Taking Suggestions for Library of Low Stakes Fiction
March 18, 2013 8:30 PM   Subscribe

My taste for bleak fiction is making me miserable. Help me lighten it up.

I'm looking for novels with low stakes conflict. I don't want to read about any of the following: violent crime, poverty, illness, dysfunctional families, war, or death. The books can be occassionally funny, but I'm not interested in comedy per se (no Princess Bride, Hitchhiker's, P.G. Wodehouse etc.).

I'd prefer books written in the last 50 years or so. I'm open to different genres, but I'm not that excited about romance, scifi, or fantasy.

Oh, and I want books that are really good -- not beach good or plane good, but stories-that-stay-with-you good. Do these books exist? Lay them on me!
posted by murfed13 to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
I like Jerome K. Jerome's book Three Men on a Boat, though it's older than the last fifty years.

It has one of the greatest beginnings of all time, but it's more than just a comic novel.

I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch—hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into—some fearful, devastating scourge, I know—and, before I had glanced half down the list of “premonitory symptoms,” it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.

Nothing startling happens. No one dies. There is a dog. I must have read it a thousand times, but I now have it from audible with a recording by Frederick Davidson I like very well.

I also love Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men on the Bummel, but it has a single racist anecdote which is quite jarring so I can't recommend it as wholeheartedly. The same characters from Three Men on a Boat go to Germany on a bicycle tour. It is very peaceful and unexciting, but something about the way the characters interact as friends stays with you long after you've finished the book.
posted by winna at 8:40 PM on March 18, 2013

Laurie Colwin was a gem of a writer. And because she died far too young, she left only four novels. But they're all excellent and I would recommend them all.

Happy All The Time
A Big Storm Knocked it Over
Goodbye Without Leaving
Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object--I don't know if this will fall within your parameters because the protagonist has been widowed and is grieving the death of her husband, but it isn't really about death, exactly.

All of these have comedic elements and people do fall in love, but they are not really comedies nor are they romances.

If you are into short stories, she also has several short story collections.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:57 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Robertson Davies.
The elements you wish to avoid are there, but somewhat glancingly. He has a stick-to-your-mind quality for seemingly minor scenes.
Bonus, he was quite prolific, so if you enjoy him, there are many trilogies to explore after. I've linked to the Cornish trilogy, but Salterton is arguably as good/better.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:01 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think I know what you mean by this, and I'll be watching this thread with interest.

I think The Chosen by Chaim Potok could be what you want. It arguably includes a dysfunctional family, but I'd say that's more than outweighed by the sincere love and friendship that the characters all show to each other. The story is of an Orthodox (but somewhat more assimilated) Jew and a Hasidic Jew in 1940s Brooklyn who become friends.

I also enjoy The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin. It's thoughtful sci-fi, about a physicist whose people willingly left their home planet to found a sort of anarcho-communist utopia that is successful, if struggling. There is some depiction of poverty and violence, but I find it's basically a gentle book. There's more love and stability than there is conflict. It's what I read when I'm feeling stressed and bleak. (Actually, a lot of LeGuin's stuff works.)

When you say you don't want to read about violent crime, war, death, illness, etc., does you mean a book which even includes one of these elements in a small way is unacceptable? (I'm thinking like: a character has a sick relative, or there is a war overseas in the background of the story.)

One book that I haven't read personally but that lots of people love is Pride and Prejudice; based on what I know of the plot it definitely qualifies.
posted by vogon_poet at 9:03 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Jane Smiley might be up your alley. Moo, Horse Heaven, Barn Blind or Good Faith. Just don't read A Thousand Acres, you won't like that one.
posted by fshgrl at 9:12 PM on March 18, 2013

I came in to say Laurie Colwin as well.

Others you might like:

Barbara Kingsolver. I'd go with Prodigal Summer or The Bean Trees trilogy.

Early Pat Conroy or John Irvin stuff is pretty good too.
posted by dawkins_7 at 9:13 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you read The Club Dumas? They made a movie based on the subplot, called The Ninth Gate and starring Johnnie Depp, it's decent but the book is magnificent.
posted by mannequito at 9:21 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Peter Mayle's series about life as a Brit in Provence, France. The biggest conflict you might read about is a theft where nobody gets hurt.
posted by graytona at 9:28 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, definitely Jane Austen. I know her books were written more than 50 years ago, but they certainly don't feel like it. "Persuasion," "Emma," "Pride and Prejudice" are the big three, but they are all exactly what you want: no awful atmosphere, witty without being funny, and magnificently written. Her sharp eye somehow sharpens your vision, while softening your heart towards your neighbors' foibles.

Also, most of what Ursula Le Guin has written. Sometimes she gets a bit too Fairy Tale for me, but mostly she's just magnificent. Definitely seconding "The Dispossessed," and adding "Changing Planes." Also any of her collections of short stories; you can also skip the ones you don't like so much. (Her work is often shelved with science fiction, but again -- it doesn't really feel like it.)

How about amusing and/or happy memoirs? "My Family and Other Animals" by Gerald Durrell. "Foreign Correspondence" by Geraldine Brooks. Haven't read the Peter Mayles' books but they sound like what you want.

And although my last suggestion is full of almost everything in your "avoid" list, somehow the Miss Marple books by Agatha Christie -- or almost any of the British cozy mysteries -- leave me feeling gently entertained and quite satisfied.

Good luck with this one!
posted by kestralwing at 9:33 PM on March 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh yes Robertson Davies. He's one of my favorite writers ever.
posted by bswinburn at 10:44 PM on March 18, 2013

Richard Russo sounds perfect, especially Straight Man.

The Art of Fielding also fits the bill. There is a death, but it's not particularly traumatic.
posted by apricot at 4:54 AM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes, I came in to say the exact same thing as mannequito - The Club Dumas was at one point in my life a book I read every year. Also by Arturo Perez Reverte, The Flanders Panel. I really really wish he'd write more.
posted by librarianamy at 5:09 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

nthing Barbara Kingsolver. She's a genius with her words, and writes big round stories.
posted by tabubilgirl at 5:46 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Barbara Kingsolver and Anne Tyler.
posted by Kriesa at 6:14 AM on March 19, 2013

The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino is great. As a boy the Baron decides to go hide out in a tree to avoid a particularly gross dinner, and then he decides that he won't come down for the rest of his life. There's a bit of swashbuckling adventure but the main conflict is whether he's going to be true to his eccentric principles or climb down and rejoin society, which he could easily do at any moment.
posted by steinwald at 6:41 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I really love Barbara Pym. She's English, and wrote in the post-war era. Her books are all set in England, and feature the lives and dramas of mostly-single, independent women. Her books more or less fall into the "comedy of manners" genre. She can be very funny, but not in a comedic way, if that makes any sense. Her best book is Excellent Women, but my favorite is Crampton Hodnet.
posted by OrangeDisk at 7:19 AM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Okay, it's from 1951, but this seems like a prime time to mention The Daughter of Time. It admittedly sort of revolves around a crime, but a historical one.
posted by hoyland at 8:32 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for thoughtful suggestions, everyone. I've been through Pym, Austen, Kingsolver before, but those are definitely on the right track. I enjoyed the Art of Fielding, but even that is a little more depressing than what I'd prefer.

I'm putting a lot of these on my Amazon list- I'm especially intrigued by The Club Dumas

When you say you don't want to read about violent crime, war, death, illness, etc., does you mean a book which even includes one of these elements in a small way is unacceptable? (I'm thinking like: a character has a sick relative, or there is a war overseas in the background of the story.)

Thanks for asking. It's hard to avoid these topics entirely. Minor or background reference is ok. It's hard for me to even think of an example of the kind of book I want to read, because all of my favorites are collosal downers.

I also wanted to clarify that I asked for more recent novels because people tend to suggest classics that I've already read, but if you think of something that has flown under the radar I'd be happy to hear of it.
posted by murfed13 at 9:42 AM on March 19, 2013

What about Madeleine L'Engle?
posted by Asparagus at 11:41 AM on March 19, 2013

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