Pairing fiction with eras in common
July 25, 2014 4:43 AM   Subscribe

So two books I really love are Heaven to Betsy and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I love how they go into the details of the period they take place, particularly the fashion and food. It was also only recently I realised that they take place roughly around the same era. It really surprised me because they are so completely different to one another. Francie has an alcoholic father and the family can barely get food on the table; Betsy's biggest ordeal is falling in love with a boy that doesn't like her back and not studying for an essay contest. So my question is two-fold and is aimed at requesting book suggestions.

Firstly, can you recommend other novels that go into 'fun' detail about the culture surrounding the characters, mainly fashion and food please? And based in reality, not fantasty/sci-fi (I love GoT for this aspect but not looking for that here). I'm open to any point in history.

Secondly, can you recommend pairs of books I can read to compare and contrast the two from a similar era? They could provide a contrast in social class (like Heaven to Betsy and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), race, gender, location, etc.

Other books I think I like because of this, but I have not yet 'paired' them:
- Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
- Many Jane Austen novels
- Memoirs of a Geisha
- Anne of Green Gables and many in that series
posted by like_neon to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, excellent question. Cold Mountain and Little Women?
posted by oinopaponton at 4:49 AM on July 25, 2014

All of a Kind Family Jewish family in turn of the century New York. You could compare to the Betsy books (all the Betsy-Tacy-Tib ones) as well as to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Starring Sally J Friedman as Herself, by Judy Blume is great. It's semi-autobiographical about a young girl moving from New York to Florida during WWII. Cherry Ames-Student Nurse might be a good contrast. It's about a young lady from the Midwest studying to be a nurse at the dawn of WWII. You want to get one that was published in the forties for verisimilitude.

The Joy Luck Club would be a good contrast to Memoirs of a Geisha.

If I think of more, I'll come back!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:10 AM on July 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

I love Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Matruin series of novels, about the British navy during the Napoleonic wars. He is one of the most Jane-Austen-ish writers I know, in his wonderful characterizations and humor. I also often think about how the story of what these men experience at sea is like the untold stories in Jane Austen--this is how Captain Wentworth made his fortune before coming home to marry Anne, for instance. They make a great pairing.
posted by not that girl at 5:12 AM on July 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry takes place at about the same time as Ballet Shoes. It's hard to imagine what Cassie Logan would have made of Pauline, Petrova and Posy, or vice versa!
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:33 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles was described here by as "a nostalgic love letter to New York of the late '30s" and has been compared to The Great Gatsby.
posted by lyssabee at 5:33 AM on July 25, 2014

I happened to read Lisa See's Shanghai Girls back-to-back with Jamie Ford's Songs of Willow Frost. Both concern the stories of Chinese and Chinese-American characters on the West coast of America around the time of the Great Depression and into WWII. It was a really interesting way to get a bigger picture of the time, with interesting details about food and clothing and culture being described by several different characters, with the added element of immigration to a new country.
posted by SeedStitch at 5:34 AM on July 25, 2014

If you're open to memoirs that are somewhat fictionalized, I'd add Betty MacDonald (1920s-1950s, living in the Pacific Northwest, best-known book is The Egg and I) and Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes (Frank Gailbraith and Ernestine Galbraith Carey, living in the Northeast between the early 1900s and 1920s).

In addition to Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery wrote an adult novel called The Blue Castle (terrible cover, ignore that) which is set roughly in the period between the First and Second World Wars. (It's kind of unclear and hard to date more accurately than that. The book references tin lizzies and they have cars but it's quite early.)
posted by pie ninja at 6:05 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hands down, you absolutely want "...And Ladies of the Club" by Helen Hooven Santmyer.

The period details are fabulous, many, and thorough, and the fashions are described in detail!

It's very long, but you could dip in and check it out!
posted by jgirl at 6:08 AM on July 25, 2014

Anne Shirley, were she real, and Laura Ingalls Wilder would have been almost exact contemporaries. If you go by this chronology, On the Shores of Silver Lake takes place within a year or two of Anne of Green Gables. They both take place at around the same time as Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:08 AM on July 25, 2014 [10 favorites]

I should add that I really like novels and memoirs with lots of details about daily life, so I have a list of lots and lots of these sorts of books.

Three Men in a Boat (England, 1880s, very funny) and Nero Wolfe (1930s-1970s, as seen in this FPP from earlier today!) both satisfy my desire for details about food and clothing and daily life.

Oooooh, and Diary of a Provincial Lady (England, 1930s-1940s).

If you are open to chatty memoirs/autobiographies, I'd add Agatha Christie (Edwardian through the 1950s) and Gwen Raverat (late Victorian, Oxford) as excellent memoirists who focus on these sorts of details.
posted by pie ninja at 6:13 AM on July 25, 2014

It was years ago, but I asked "What's similar to the Betsy-Tacy series?" and got some great answers.
posted by booksandlibretti at 6:15 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love this question:

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Atonement

Number the Stars and A Separate Peace

The Agony of Alice and Bright Lights, Big City
posted by sallybrown at 6:18 AM on July 25, 2014

The whole Little House On The Prairie series has this in spades. And it even has a built-in contrast - the book Farmer Boy is about Almanzo Wilder's boyhood in upstate New York, and takes place the year before Laura was born.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:23 AM on July 25, 2014

Oh, and I forgot to mention that Farmer Boy also has a LOT about food.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:25 AM on July 25, 2014

In particular, Wilder's These Happy Golden Years and Little Town on the Prairie have minute details on the dresses and undergarments Ma made (along with Laura) for Mary and Laura.
posted by jgirl at 6:51 AM on July 25, 2014

The Luxe and its three following novels are set in 1899 New York City (and environs). It's a soap bubble of a series (the creators of Gossip Girl are adapting it as a movie, which is exactly perfect) but there are EVER SO MANY CLOTHES and dinner parties. It will pair with your other turn-of-the-century books. (Like perhaps specifically Anne of the Island where everyone eats and describes dresses constantly and it's a group of young women from a very different social milieu.) The author is careful and detailed with her historical research. It is basically a pretty loose fictionalization of Consuelo Vanderbilt, et al, which Wharton's The Buccaneers is too.

Also while looking up The Luxe, I discovered Wikipedia can help you with finding pairs, by going to pages for "[year] in fiction".
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:56 AM on July 25, 2014

Ten and a Kid is this delightful little children's book set in a Jewish village in Eastern Europe -- I don't know exactly when, but long enough ago that everybody is amazed at the existence of trains. Lots of stuff about washing clothes at the riverbank with a mangle and eating fried chicken skins and onions on black bread -- I remember reading that and thinking sadly that it sounded so good and there was no way my mother would ever let me eat it.

On the subject of children's books, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series, about an eccentric old lady who comes up with magical solutions to children's behavior problems (yes, I know this sounds deadly) is a delightfully cozy evocation of suburban life in the 1940s and 1950s -- lots of children dashing home from school to fresh-baked brownies. It would be fun to pair with Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which have the same outwardly cozy 50s setting (the main character in The Haunting of Hill House is shocked by her own daring in buying her first pair of slacks) but are wonderfully uneasy and sinister.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, which is set around the time of World War I, is good for this because it has his typical snappy prose style but also goes into lots of detail about what books the college-age protagonist is reading and what everybody is drinking (double Daiquiris) and what color hat can get you blackballed from a fashionable club. And the slang! "Speeds!" "Parlor-snakes!"
posted by ostro at 7:18 AM on July 25, 2014

'30s New York, in contrast -- Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar, Ellison's Invisible Man
posted by Iris Gambol at 7:34 AM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's been a while since I read them, but I seem remember the Gilbreths' books Cheaper By The Dozen and Belles On Their Toes getting into some of that.
posted by magstheaxe at 8:30 AM on July 25, 2014

Tipping the Velvet and The Picture of Dorian Grey for love in Victorian era London
(Velvet actually makes allusions to Dorian Grey if I remember correctly)
posted by winterportage at 8:47 AM on July 25, 2014

Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
posted by tofu_crouton at 2:28 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Keeping Days series by Norma Johnston is set roughly in turn of the century Yonkers. There's lots of details about family life, the suffrage movement, women working and, of course, what clothes the main character is allowed to wear and when. It's a little bit overwrought at times,the main character is the 'sensitive' one in the family hut it's one of my favourite comfort reads and I have a lot of overlap with your favourites listed. In fact, I'm about to hunt down a Betsy book since I missed those as a kid!
posted by five_cents at 4:14 PM on July 25, 2014

It sounds like we should be in the same book club! So I came in to recommend anything by Geraldine Brooks. She goes into lovely detail about food and clothes and daily rituals. Memail me to start a new bookclub?!
posted by sconbie at 2:52 AM on July 26, 2014

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