Janelle Brown gives us a list of her favorite books about suburban angst that informed her own suburban drama, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything.June 23, 2008
When I was writing All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, I spent a lot of time reading books about suburban malaise and dysfunctional families. These were some of my favorites:
Little Children, Tom Perrotta
Such a minimal little book—like all of Tom Perrotta’s novels—but it manages to convey with so few words his characters’ feelings of entrapment. He draws, beautifully, the torpid quality of a suburban summer, the small-minded and insular community, the utter boredom of a life of confinement with only children for company. Perrotta is a wonderful satirist, probably because he has so much compassion for his subjects. And it’s funny, too.
Music for Torching, A. M. Homes
This book is the antithesis of Tom Perrotta. A. M. Homes’s unhappy married couple that burns down their suburban home in an act of petulant childishness are repulsive, unpleasant, selfish people, and she seems to find them as distateful as we do. And yet I found this book impossible to put down—both times that I read it. It’s horrifying, surprising, and deeply disturbing.
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
Franzen’s portrait of the self-destructive Lambert clan is about as brilliant a portrait of contemporary family dysfunction as I’ve read. I love the sprawl, the humor, the surprise, the poignancy, and ultimately, the hopefulness of this book—which seems to be a rare quality among suburban novels. I never get bored with this book, no matter how many times I read it.
The Ice Storm, Rick Moody
I saw the movie before I read this book, and was surprised by how busy and raucous the novel was, especially compared to the serenely clinical hush of Ang Lee’s interpretation of the material. This book is dark, dark, dark, and sad, sad, sad. It makes me so very glad that I didn’t come of age in the 1970s, which truly has to be one of the most confusing eras in our recent history.
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
One of my favorite books of all time. Yates carefully dismantles “the great sentimental lie of the suburbs”—that Leave it to Beaver world that never really existed—and sends his unhappily married couple off to their dooms. In postwar America, Mom is trapped at home, Dad can’t live up to work expectation, and their inspired plans to escape it all by running off to France are brought to an abrupt halt by an unwanted pregnancy. Their relationship is beautifully, subtly rendered and incredibly depressing.
The Complete New Yorker
Not a book, exactly—it’s the entire archive of The New Yorker on CD, and I came back to it again and again when I was writing. Here you’ve got all your classic Cheever (including “The Swimmer” and “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill”) and nearly two hundred stories by John Updike—not to mention thousands of other pieces of short fiction by the greatest writers of the last century. When I need inspiration, I like just to browse through randomly and pick out stories I’ve never heard of.