mid-century, not necessarily so modern
June 19, 2016 10:22 AM   Subscribe

I recently read Marjorie Morningstar and The Women's Room, and I'm looking for more some mid-20th-century books that have some of the qualities I liked about these two: sprawling plot, cast of engaging characters, and a sense of what life was like at the time. Preferably U.S. or UK. Perhaps books that have been unjustly forgotten but still hold up well today -- neither of my examples is really "forgotten", but you don't really hear people talking about Wouk or Marilyn French much these days. (I didn't mind the retrograde gender politics in Marjorie Morningstar at all but I would prefer to avoid Roth/Mailer-style misogyny.)
posted by Ralston McTodd to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
The Group by Mary McCarthy.
Peyton Place
posted by SemiSalt at 10:29 AM on June 19, 2016 [6 favorites]

I think you'll like The Best of Everything

Also there's a lot of this in the opening chapters of The Bell Jar
posted by Mchelly at 10:45 AM on June 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

Strongly seconding The Group. You might also enjoy Excellent Women by Barbara Pym.
posted by dilettante at 10:51 AM on June 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

The Cazalet Chronicle--which is a five novel series by Elizabeth Jane Howard.
I have been grabbing everyone by the lapels and telling them they must read Elizabeth Jane Howard.
posted by shibori at 11:20 AM on June 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

Marge Piercy's seventies novels are not quite as mid-century (since I recommend her 1970s novels for this purpose) but sort of late-mid-century? And otherwise they match your request perfectly - they have sprawling casts of characters, emphasize the "social novel" aspect and a lot of period detail and also have feminist concerns. My personal favorites are Small Changes (1973) and Braided Lives, which was published in 1982 but which deals with the fifties. All her domestic books draw a great deal on her experience as a working class Jewish feminist intellectual.

I think you'll find Margaret Drabble's early work to scratch that itch too. My favorite of hers, The Radiant Way, came out in the eighties but deals with the sixties and seventies through the early eighties. She started writing in the late sixties.

Also, what about Doris Lessing's Children of Violence series, written from 1952 - 1969? And her Golden Notebook? I think that the Diary of a Good Neighbor would also fit well - it was published in the early eighties, but it draws together the experiences of an elderly, poor woman who was a milliner and the experiences of the protagonist, who has risen through the sixties and seventies to become a very successful magazine editor. It's probably my favorite Doris Lessing novel because it is the most self-aware about the solitude, spite, loneliness and struggle to connect that are Lessing's (IMO substantially unconscious) themes.
posted by Frowner at 11:28 AM on June 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

Olivia Manning wrote about British ex-pats during WWII in her two Fortunes of War trilogies, The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy. Really vivid depictions of multiple cultures and places in the middle of the 20th century.
posted by ljshapiro at 11:58 AM on June 19, 2016

Can I recommend A.J. Cronin -- very popular in his day, overlooked now -- particularly The Citadel? It's a favourite I've read and re-read many times (and just lent to a friend, who enjoyed it quite a bit). He's always reminded me a little bit of Somerset Maugham, but that might have to do more with time/place/class than writing style. But The Citadel has always felt a little bit Of Human Bondage-y to me.

Also: Orwell's Coming Up for Air.
posted by kmennie at 11:59 AM on June 19, 2016

Diary of a Mad Housewife.

The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby.

Laurie Colwin, Happy All the Time and Family Happiness.

Seconding Margaret Drabble, and anything by Rona Jaffe.

The Prodigal Women
by Nancy Hale came out in 1942, but it's sort of a prototype of modern women's fiction, an d a remarkable book.
posted by BibiRose at 12:13 PM on June 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Final Payments, by Mary Gordon.
posted by BibiRose at 12:18 PM on June 19, 2016

Most anything by John O'Hara..
The Godfather and other novels by Mario Puzo
Novels by Gay Talese
Some works by Norman Mailer
William Faulkner, especially for the culture of the south
John Steinbeck
posted by SemiSalt at 12:33 PM on June 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think you might like some of Iris Murdoch's early books--she began writing in the 1950s.
posted by tiger tiger at 12:54 PM on June 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding John O'Hara—he famously (and depending on who you ask unwisely) moved from tight modernism in the Fitzgerald manner to sprawling social novels beginning with A Rage to Live, and was obsessive about recording detail, dialogue, etc. His short stories are wonderful, if you'd like to take a test drive before you hop into one of the big novels.
posted by Polycarp at 1:19 PM on June 19, 2016

Winifred Holtby's South Riding, which I read quite recently—published in 1936, still in print. Holtby was an extremely successful writer who would certainly be much better known today if she hadn't died, aged only 37, shortly before this novel was published.

If you say what the book's subject is—local government in interwar provincial England—then it sounds boring. But it's beautifully written and intricately plotted, with an enormous range of perceptively drawn characters, and it absolutely provides the sense of what life was like at the time, as roads and schools and healthcare were gradually extending across the Britain's geographic and social landscape. It's a remarkable book.

Oh, and yes, Olivia Manning.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 2:42 PM on June 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

W. Somerset Maugham might be a little earlier than what you're looking for, but I'll throw it out there at least.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:08 PM on June 19, 2016

I'm not sure how good a suggestion this is, but the bulk of my internal Imaginary 1950s New York was informed by obsessive reading and re-reading of JD Salinger's novels, especially the Glass family stories. It's a while since I read them, but I remember them as conveying the feel of the era very well.
posted by glitter at 4:51 PM on June 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Second Elizabeth Jane Howard. I'd also suggest R. F. Delderfield's To Serve Them All My Days, which covers the period between the two World Wars in the UK.
posted by posadnitsa at 5:40 PM on June 19, 2016

Seconding The Best of Everything.

James Michener tended to write spralling historical epics. One book of his that might work for you would be Hawaii. It fits most of your criteria, except that, as Wikipedia puts it: The story begins with the creation of the islands themselves at the dawn of time and ends in the mid-1950s. So the contemporary stuff is mid century, but there are a wealth of historical characters/stories as well.

Ranging a bit further, you might consider Jean Kerr for a really good feel for life/family in the 1950's. Her best book is a collection of essays, so not fiction, called Please Don't Eat the Daisies. Here is a really nice appreciation of both her (and her generation) and the book, with a sample of her writing, so you can see if it might work for you at all.
posted by gudrun at 5:47 PM on June 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Another vote for The Best Of Everything by Rona Jaffe!
posted by bookmammal at 6:07 PM on June 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

For an inexhaustible and depthlessly subtle comic sensibility, unmatched powers of observation, and some of the most agile and unobtrusively vivid English prose ever written, I suggest Barbara Pym.

Start with Some Tame Gazelle, go on to Excellent Women, and then wherever you please from there.
posted by jamjam at 9:11 PM on June 19, 2016

Oh gosh yes, Rona Jaffe! I was obsessed with Family Secrets back in the day. I'll also nth The Group.

You might like Sheila Levine Is Dead And Living In New York. I just love this book.

If you don't mind young adult, Norma Klein's books were what I imagined growing up in New York City in the 1970s was like.
posted by SisterHavana at 10:08 PM on June 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

For that perspective on New York WASP society, Louis Auchincloss.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:38 AM on June 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Elizabeth von Arnim, most of whose books list her simply as "Elizabeth," might suit perfectly. Her most popular novel, The Enchanted April was made into a film and is still in print, but the others are a bit harder to find. Worth it, though!
posted by dizziest at 12:36 PM on June 26, 2016

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