What better way to celebrate the remaining days of 2018 than by revisiting our favorite literary parties? There’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s take on Mrs. Dalloway and the dinner soirée, reimagined under the Donald Trump presidency. And, of course, who can forget Jay Gatsby’s infamous West Egg parties, which have inspired numerous high-school proms and costumed New Year’s shindigs.
That being said, not all fêtes are actually that fun: The author Alexander Chee explains how one scene in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette made him consider just how useful parties are for exploring a character’s anxieties and insecurities. Such is the case for Mary Bennet, of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the oft-ignored and criticized Bennet sister. While readers may remember the Netherfield ball for Elizabeth Bennet’s tense (yet titillating) encounter with Mr. Darcy or Jane Bennet’s budding romance with Mr. Bingley, Mary’s story line that night is one of searing, public humiliation. And in Sean Ferrell’s Man in the Empty Suit, a lonely time-traveler hosts rather unconventional birthday parties: one where he visits his past and future selves, in the same spot, every year.
Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas, and ask you for recommendations of what our list left out.
Check out past issues here, see what other Atlantic newsletter readers said were their favorite books of this year, and browse Atlantic writers’ and editors’ picks for the best books of 2018.
Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email. It’s been great reading with you this year. We’ll see you in 2019.
What We’re Reading
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway gets a political remake
“[Chimamanda Ngozi] Adichie blends blunt, harvested-from-media-profiles observations about Trump—‘Donald disliked dissent’—with subtler, more intimate observations that come from Melania’s point of view.”
The sublime cluelessness of throwing lavish Great Gatsby parties
“Jay Gatsby’s weekend-long parties are lavish indictments of the whole, hard-charging scene that propelled him to sudden, extraordinary, unscrupulous wealth—‘a new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about,’ as Fitzgerald writes toward the end.”
How to write a party scene
“The qualities that make parties such a nightmare for people—and also so pleasurable—make them incredibly important inside of fiction. There’s a chaos agent quality to them: You just don’t know who’s going to be there, or why. You could run into an old enemy, an old friend, an old friend who’s become an enemy. You could run into an ex-lover, or your next lover. The stakes are all there, and that’s why they’re so fascinating.”
There’s something about Pride and Prejudice’s unappealing middle sister
“Mary is mocked by her sisters; she is insulted by her father (‘You have delighted us long enough,’ he informs her at the Netherfield ball, abruptly ending her pianoforte performance and promptly humiliating her); she is by most other people—and this is the thing that really oooooofs—merely tolerated.”
Celebrating a birthday with your past and future selves
“The time traveler’s birthday party is a curious mix of memory, anticipation, and anxiety. The narrator sees himself in various stages of alcoholism, weight gain, and hair loss. He knows full well that he was or will be everyone he meets, and will experience the party through each of their eyes.”
Last week, we asked you to recommend stories about or related to food. Lisa Bolin Hawkins from Provo, Utah, suggested Julia Child’s My Life in France. “This autobiography … has food as a basic theme but is so much more about a fascinating woman’s struggle with her life and times,” Lisa wrote.“Ms. Child was trying to find her purpose in life, in her marriage, in Paris.” In Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie, edited by Peggy Wolff, 30 writers share gastronomic stories specific to the Midwest. “Their essays and memoirs reveal that within the context of food-based stories, the U.S. Midwest is fertile ground for meditations on the sense of place and on solid midwestern values: kindness, [familial love], an embrace of hard work and opportunity, politeness, and tradition,” Sam Gutterman, from Glencoe, Illinois, said.