'Amiably peopled' novels
August 26, 2020 4:41 PM   Subscribe

What are your favourite low-stress, enjoyable literary novels about people just hanging out?

I'm rereading A Suitable Boy, which, while it does have a plot, has a very large component of 'people hanging out'. The novel was described in a review as 'vast and amiably peopled'. I love this! I've read it before and I know it contains its share of sturm and drang, but the parts I love are the parts where the characters are just shooting the shit.

What other books would I like which are mostly just comic and enjoyable descriptions of amiable people having interesting conversations with each other? I can think of Jane Austen, Gerald Durrell and P G Wodehouse, and at the more recent end the adult novels of Rainbow Rowell. I guess a lot of romance novels fit this template, but I am not looking for romance novel recommendations.

It would be nice to read more recent examples of this type of writing, as I feel rather uninformed about current writers. For comfort I tend to gravitate to older books. I'd also like recommendations that are somewhat literary, rather than genre, as I'm very familiar with my preferred genres.
posted by unicorn chaser to Media & Arts (28 answers total) 91 users marked this as a favorite
I can't think of a novel more amiably peopled than Middlemarch.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 5:10 PM on August 26, 2020 [10 favorites]

This genre is Alexander McCall Smith's ouvre. And he acknowledges cribbing from Armistead Maupin's Tales Of The City, which is also what you're after.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:12 PM on August 26, 2020 [10 favorites]

I wouldn't say it's always amiable but I love this about Trollope's novels—lots of people just walking around and talking to each other, frequently enjoying each others' company. Plus there are 40+ of them and they're mostly very long, so he can occupy you for quite a while if you enjoy your first one. (I would start with Barchester Towers—it's not the first novel in its series, and you might also love its prequel The Warden, but it just feels more like "mature Trollope" to me.)
posted by Polycarp at 5:40 PM on August 26, 2020 [5 favorites]

I'm not quite sure I've nailed your genre but I found The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: A Novel gave me the same peopled feelings.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:52 PM on August 26, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. (Note that the plot focuses on the aftermath of the German occupation of the channel islands)
posted by ChuraChura at 6:34 PM on August 26, 2020 [3 favorites]

Laurie Colwin's novels. She's better known for her food writing, but her novels were wonderful.
posted by pie ninja at 6:40 PM on August 26, 2020 [4 favorites]

I am a huge fan of this genre and have actually read all that you've mentioned for exactly this purpose (except Rowell's adult stuff - will need to check it out).

I have a recent book of this kind that I really enjoyed - Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal. It's based on Pride and Prejudice which was a turn off to me - but unlike most Austen-inspired books, it's actually well-written. It's set in contemporary Pakistan and Kamal has done an incredible job of figuring out which aspects of P&P are important to retain and which can be safely nixed. Highly recommended.
posted by peacheater at 7:14 PM on August 26, 2020 [5 favorites]

90% of the Anne of Green Gables series is low-stakes, small town conversations. [ETA not "literary" though.]
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:15 PM on August 26, 2020 [7 favorites]

I recommend Anthony Powell for this sort of request.
posted by ovvl at 7:41 PM on August 26, 2020 [4 favorites]

Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley! Crome Yellow Crome Yellow Crome Yellow!!!

My most recommended book on metafilter and it's perfect for this ask. It was written in the 20s and follows the conversations and inner monologue of the summer residents of a manor house. The highest stakes game being played is will these linen pants make me appear clever and charming at the fete.

It's funny, extremely well written, absolutely brutal in picking out the most mockable qualities of these self absorbed people, it's short so you can read it all in a Saturday if you're motivated, and it's public domain so the ebook is free. Can't be beat.
posted by phunniemee at 8:47 PM on August 26, 2020 [10 favorites]

I remember really enjoying Three Men in a Boat. Certainly not new, though!
posted by ferret branca at 9:07 PM on August 26, 2020 [8 favorites]

Angela Thirkell wrote charming social comedies set in Anthony Trollope's fictitious county of Barchestershire. Nothing much happens, but people have tea on the lawn, dress for dinner, take the train to London for the day, and represent their social class under pressure from the 20th century.

D.E. Stevenson and E.M. Delafield also wrote gentle, frothy romantic comedies set in the British countryside. P.G.Wodehouse wrote the lightest & frothiest romantic comedies of all.

E. F. Benson is more cruel. The six “Lucia” novels, are "delicious satires of the pretensions and foibles of provincial middle-class life in Britain in the 1920s and ’40s."

Joe Keenan updated the comedy of manners to the 1980s people who live in the edge of the Art Scene in NYC.

All of these authors can be appreciated for droll descriptions of people's self-serving and self-indulgent behavior, and the Noble sentiments that they express meanwhile.
posted by ohshenandoah at 9:13 PM on August 26, 2020 [5 favorites]

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell! A gentle, lightly comic 19th-century slice-of-life novel, amiably peopled by old ladies. If you like Austen or George Eliot, you will probably like this. Gaskell's other works are much more political but this one is very low-stakes.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 9:37 PM on August 26, 2020 [4 favorites]

Anne Tyler is the author you're looking for.
posted by h00py at 2:34 AM on August 27, 2020 [5 favorites]

Seconding Anne Tyler. I liked A Patchwork Planet.
posted by fourpotatoes at 2:47 AM on August 27, 2020

Conversations with Friends and Normal People (both by Sally Rooney) are very much about people hanging out and talking. She's a very new author with a very modern style (no quotation marks, for instance), which I actually found very refreshing.
posted by brambory at 2:51 AM on August 27, 2020

comic and enjoyable descriptions of amiable people having interesting conversations with each other

Boswell's Life of Johnson. Not a novel but otherwise fits the requirements perfectly.
posted by Pechorin at 3:53 AM on August 27, 2020

90% of the Anne of Green Gables series is low-stakes, small town conversations. [ETA not "literary" though.]

Beg to differ. LM Montgomery's nature writing is incredible. Some of the stuff in Anne of Green Gables is over-the-top, because it's seen through the eyes of an imaginative little girl with a penchant for melodrama, but in the later books, it tones down considerably.
posted by basalganglia at 4:15 AM on August 27, 2020 [7 favorites]

Seconding the suggestion of E.M. Delafield, especially the Provincial Lady series.
posted by Fuchsoid at 5:56 AM on August 27, 2020

You will love Theophilus North by Thorton Wilder . Very amiable characters. Very litterary. Not recent though.
posted by bluedora at 7:19 AM on August 27, 2020

Miss Read.
posted by JanetLand at 7:27 AM on August 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Leonard and Hungry Paul
posted by mani at 2:49 PM on August 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

I would normally be apprehensive about recommending a 770-page novel, but you dig A Suitable Boy and have even read it twice so what the hell. Mason & Dixon is as literary as you please and has "comic and enjoyable descriptions of amiable people having interesting conversations with each other" in spades. Surveyors, as it turns out, have a lot of time on their hands. It's a novel of witty raillery, conversations with eccentrics in outrageously named pubs, and a lot more genuine sentiment than I ever expected from Pynchon. There's more -- reimagined history, renovated 18th-century English, a paranoid smokescreen of a plot and a lot of creative anachronism -- but the dialogue is the most memorable part.
Mason prefers to switch over to Tea, when it is Dixon’s turn to begin shaking his head. “Can’t understand how anyone abides that stuff.” “How so?” Mason unable not to react. “Well, it’s disgusting, isn’t it? Half-rotted Leaves, scalded with boiling Water and then left to lie, and soak, and bloat?” “Disgusting? this is Tea, Friend, Cha,— what all tasteful London drinks,— that,” pollicating the Coffee-Pot, “is what’s disgusting.” “Au contraire,” Dixon replies, “Coffee is an art, where precision is all,— Water-Temperature, mean particle diameter, ratio of Coffee to Water or as we say, CTW, and dozens more Variables I’d mention, were they not so clearly out of thy technical Grasp,— ” “How is it,” Mason pretending amiable curiosity, “that of each Pot of Coffee, only the first Cup is ever worth drinking,— and that, by the time I get to it, someone else has already drunk it?” Dixon shrugs. “You must improve your Speed . . . ? As to the other, why aye, only the first Cup’s any good, owing to Coffee’s Sacramental nature, the Sacrament being Penance, entirely absent from thy sunlit World of Tay,— whereby the remainder of the Pot, often dozens of cups deep, represents the Price for enjoying that first perfect Cup.” “Folly,” gapes Mason. “Why, ev’ry cup of Tea is perfect . . . ?” “For what? curing hides?”
posted by aws17576 at 12:01 AM on August 28, 2020 [6 favorites]

Nevil Shute's Round the bend
posted by dhruva at 6:01 AM on August 30, 2020

I feel compelled to mention Douglas Coupland? His novels seem largely plotless (they aren't) and can be very episodic and are generally people hanging out trying to figure out life. Life After God is a favorite of mine -- less a novel and more a collection of events and reminisces.
posted by hippybear at 5:14 PM on August 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

For slim rather than vast, but definitely amiably peopled, the criminally underrated short story collection "No Presents Please" by Jayant Kaikini.
posted by athirstforsalt at 8:20 AM on September 1, 2020 [1 favorite]

IIRC, Barbara Trapido's novels have some fairly amiable folks. Certainly they left an impression of any perilous plot dynamics being on the cosy end. (I hope I'm not misremembering).
posted by aesop at 9:55 AM on September 14, 2020

Any novel by Barbara Pym fits the bill. I would also recommend The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which is people with grumpy nuns.

Many, many middlebrow domestic novels would fit this bill. Here is an enormous list of them.
posted by tofu_crouton at 3:05 PM on September 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

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