Novellas in November: 10 Favorite Classic Novellas

For this final week of Novellas in November, we’re focusing on classic literature. The more obscure the better, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe a few of the favorites I feature below will be new to you? (The two not pictured were read from the library.)

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin [150 pages]: David, a penniless American, came to Paris to find himself. His second year there he meets Giovanni, an Italian barman. They fall in love and move in together. There’s a problem, though: David has a fiancée. We know from the first pages that David has fled to the south of France and that Giovanni faces the guillotine in the morning, but throughout Baldwin maintains the tension as we wait to hear why he has been sentenced to death. Deeply sad, but also powerful and brave.

The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates [137 pages]: “Perfick” reading for an afternoon sitting or two; The Novel Cure even prescribes it as a tonic for cynicism. Just like tax inspector Cedric Charlton, you’ll find yourself drawn into the orbit of junk dealer Pop Larkin, Ma, and their six children at their country home in Kent – indomitably cheery hedonists, the lot of them. Ma and Pop are more calculating than they let on, but you can’t help but love them. Plus Bates writes so evocatively about the British countryside in late spring.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote [91 pages]: Whether you’ve seen the Audrey Hepburn film or not, this is delightful. Holly Golightly has remade herself as a New York City good-time girl, but her upstairs neighbor discovers her humble origins. This was from my pre-reviewing days, so I have no more detail to add. But whenever I think of its manic cocktail party scenes, I think of a holiday do from my final year of college: packed like sardines, everyone talking over each other, and my professor couldn’t stop shaking my hand.

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr [108 pages]: Summer 1920: Tom Birkin, a WWI veteran, arrives in North Yorkshire to uncover a local church’s medieval wall painting of the Judgment Day. With nothing awaiting him back in London, he gives himself over to the rhythms of working, eating and sleeping. Also embarked on a quest into the past is Charles Moon, searching for the grave of their patroness’ 14th-century ancestor in the churchyard. Moon, too, has a war history he’d rather forget. A Hardyesque, tragicomic romance.

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer [144 pages]: Aged 31 and already on her fourth husband, the narrator, known only as Mrs. Armitage, has an indeterminate number of children. A breakdown at Harrods is the sign that Mrs. A. isn’t coping, and she starts therapy. Meanwhile, her filmmaker husband is having a glass tower built as a countryside getaway, allowing her to contemplate an escape from motherhood. A razor-sharp period piece composed largely of dialogue, it gives a sense of a woman overwhelmed by responsibility.

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov [177 pages]: A comic novel about a Russian professor on an American college campus. In this episodic narrative spanning 1950–4, Timofey Pnin is a figure of fun but also of pathos: from having all his teeth pulled out and entertaining the son his ex-wife had by another man to failing to find and keep a home of his own, he deserves the phrase Nabokov originally thought to use as a title, “My Poor Pnin”. There are shades of Lucky Jim here – I laughed out loud at some of Pnin’s verbal gaffes and slapstick falls.

No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West [156 pages]: Sackville-West’s last novel, published a year before her death, was inspired by world cruises she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, took in later life. Fifty-year-old Edmund Carr, a journalist with a few months to live, has embarked on a cruise ship voyage to be close to the woman he loves, 40-year-old war widow Laura Drysdale. He dares to hope she might return his feelings … but doesn’t tell her of his imminent demise. The novel is presented as Edmund’s diary, found after his death.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger [192 pages]: Believe it or not, I didn’t read this until December 2018! From the start I found Holden Caulfield’s voice funny and surprising, so drenched in period American slang you can never forget when and where it’s set. He’s a typical lazy teenager, flunking four subjects when he’s kicked out of Pencey Prep. The first part is a languorous farewell tour to classmates and teachers before he takes the train back to NYC. Once there, he lives it up in a hotel for a few days. A shocker of an ending is to come.

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West [110 pages]: Like The Great Gatsby, this is a very American tragedy and state-of-the-nation novel. “Miss Lonelyhearts” is a male advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch. His letters come from a pitiable cross section of humanity: the abused, the downtrodden and the unloved. Not surprisingly, these second-hand woes start to get him down, and he turns to drink and womanizing for escape. West’s picture of how beleaguered compassion can turn to indifference feels utterly contemporary.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton [181 pages]: Unlike Wharton’s NYC society novels, this has a rural setting, but the plot is not dissimilar to that of The Age of Innocence, with extra tragic sauce. The title character makes the mistake of falling in love with his wife’s cousin, and the would-be lovers are punished one New England winter. A quarter of a century later, the narrator learns what happened to this sad old man. It’s probably been 15 years since I’ve read this, and I like the catharsis of a good old-fashioned tragedy. Maybe I’ll reread it soon.


Not enough women on my list! I should redress that by reading some more Jean Rhys…

Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books). We’ll keep adding your review links in to our master posts. Feel free to use the terrific feature image Cathy made and don’t forget the hashtag #NovNov.

Any suitably short classics on your shelves?

35 responses

  1. I read Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, and remember enjoying it. But when my daughter and friends had to read it for GCSE English Lit, they all loathed it. I wonder if it’s not worn well? I should read it again. I’ve read quite a few of these choices, and also other novellas this month. You have encouraged me to read more of this genre, but it remains true that I haven’t posted about any of them. Ah, well, at bottom I’m not a book blogger I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so of its time period, but I still found it very enjoyable. I suppose it depends on whether you can get on with Holden’s voice. A recent novel that sort of updates Catcher is Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash, but I didn’t like it as much as the original.

      I’m sure a novella or two will work its way into one of your future Six Degrees posts. Or you’re always welcome to join in any of my challenges (Library Checkout, etc.) as a one-off 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    2. No pressure at all; just if the whim takes you.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a varied selection! You’ve made me want to read Breakfast at Tiffany’s again. If I do I’ll think of you when I get to that cocktail party.

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    1. I’d forgotten my copy includes other short stories by Capote, including a Christmas one — I’ll read that again this year.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Several I’ve read (Bates, Capote, Mortimer and Salinger), and several I’d like to read (Carr, Nabokov, West). If I have time this week, I’ll read HG Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau, I have a very battered old orange Penguin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had one by Wells on my initial stack of possible reads, but didn’t get to it this year. My husband has read a few of his classic adventure/sci fi stories and enjoyed them a lot.

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  4. I’ve read A Month in the Country! It’s beautifully-written and I loved the medieval history, but I wished it hadn’t been a novella 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha, you really do have it in for novellas! I agree the story could have filled a larger book.

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  5. I remember really enjoying Pnin–should revisit it.

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    1. That and Lolita are the only things I’ve read by Nabokov. I’ve always meant to read more. I have a copy of Speak, Memory on my bedside table, but other reads keep taking priority.

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      1. Those two are all I’ve read of him, too. I’m about to read a short story of his, “The Assistant Producer,” for sorta-research. We’ll see how it holds up!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I have The Pumpkin Eater but didn’t line it up for this month – sounds like I should have!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s always next year! I think you’d love it.

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  7. […] 10 Favourite Classic Novellas posted by Rebecca at Bookish Beck […]

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  8. A nice selection! I love Pnin….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Did any other Russian greats write novella-length work? 😉

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      1. Dostoevesky… And there are short Tolstoys too!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Excellent — something for me to explore next year.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I have read a few of those, I especially liked Ethan Frome. I have just started reading A Month in the Country which I have had tbr so long.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, wonderful! I do hope you enjoy it. (I don’t see how you could fail to 🙂 )

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  10. Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf | Reply

    I need to read that James Baldwin book! I remember reading Ethan Frome a long time ago (probably in college) and enjoying it. Great suggestions!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s still the only fiction I’ve read by Baldwin. I was equally impressed by his nonfiction (The Fire Next Time, which is super-short).

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  11. I never thought of Catcher as a novella… a short novel, yes. Also Ethan Frome was always considered to be a novel, from what I recall. No matter! I’d like to read that Baldwin!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A novella is defined by its word count, but since (for the most part) the word count isn’t known for published fiction, for this challenge we’ve tended to go by the number of pages: 200 as an absolute limit, and 150 or below as a good guideline. But we’re very flexible 🙂 Basically, this is a way of celebrating all short books (barring, perhaps, poetry, which is its own field).

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Good list — some titles I really ought to read here, although I did enjoy the Sackville-West and the Wharton.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Fun list! I already have several on my novella reading list, but just added a couple more.
    I’m actually reading The Age of Innocence right now and at the point where I’m just ready for her to hit me with it. No more beating around the bush!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha, we did that one for book club earlier in the year and I was very impatient and had to start skimming after the first 100 pages. It didn’t help that we had watched the 1990s film over Zoom, so I already knew the whole plot.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, watching it first would have ruined it!

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      2. What kind of book club is that, in which members see the film first?! *aghast*

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      3. I don’t remember why we scheduled the screen-share Zoom film watching before the book discussion, but it was definitely a mistake.

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  14. When I first read Ethan Frome I had absolutely no idea what to expect (even though she’s a prominent American author, she’s not someone who was included in school curricula up here) and I was gob-smacked. I mean, it was in a collection with The Awakening (and something by Cather maybe? I’d have to check the third novella in there), so maybe I should have expected that it wasn’t intended to be a happy-birds-singing story, but Ethan Frome is a whole ‘nother. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love high tragedies!

      Liked by 1 person

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