaidy and Margaret George, among others. Today, the classics remain and writers still write these kinds of novels: just this past year saw the publications of THE SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller, BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel, and LIONHEART by Sharon Kay Penman, for example.
We’ve also seen the flowering of a different kind of historical fiction. Books like LOVING FRANK by Nancy Horan, THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain, and THE 19TH WIFE by David Ebershoff start with the story of real women who have extraordinary men in their lives, whether it be Frank Lloyd Wright, Ernest Hemingway, or Brigham Young. And yet in the hands of these storytellers, you don’t feel you are reading lives recreated in fiction, but rather that you are meeting women whose stories enlighten our understanding of these men and their lives. That these stories are based on real people’s lives makes the reading experience that much more vivid, and gives us a deep understanding of the human condition, of love and betrayal.
It’s not just women romantically involved with famous men whose lives have made for great historical novels. Melanie Benjamin created an indelible, fresh portrait of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s novels, in ALICE I HAVE BEEN. Her latest novel THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB brings to life Lavinia Warren Bump, who became a worldwide celebrity after marrying General Tom Thumb. Benjamin portrays 19th century America so vividly I often felt I was reading a painting. Sometimes I think that this new era of historical fiction began with two novels that married imaginary characters and real people: GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE by Susan Vreeland and GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING by Tracy Chevalier. Both have Vermeer as the historical figure at their centers; one created the lives touched by an invented painting while the other imagined the life of his servant. I love both—I tried and failed to acquire Tracy Chevalier, but was lucky enough to become first Susan Vreeland’s paperback editor and now work with her from the start of every book.
I’ve found the way novelists intertwine what actually happened with their own fictional worlds adds nuance to a book club discussion. I’ve always loved history and fiction—so historical fiction is perfect for me. I’d love to hear about some of your favorites, I know I’ll want to add them to my T.B.R. pile! Let me know what they are in the comments section below or on Twitter at @JaneatRandom.