Never underestimate the power of a teacher, especially when the teacher is Philip Roth. I say this because my new novel is entitled Eternal, and it was inspired by a seminar I took with the late Philip Roth, way back when I was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania.
I remember Mr. Roth’s seminar very well, and he would talk about the novel he assigned us for that week, taking us through its pages and pointing out its various themes, relationships, details, or particularly terrific sentences. He never consulted his notes, which were handwritten and kept in a slim black binder, but he made point after point, giving us insight after insight, as if he apprehended an entire novel, all of a piece.
Imagine taking physics from Einstein. It felt like that.
He spoke, and we hung on every word. It was an English Major fever dream. (I got an A from Philip Roth. Just saying.)
My point is that our teachers can inspire us, even decades later, whether or not they were one of America’s greatest novelists. So many of my teachers have inspired me, and when you think about why, the answer is simple. They educated me. And that’s another way of saying they told me something I didn’t know.
Teachers tell us something we don’t know, every day, in every classroom or Zoom session around the country, even the world. And education can occur in a book, too. Every book is a teacher, in a sense.
Every book tells you something you don’t know. Especially historical fiction.
William Faulkner said that the past isn’t even past, and I believe him. I have written thirty-some novels and nine volumes of nonfiction, and I’ve learned that historical fiction is just fiction set in a different time, and frankly, that distinction makes no difference. It just has to be a terrific story, well-written, and it should tell you something you don’t know.
That’s what I hope I have done in Eternal, which is the story of a love triangle set during the ventennio, the twenty years of Mussolini’s rise and fall. It was inspired by Mr. Roth introducing me to the books of Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist who survived deportation to Auschwitz during World War II. Mr. Roth thought Levi was one of the most talented writers the world has ever produced and that the Italian Holocaust wasn’t well-enough known, world-wide. When I learned of a singular tragedy that took place in Rome in October 1943, I knew I had a story that needed to be told. If you read Eternal, I think you will agree.
Here are five novels I think will tell you something you don’t know, each with elements of history.
Featured Image: @alexandrahraskova/Twenty20
When the Stars Go Dark
I couldn’t put down this riveting story of a detective who goes back home to Mendocino, California, and finds herself caught up in the case of a local girl who goes missing and then by other real-life murders in the past. Proof positive of what I was saying above, that genre classifications matter not, since McLain transitions from historical fiction to suspense seamlessly with this novel.
Martha Hall Kelly
This emotional and beautifully-written novel is set during the Civil War and conveys with authenticity how the lives of a Union nurse, an enslaved person, and the mistress of a plantation entwine. Each character is rendered with such truth and dimensionality, and, with it, Martha has topped even Lilac Girls, one of my favorite books.
The Book of Lost Friends
I could not recommend this book more highly because it tells a layered story of freed slaves during the Reconstruction Era and movingly shows how the essential struggle of the Civil War continued after the last shot was fired, even through to today. And it features a modern-day teacher who learns something she didn’t know, either.
Ghosts of Harvard
I loved this book, and full disclosure, I love its author too, because she’s my daughter and this is her fiction debut. That said, it’s a deeply engrossing novel about a young girl who goes to Harvard after her brother, a genius who suffered from schizophrenia, dies by suicide on campus. Soon, she finds herself haunted by voices, some from history, and wonders if she is going down the same terrifying path as her brother.
Eternal is the story of a love triangle set during the ventennio, the twenty years of Mussolini’s rise and fall. Elisabetta, Marco, and Sandro grow up in Rome as the best of friends, but in time, their friendship deepens to love. Sandro and Marco vie for Elisabetta’s heart, but she is unable to choose between them. Then fascism threatens everything the three hold dear, and a shocking true event changes their lives forever.