Recommendations for books with beautiful prose.
August 9, 2017 11:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to read books that are beautifully written, that have phrases that have you picking up a highlighter immediately or scribbling down on a post-it note to stick on your wall. Books that paint the world, feelings, humans in many different colours.

I love books that read like a painting. I'm looking for more books like these, that you can pick up and put down easily but leave you almost breathless when you read a perfect sentence.

I realise that this is subjective and what works for me won't resonate with you, so with that in mind these are three books that exemplify the type of prose i'm looking for:

The Waves by Virginia Woolf ("The bird flies; the flower dances; but I hear always the sullen thud of the waves; and the chained beast stamps on the beach. It stamps and stamps."
Surfacing by Margaret Atwood ("A section of my own life, sliced off from me like a Siamese twin, my own flesh cancelled. Lapse, relapse, I have to forget.")
Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson ("The probability of separate worlds meeting is very small. The lure of it is immense. We send starships. We fall in love.”)

I'm particularly interested in continuing in the vein of women writers (extra points if they are WOC authors). They also still need to have some kind of narrative, even if a little more vague and difficult to comprehend. So I'm not looking for poetry like Rupi Kaur, which while definitely fits the bill for "beautiful", doesn't work here.

In terms of themes that the books would contain - love, romance, womanhood, depression - however this is not essential, although I do seem to connect with these themes more than others.

Help me find more beautiful writing!
posted by liquorice to Writing & Language (55 answers total) 79 users marked this as a favorite
Ru, by Kim Thuy. The original was written in French, and the English translation by the stellar Sheila Fischman is beautiful.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:19 PM on August 9, 2017

The two that come immediately to mind for me are The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.
posted by Jairus at 11:19 PM on August 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

Priestdaddy, a memoir by Patricia Lockwood. (Previously) It's humorous, but Lockwood is also a published poet, and I found a lot of the prose really captivating and beautiful.
posted by jaksemas at 11:29 PM on August 9, 2017

Have you read any Marilynne Robinson? Gilead (New York Times review) feels this way to me- lovely, graceful and clear.
posted by charmedimsure at 11:33 PM on August 9, 2017 [7 favorites]

Anything by Jorge Luis Borges
posted by ananci at 11:40 PM on August 9, 2017

Bruce Chatwin is the man for this, for me. 'On The Black Hill' for Fiction and 'In Patagonia' for Non Fiction.
posted by Middlemarch at 11:43 PM on August 9, 2017

The short stories of Katherine Mansfield. I carried around a book of them for 30 years and finally read them last year, and it breaks my heart that I could have known her beautiful prose all these years but didn't. Virginia Woolf wrote in her journals that Mansfield was the only writer she was jealous of.

The first paragraph of The Garden Party, perhaps her most famous story:

And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer. The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine. As for the roses, you could not help feeling they understood that roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing. Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds, had come out in a single night; the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 11:47 PM on August 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

Proust, you want Proust.
posted by praemunire at 11:54 PM on August 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

Oh my gosh, Katherine Mansfield's short stories! (On preview, yes, what ALeaflikeStructure said!) Project Gutenberg has free editions you can download -- I agree, start with "The Garden Party & Other Stories"; her other major volumes don't match your criteria as closely, IMO, but since they're short stories it's easy enough to flip through to the next one if you're not sold on one.

If you decide to buy a book in print (I prefer having an edition with footnotes), be sure to look in the table of contents and make sure it has at least "The Garden Party" and "At the Bay." Go with a publisher that you recognize, such as Norton, Penguin, or Oxford's World Classics -- since most (if not all) of her stories are in the public domain the U.S., there are a lot of cheapo editions out there.

I'm guessing you already have more Woolf on your list, yes? :)

Not written by a woman, but E.M. Forster's novels with female protagonists often have some of my favorite prose. If you haven't read him I would start with Howards End and/or A Room with a View. Same deal as above on looking for a publisher you recognize, etc, because those are in the public domain in the U.S. also. Here he is on Gutenberg.
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 12:06 AM on August 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Arundhati Roy is an Indian woman with a feel for language and two novels.

It was raining when Rahel came back to Ayemenem. Slanting silver ropes slammed into loose earth, plowing it up like gunfire. The old house on the hill wore its steep, gabled roof pulled over its ears like a low hat. The walls, streaked with moss, had grown soft, and bulged a little with dampness that seeped up from the ground. The wild, overgrown garden was full of the whisper and scurry of small lives. In the undergrowth a rat snake rubbed itself against a glistening stone. Hopeful yellow bullfrogs cruised the scummy pond for mates. A drenched mongoose flashed across the leaf-strewn driveway.
posted by Iteki at 12:12 AM on August 10, 2017

Sticking just with women writers ...
posted by Wobbuffet at 12:29 AM on August 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.
posted by edeezy at 12:33 AM on August 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

Italo Calvino. Invisible Cities and If on a Winter's Night A Traveler.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:36 AM on August 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

Came to say Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, was not disappointed to see it already here.
posted by augustimagination at 1:15 AM on August 10, 2017

Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell. I read this in early adolescence, and it was the first time I ever noticed the prose as a separate thing from the story.
posted by Bruce H. at 1:18 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame hits this spot for me, as does Penelope Fitzgerald's work (The Beginning of Spring and The Blue Flower are both fantastic).
posted by terretu at 1:19 AM on August 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Patricia Dunker's Hallucinating Foucault made me get out a notebook and scribble down quote after quote.

keri hulme's the bone people is overwhelmingly beautifully written.

Anything by Jeanette Winterson as you've already discovered.
posted by kariebookish at 1:51 AM on August 10, 2017

Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red
most of Carole Maso's novels, though some are more narrative than others--maybe start with The American Woman in the Chinese Hat

nthing Katherine Mansfield
posted by dizziest at 1:56 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Echoing the recommendation for Marilynne Robinson above, but I would recommend Housekeeping for the particular perfect descriptive sentences you are chasing. Something more contemporary you might enjoy is Sara Baume's recent novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither.

If you'll allow me to wander off the vein of women writers, Nabokov's autobiography of his childhood Speak, Memory is absolutely breathtakingly evocative and I wanted to highlight ten sentences a page.
posted by distorte at 2:32 AM on August 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I love Yiyun Li, more for the short stories than for the novels. (Good as The Vagrants is, it's bleak and daunting.)
posted by BibiRose at 2:53 AM on August 10, 2017

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, of course.
posted by Sublimity at 2:56 AM on August 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

Willa Cather. O Pioneers is her most famous but The Professor's House is the one I reread every few years.

West with the Night by Beryl Markham has some of the most beautiful language I've come across .

Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag.
Middlemarch by George Elliot (aka Marian Evans)
posted by DarthDuckie at 3:12 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Anything by Isak Dinesen. Also Little Big by John Crowley.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 3:28 AM on August 10, 2017

I used to belong to a book club, and often read that month's reading in the day or two before our meeting, which was usually fine; however, one month the book was The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and it was beautiful, and I wanted to savor all the words, but rushed through it to finish it in time. It's just beautifully written.
posted by poppunkcat at 4:23 AM on August 10, 2017

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It's a brutal story with beautiful prose.
posted by The Deej at 4:30 AM on August 10, 2017

I find that (not surprising) that novels by poets often fit for this.
Others that work (although not by women) include:
- Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje
- Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
posted by seesom at 4:52 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

oh my heavens, you need to read Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic. I've read hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books and this is the only one that I turned from the last page to the first, to read it again immediately.

Notable mentions:
Nabokov's Ada, or Ardor is clever, erotic, playful and gorgeous
Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (for beautiful, terrible, apocalyptic, breathless, epic writing)
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:24 AM on August 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

nthing Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, because it was just so deeply, deeply satisfying on so many levels.

I'm a big fan of AS Byatt, and would recommend just about anything of hers, but the Potter Family quartet in particular. The second book, Still Life, made me literally sit down in my kitchen and weep.

Will also nth Nabokov; he's probably one of the best English stylists I've ever read, although if you aren't familiar with his work, Ada might not be the best place to start (it's my favourite of his novels, but I feel like it's also far and away his most challenging, and I think knowing how he does things going in helped me get more out of it).

Ray Smith's Century is known by almost no one but might actually be the best novel I've ever read.

Anything by Carol Shields (especially The Stone Diaries), Diane Schoemperlen (*except* At a Loss for Words), André Alexis, or Alice Munro.

Other notables:
  • The Blue Book, by AL Kennedy
  • Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod
  • Stoner, by John Williams

posted by Fish Sauce at 6:21 AM on August 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is inventive, striking and memorably beautiful. See also: Something More Than Night, a gorgeous noir murder mystery set in heaven (!!).
posted by nerdfish at 6:39 AM on August 10, 2017

Beloved by Toni Morrison (although anything by her would fit the bill)
James Baldwin
LaRose by Louise Erdrich
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:42 AM on August 10, 2017

Natalia Ginzburg, Nathalie Sarraute, also gonna nth Proust. Basically anything mid-20th century, French or Italian, and by a woman.
posted by dame at 7:06 AM on August 10, 2017

White Oleander by Janet Fitch has phrases like "under the bed, her letters shifted and heaved." And in Paint it Black, same author, there are sentences such as "Josie poured the chunky glass half-full of amber liquid, it smelled like the day after a fire." Her prose in PIB, particularly, more than supports the story itself - extremely dark, and which in the hands of a writer less skilled with words would just be another Really Sad Story that I'd never want to read. In the Reader section the author comments that she always reads poetry before she starts writing and that her writing often reflects the rhythms of Ezra Pound.
posted by Crystal Fox at 7:31 AM on August 10, 2017

One work of his is mentioned above, and I would expand that to "anything I have ever read" by Salman Rushdie having this character. His prose, for me, has the exact character you are describing.
posted by annabear at 7:38 AM on August 10, 2017

Anything by Catherynne Valente. I can especially vouch for Six-Gun Snow White, Speak Easy, Palimpsest, The Melancholoy of Mechagirl, and The Bread We Eat in Dreams.
posted by brook horse at 8:35 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Trysting by Emmanuelle Pagano is the most beautiful book I have read in the past year.
Bel Canto by Ann Pratchett.
posted by JohnFromGR at 9:03 AM on August 10, 2017

Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend
Catherynne M. Valente's Deathless
posted by esoterrica at 9:18 AM on August 10, 2017

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
posted by yawper at 10:40 AM on August 10, 2017

Happy to see that many of my favorite stylists have already been mentioned.

I'd add to the above Angela Carter, Theodora Goss, and Elizabeth Hand. I've read their fiction collections mostly, though they all have novels I wanna dive into at some point.

We've had threads of this sort before in case you want more recs.
posted by xenization at 10:41 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

M.F.K.Fisher does this for me. Sometimes she uses her words like a paintbrush, and sometimes, like a knife. Her collection, The art of eating, I highly recommend.
posted by LaBellaStella at 12:30 PM on August 10, 2017

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has been one of my most favorites since I was 12.
posted by brujita at 12:36 PM on August 10, 2017

If fantasy isn't a deal-breaker, I highly recommend Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria. Beautiful, painterly prose by a WOC in which love and depression are major themes.
posted by Prunesquallor at 1:29 PM on August 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

Watermark by Joseph Brodsky
posted by stopgap at 1:38 PM on August 10, 2017

Pond by Claire Louise Bennett
Speedboat by Renata Adler
posted by DynamiteToast at 1:41 PM on August 10, 2017

Absolutely nthing The Bone People by Keri Hulme. Astonishing prose that lingered in my mind for days.

Patricia McKillip in a fantasy writer who writes the most beautiful lucid prose. Alphabet of Thorns, Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Sorceress and the Cygnet—all are wonderful and illuminating.
posted by MovableBookLady at 2:18 PM on August 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Between Life and Death, by Nathalie Sarraute.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:16 PM on August 10, 2017

Little, Big by John Crowley for sure.

Magical in a couple senses of the word.
“She had always lived her best life in dreams. She knew no greater pleasure than that moment of passage into the other place, when her limbs grew warm and heavy and the sparkling darkness behind her lids became ordered and doors opened; when conscious thought grew owl's wings and talons and became other than conscious.”
nearly every sentence is perfect.

[in a quiet library-type room, where people are proofreading phonebooks]:
A young man who had just been hired had laughed.
"I've just found," he said, "a listing for the Noisy Bridge Rod and Gun Club." He could barely finish it for laughing, and Smoky was amazed that the silence of every other proofreader there didn't hush him. "Don't you get it?" The young man appealed to Smoky. "It sure would be a noisy bridge." Smoky suddenly laughed too, and their laughter rose to the ceiling and shook hands there.
posted by cybertaur1 at 6:36 PM on August 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I apologize in advance, because this book is almost the opposite of the women-written, women-focused works you're hunting, but I've never quite recovered from the way in which Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (better known for writing The Little Prince) makes prose out of dense, beautiful poetry.

Thus, when Mermoz first crossed the South Atlantic in a hydroplane, as day was dying he ran afoul of the Black Hole region, off Africa. Straight ahead of him were the tails of tornadoes rising minute by minute gradually higher, rising as a wall is built; and then the night came down upon these preliminaries and swallowed them up; and when, an hour later, he slipped under the clouds, he came out into a fantastic kingdom. Great black waterspouts had reared themselves seemingly in the immobility of temple pillars. Swollen at their tops, they were supporting the squat and lowering arch of the tempest, but through the rifts in the arch there fell slabs of light and the full moon sent her radiant beams between the pillars down upon the frozen tiles of the sea. Through these uninhabited ruins Mermoz made his way, gliding slantwise from one channel of light to the next, circling round those giant pillars in which there must have rumbled the upsurge of the sea, flying for four hours through these corridors of moonlight toward the exit from the temple. And this spectacle was so overwhelming that only after he had got through the Black Hole did Mermoz awaken to the fact that he had not been afraid.
posted by flod at 11:01 PM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Wow, everyone. I always knew I could count on AskMe to bring out the goods but I'm still blown away by the amazing and thoughtful recommendations. I haven't marked any as best answer because there are just too many great responses. I can't wait to get started!
posted by liquorice at 2:21 AM on August 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Steven Pinker's Sense of Style doesn't meet your requirements, but it might make a fun adjunct if you are in love with language.
posted by OlivesAndTurkishCoffee at 5:36 AM on August 11, 2017

Passage by Connie Willis, Borne by Jeff Vandermeer, Lisey's Story by Stephen King, anything by Anais Nin. I also third Annie Dillard.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 8:30 AM on August 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Transit, by Rachel Cusk.
Citizen, by Claudia Rankine.
posted by codhavereturned at 3:26 PM on August 17, 2017

Two novels I read this year with beautiful prose that I couldn't stop copying into my reading journal: The Sport of Kings, by C. E. Morgan, and The Still Point, by Amy Sackville.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 6:32 PM on August 18, 2017

Marguerite Duras’ The Lover maybe
John Le Carré ?

Agree also with Arundhati Roy.
posted by OlivesAndTurkishCoffee at 8:20 PM on October 15, 2017

I absolutely loved the character descriptions in My Education by Regina Choi. The (female) narrator's (female) love interest is first described as having hair the color of "drenched straw," something I can't stop thinking about years later.

I also felt this way about The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Ouch, my heart. Beautiful, clear, pure, lovely prose.
posted by wintersonata9 at 6:25 PM on November 13, 2017

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