For me, fall is often synonymous with change. It’s not just the lower temperatures and the changing of the leaves—so much of life has changed in this season. I associate this time of year with beginnings (new school years, new jobs), but also with a bit of melancholy. To say “yes” to the new is often to say “goodbye” to the old and familiar. And this year, for many of us, there’s the extra bitterness of a year rife with change and challenge: loss of employment, a move back home, the mental strain caused by the inability to gather with friends and family, and adjustments at home, school, and work.
In times of transition, I’ve often found a haven in books. There’s something so lovely about entering another world and taking the wisdom I encounter there back into my own. In a reality where stories move fast and in constant succession thanks to our 24/7 news cycle and instant internet access, I like the slower pace of a book, where I’m asked to meet characters, learn about their lives, and immerse myself in their realities.
Lately, I’ve been gravitating toward fiction because I find there’s more room for me to encounter truths about life, relationships, and what’s truly important when I’m not being explicitly told, as I am when reading the news, “this is real. This is the truth.” In contrast, these wonderfully portable worlds remind me that my anxieties about life are not new, and that there are myriad ways to find truth and encounter adversity. They have also pointed me in the direction of hope when I found no hope in myself. Below are a few books for a time of transition, picked because the characters work through transition and loneliness in ways that feel real and relatable.
01. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
I read this book shortly after COVID stay-at-home orders were lifted, and I was reminded of the interior version of quarantine that many of us feel even when not in the midst of a pandemic: isolation. Eleanor Oliphant, the socially awkward but wonderfully verbose protagonist of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, reminded me of the value of friendship in a time of social distancing. Her meditation on loneliness is incredibly apt:
These days, loneliness is the new cancer—a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.
Eleanor’s story moves from one of loneliness, unexplored trauma, and fear into one of greater freedom. The catalyst is the friendship of a coworker, Raymond, who gently draws Eleanor out of her shell and offers a different perspective to Eleanor’s habitual ways of thinking and being in the world—for example, that she should always tell people she’s doing “fine” even when she’s not. I left this book with a greater understanding of the healing process and the power of turning to a good friend when things just aren’t fine.
02. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Lahiri’s short story collections and her novel, The Namesake, saw me through a painful break-up. This collection in particular helped me not only to navigate my own newfound loneliness, but also to become aware of a loneliness I’ve not experienced: that of leaving your country of origin to make your home in a new country.
Her short story “The Third and Final Continent” still moves me with its story of a first-person speaker’s journey from Kolkata to London to Boston to make his way in the world. In Boston, the speaker must adapt not only to a completely different country with different traditions, but also to his new wife, whom he barely knows. Just as he comes to know a new country and make it home, the speaker comes to know his wife as they begin to build a life together. To the loneliness that I imagine accompanies this type of transition, the speaker says “Whenever he [his son] is discouraged, I tell him that if I can survive on three continents, then there is no obstacle he cannot conquer.” This comforts me in the much smaller moves between cities and states I’ve made thus far, and reminds me that finding home in a new place is always possible.
03. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Cather’s work often focuses on pioneers of varying sorts who must make their homes in previously unsettled spaces. What she brilliantly highlights in this novel is the particular loneliness that can accompany such endeavors. This story parallels Lahiri’s in its chronicling of Bishop Jean Marie Latour’s move from France to New Mexico, where he and his friend Fr. Joseph Vaillant work to establish a diocese.
I read this book at a time when many of my friends had moved into marriage, a part of life that is thus far uncharted waters for me. I found it endearingly relatable that Bishop Latour struggles both with melancholy and a deep desire to keep his friend Fr. Joseph by his side, though Fr. Joseph wants to be elsewhere serving others.
At one point, Bishop Latour calls Fr. Joseph back to their home base in Santa Fe, and reveals his own need for friendship: “I sent for you because I felt the need of your companionship. I used my authority as a Bishop to gratify my personal wish. That was selfish, if you will, but surely natural enough. We are countrymen, and are bound by early memories. And that two friends, having come together, should part and go their separate ways—that is natural, too.” The physical parting of friends because of lovely, natural events—like marriage or a new job opportunity—has struck me in similar ways, and I love that Cather captures such details of feeling.
04. The Scapegoat by Daphne DuMaurier
I’ve written about this book before, and it continues to impress me since my first encounter with it in my undergrad years. Though DuMaurier is perhaps better known for another book about loneliness—illustrated in the nameless protagonist of Rebecca—I find The Scapegoat a deeper dive into the balm for loneliness: personal relationships. John, an English bachelor and professor of French studies, unwittingly finds human connection through the treachery of Jean de Gué, a man running from his family, who uses the physical likeness between himself and John to leave John with Jean’s family.
In the week John spends in Jean’s stead, he learns to love Jean’s family. The novel opens with him trying to figure out what to do with the emptiness and perceived failure of his life: “All I had ever done in life . . . was to watch people, never to partake in their happiness or pain.” After leaving Jean’s family, in which he was called upon to be brother, son, father, and husband, his question is different: “What do I do with love?” It’s a question that has followed me through my twenties. How am I supposed to best love others, and whom am I particularly called to love? This novel reminds me that even those we meet by chance or in a brief encounter can change us, and that it is a gift to live the ups and downs of life alongside other people.
05. Persuasion by Jane Austen
Of all the Austen novels, Persuasion is a perennial favorite. As I’ve become an older twenty-something, I’ve grown in appreciation for Anne Elliot’s ability to reflect and grow in the midst of suffering. She reminds me that in realms far beyond romance, healing can take time, and that there’s more to interacting with suffering than meets the eye. Heartbroken over her former love, Captain Wentworth, she must “struggle against a great tendency to lowness,” but instead of avoiding her grief over her refusal of his marriage proposal almost eight years prior, she uses what she’s learned to help others. Because Anne has suffered, she has a greater sensitivity to those who are suffering.
I also admire Anne for being resolved in the face of others’ opinions. When Captain Wentworth comes back into her life, he feels that in not accepting his first marriage proposal, she “had shewn a feebleness of character . . . which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. She had given him up to oblige others.” But Anne, though grieved, feels her decision was correct at the time and that even resoluteness “like all other qualities of the mind . . . should have its proportions and limits.” When I’m feeling isolated by self-doubt or drowning in embarrassment over what I think other people think of me, Anne’s composure is a buoy for my spirits.
06. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
There’s nothing like reading a book so thoroughly in touch with a child’s perspective to remind me that my own reality can be encountered and lived in a variety of ways. The Little Prince, who comes from a planet where “everything is very small,” tells the narrator about his travels, the rose he loves, and the fox he tames. The simplicity of this children’s classic is disarming. I’ve recently picked up this book again in the midst of a difficult job search, and I am reminded that for all my “grown-up” cynicism, hope also lives right alongside the uncertainty: “‘What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well.’” Books like this one remind me to keep my eyes open for the wells—small delights and moments of gratitude that are hidden in daily life.
Though books may not be a cure-all for loneliness and times of transition, my hope is that a really good-for-you book will captivate your attention this fall. Though there may be many reasons to feel heartsick right now, books have a remarkable way of accompanying us through difficult times and reminding us we are not alone.