Books that changed my life: Elizabeth Kostova
By Louisa May Alcott
My fascination with the 19th century began as a child, when I listened to stories about my great-grandparents. I grew up in Tennessee and talking about family heritage is part of a Southern tradition. So, when I read Little Women and saw how Alcott brings the 19th century alive through domestic drama and details, it was a revelation. I loved the feisty character of Jo. She was a writer and, in a very personal way, I took that to heart; I’ve since heard other women writers say that it was Jo who inspired them first.
The Portrait of a Lady
By Henry James
The development of Isabel Archer’s character has fascinated me since I first read this masterpiece when I was 14. Smart and headstrong, she’s not rewarded for these qualities but punished by the schemers in the novel. While it’s a sobering read, the vividness of the writing and the way James uses language to come at things indirectly—giving them greater significance and power —are lessons I have drawn on for my own work.
By Leo Tolstoy
With the large cast of characters in Anna Karenina, there are always different relationships to consider, both within the novel and in terms of the reader’s reaction to them. For instance, when I was younger I was swept away by the romantic, tragic character of Anna—while a later reading found me unbearably annoyed by her, but intensely interested in Levin’s search for meaning in life. After I had my own children, I found myself intrigued by my sympathy for drab Dolly.