Novels about small, quiet lives
May 18, 2016 5:51 AM   Subscribe

Can you recommend some exceptionally well written novels about quiet folks just living their lives?

No grand sweeping dramas, no grand passionate affairs or tumultuous historical struggles, please. Just a record of a small, good life being lived.

Some examples of what I'm looking for:

John Williams' Stoner is kind of the Platonic ideal of the novel I want.
Tove Jansson's The Summer Book
Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs
J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country
posted by Chrischris to Media & Arts (66 answers total) 103 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe Kent Haruf or Jane Smiley would be good for this? Definitely Kent Haruf.
posted by leesh at 5:55 AM on May 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, is a beautiful example of this.
posted by ourobouros at 5:56 AM on May 18, 2016 [15 favorites]

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. There are some outsized events in the novel but it's closely based on the diary and letters of an actual woman. The writing is breathtaking.
posted by workerant at 6:04 AM on May 18, 2016 [7 favorites]

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Does it have to be American?

Ha Jin's Waiting and most of Kazio Ashiguro's work (especially The Remains of the Day) also do this for me
posted by Mchelly at 6:12 AM on May 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

Actually, the less "Midwestern" the better. Anything that actively includes spirituality and/or overt religious sentiment is kind of a turn-off. I'm more interested really in the quotidian lived details of everyday life, rather than exploring spiritual interiority.
posted by Chrischris at 6:15 AM on May 18, 2016

The Typist, by Michael Knight. He is particularly good at this sort of storytelling.

Also maybe Elizabeth Tallent and William Trevor: though his stories can get pretty bleak, I recommend Elizabeth Alone.
posted by mmiddle at 6:16 AM on May 18, 2016

I was thinking something from Carson McCullers - like The Heart is A Lonely Hunter - there are characters that are quiet folks, living their lives in that novel. Most of her novels have the same.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 6:22 AM on May 18, 2016

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury might be of interest to you.
posted by Beholder at 6:27 AM on May 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

Bruce Chatwin: On the Black Hill
posted by ryanshepard at 6:30 AM on May 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is a cradle-to-grave life story of a man living on the Channel Island of Guernsey. The island is only 30 square miles and there are swaths of it he never even visits. Also it's a really great novel.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 6:32 AM on May 18, 2016

She only writes short stories, but some of Alice Munro's books contain stories that are all tied together with the same characters or locations. "Who do You Think You Are", also known as "The Beggar Maid" is a pretty good one.
posted by LionIndex at 6:37 AM on May 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

Maybe Light Years, by James Salter
posted by rpn at 6:39 AM on May 18, 2016

Lark Rise to Candleford.
posted by JanetLand at 6:39 AM on May 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

Annie Proulx comes to mind, particularly The Shipping News and Postcards.
posted by staraling at 6:42 AM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I opened this thread to recommend Stoner. I found Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels to share many of the things I liked about Stoner.
posted by enn at 6:45 AM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Raney by Clyde Edgerton, though on preview, might be too much Baptism for you.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 6:48 AM on May 18, 2016

I'm not quite sure if this qualifies, but the novel "Remains of the day" sort of fits with that sort of theme. Maybe. Either way, it is excellent.
posted by vernondalhart at 6:49 AM on May 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

London Belongs to Me, Norman Collins: the war, insofar as it impinges on the lives of the characters, happens largely off stage, although some of the casualties spill onto the page. Collins’s versatile palate paints a variety of moods: mild irony, savage satire and knockabout humour; pathos, misfortune, tragedy and domestic melodrama; but it fits neither into the Ealing comedy category nor could it be called a kitchen sink drama

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Alan Sillitoe, post-war British working class short stories. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, same author. Strong class consciousness in these stories, as in Lawrence below.

Sons and Lovers, D H Lawrence, if you haven't read it, as The Modern Library placed it ninth on their list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century..

Don't look up the Sillitoe on wikipedia as it gives you the whole plot.
posted by glasseyes at 6:49 AM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've only read excerpts here and there, but thinking Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle could fit the bill.
posted by black_lizard at 6:51 AM on May 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Sixpence House by Paul Collins is about the author and his family moving to the "town of books" in the UK, and his time and quiet explorations there in their plentiful used bookstores.
posted by ellerhodes at 7:01 AM on May 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Barbara Pym is so good at this, that she lost her career for a while because publishers didn't think there would be interest. In a similar vein, Elizabeth Taylor. Both craft exquisite fiction.
posted by PinkMoose at 7:04 AM on May 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

This is why I love Helene Hanff's 84 Charring Cross Road so much - witty letters sent between a book store in the UK and an author in America.
posted by scrittore at 7:06 AM on May 18, 2016 [8 favorites]

No Garrison Keillor yet? The Lake Woebegone books are basically this.
posted by smirkette at 7:10 AM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Kent Haruf for sure and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (if we really can't convince you about Gilead, though Housekeeping is great in its own right).

Others I'd suggest:
I Capture the Castle
The Anne of Green Gables books (seriously)
So Long, See You Tomorrow and William Maxwell's short stories generally
posted by veery at 7:11 AM on May 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm surprised anyone's recommending The Remains of the Day in this category. It's only apparently about a quiet life. It's really a deeply disquieting story.

The novels and stories by Miss Read about village life in England just after World War II, focusing on the village school and the inhabitants of the small towns of Fairacre and Thrush Green, might fit your bill.

Barbara Pym's novels might also do. They're the kind of story in which someone wearing the wrong kind of skirt to a church fête can become an incident.
posted by zadcat at 7:16 AM on May 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

Crome Yellow is one of my favorite books. The main character spends most of his time in a funk because his life is so small and quiet. It's very funny.
posted by phunniemee at 7:33 AM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding Barbara Pym. Excellent Women is the place to start.
posted by dreamphone at 7:45 AM on May 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

I want to suggest Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S Connell.
posted by aaanastasia at 7:52 AM on May 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

It's been a while since I read these, but I remember feeling this way about Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row by Steinbeck.
posted by monologish at 7:57 AM on May 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley.
posted by holborne at 8:01 AM on May 18, 2016

Seconding Marilynne Robinson (the one I read was Lila, but I believe several/all of her books involve the same characters), Kent Haruf, and Alice Munro, and adding Ivan Doig and Carol Shields.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 8:04 AM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, and Richard Russo.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 8:04 AM on May 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

A Glass of Blessings, Barbara Pym
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:14 AM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding The book of Ebenezer Le Page.
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 8:18 AM on May 18, 2016

What about "Staggerford" by Jon Hassler (pus his other books)? It's about one week during the life of a school teacher from a small Minnesota town.

Hassler, an alum of St. John's University (like my dad & brothers are), wrote books about people just living in Minnesota. Wikipedia says this:
Much of Hassler's fiction involves characters struggling with transitions in their lives or searching for a central purpose. Many of his major characters are Catholic (or lapsed Catholics), and his novels frequently explore the role that small town life plays in shaping, or limiting, human potential.

Readers of Hassler's novels eventually will notice a number of recurring characters: for instance, Miles Pruitt (the protagonist in Staggerford, who is referred to in A Green Journey, The Love Hunter, and The New Woman); Agatha McGee (in Staggerford, A Green Journey, Dear James, The Staggerford Flood, and The New Woman); Larry Quinn (in The Love Hunter and Rookery Blues); and Frank Healy (in North of Hope and The New Woman).
His books are quiet but I really like them.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:22 AM on May 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Shoot, I just read your caveat about less Midwestern. Soooooo, maybe not the best? :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 8:23 AM on May 18, 2016

This is Anne Tyler's entire oeuvre.
posted by mudpuppie at 8:26 AM on May 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

Does too much happen in Middlemarch?
posted by bdc34 at 8:36 AM on May 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries, if Canada is exotic enough.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:43 AM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Pretty much anything by Nicholson Baker. (But some of them are sort of sweet, quiet porn, so if you don't want to read a book that's mainly about sex, don't just pick one at random.) I might recommend starting with The Mezzanine or The Everlasting Story of Nory.

I think a lot of Willa Cather books might also suit you. Death Comes for the Archbishop, for example. (Which I don't recall as particularly focused on spirituality, even if it is about a priest. But maybe I'm only remembering the aspects that interested me.)

Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding, one of my all-time favorite books.
posted by Redstart at 9:26 AM on May 18, 2016

Grace Paley short stories are where I go to for this. But I second the novels recommended above, especially Country of the Pointed Firs, Mr. Bridge, Mrs. Bridge, Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row and Middlemarch as well as

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead (middle-class black teenager during summer vacation) and A Dance to the Music of Time series by Anthony Powell (upper-class Brits)
posted by maggiemaggie at 9:29 AM on May 18, 2016

Seconding Nicholson Baker, but in particular, A Box of Matches. It's short and charming and Baker is all about the little details of domestic life in this novel.
posted by purple_bird at 9:49 AM on May 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

C.P. Snow's The Masters.
posted by JanetLand at 10:09 AM on May 18, 2016

Jane Austen
Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness (Canadian)
Seconding Anne Tyler
Mary Lawson's trilogy of Crow Lake, The Other Side Of The Bridge, and Road Ends (Canadian).
Margaret Laurence (also Canadian; my favourite is The Diviners, but they're all good)
posted by Amy NM at 11:01 AM on May 18, 2016

This is what I love so much about My Antonia by Willa Cather.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:15 PM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hilma Wolitzer, An Available Man
Marina Endicott, Good to a Fault
David Bergen, The Age of Hope

Seconding Carol Shields, Anne Tyler, Kent Haruf, Alice Munro.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:58 PM on May 18, 2016

Oh please, Richard Yates. Easter Parade in particular. Penelope Lively can also be good for this -- perhaps Consequences?
posted by heavenknows at 3:01 PM on May 18, 2016

Someone mentioned Alice Munro above and I would highly recommend Lives of Girls and Women.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 3:10 PM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Neapolitan Novels by Elana Ferrante
posted by lunasol at 3:15 PM on May 18, 2016

Any one--or more--of Miss Read's novels would be perfect. Mid-century British village life. I can't remember her real name, but she published all her books under her pseudonym, Miss Read.
posted by primate moon at 3:19 PM on May 18, 2016

The Sojourner, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
posted by bricoleur at 4:41 PM on May 18, 2016

A Good House by Bonnie Burnard. It won the Giller Prize (Canada's top for literature).
posted by Frenchy67 at 4:50 PM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I get this feeling from Steve Martin's Shopgirl.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 8:25 PM on May 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Maybe Alexander McCall Smith? I say this tentatively because he was the first slice of life author I ever read, and it's not a genre I'm super familiar with.

No 1 Ladies Detective Agency did have some suspense (child-kidnapping, i.e. something I personally would actively avoid reading about) but that was the exception, not the rule. Most of his novels- including the rest in that series that I've read- are lazy, gentle stories about nice people.
posted by Cozybee at 11:09 PM on May 18, 2016

+1 to Shipping News, which also reminds me of another Newfoundland novel, Howard Norman's the Bird Artist. There is a Dramatic Event in it but it has a kind of quiet gentleness (the main character is a bird artist for crying out loud). For absolutely nothing but daily life -- yes, Midwestern but not religious--Lake Woebegone Days is the one.
posted by athirstforsalt at 2:27 AM on May 19, 2016

I have a lot, a LOT, of love for Wendell Berry's Port William novels, set in rural Kentucky over the 20th century and revolving around an overlapping cast of characters.
posted by stuck on an island at 4:38 AM on May 19, 2016

Mollie Panter-Downes's One Fine Day narrates a single day in the life of an ordinary woman in an English village after the war. It is a beautifully atmospheric love letter to a village way of life that was already passing away, although in hindsight there is also a significant LOL factor in its elegiac theme of Can This Be Life Without (more than one or two) Domestic Servants?.
posted by stuck on an island at 4:57 AM on May 19, 2016

Also Mary Wesley
posted by Amy NM at 6:32 AM on May 19, 2016

Oh--seconding Anne Of Green Gables and the rest of the novels in that series. Also, although it is technically a YA book, Little Women meets all your criteria. I've often thought the unabridged version is too advanced for the age group it's marketed to.
posted by Amy NM at 6:35 AM on May 19, 2016

Came here to also recommend On the Black Hill. Small, quiet Wales.
posted by Helga-woo at 5:21 PM on May 19, 2016

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
posted by Wildflowers at 7:49 PM on May 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Georges Perecs's Life A User's Manual.

It's not at all what you're looking for, and it's exactly what you're looking for. It's hundreds of tiny vignettes of daily life in an apartment building in Paris. Some of these vignettes are outlandish and exciting, many of them are absolutely mundane and lovely. There are a few larger stories that persist through the book, but they are not the point. They are not not the point either.

The book is a constant reminder for me of all the lives going on all the time, and how little any them matters, and how that doesn't matter at all - there is still so much beauty and humor to it all.
posted by taltalim at 1:19 PM on May 20, 2016

Much later, and reminded by another AskMe: Lillian Beckwith's books.
posted by zadcat at 5:49 PM on June 10, 2016

I just reread Lydia Cassat Reading The Morning Paper and thought of this question. It's a lovely quiet take on just how much a quiet life can give to others, and take from - and give to - yourself.
posted by Mchelly at 7:40 PM on June 13, 2016

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