When people asked me why I was majoring in history in college, I would explain that history is full of drama, intrigue, and characters and plotlines more complex and gripping than what you’d find on TV. Who wouldn’t want to major in that!
Fortunately, plenty of authors agree with me, creating novels around distinguished historical figures and the events that put them in our textbooks. Able to take liberties unafforded to biographers, these authors spin real-life dramas into page-turning stories, giving the reader a more colorful perspective on history. Here are 10 options for your summertime reading.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Tudors truly broke the mold when it came to family drama, with enough divorces, affairs, illegitimate and disowned children, and executions to make the Carringtons and Ewings look like the Cosbys. Award-winning author Mantel offers a new perspective on the reign of Henry VIII—this time through the eyes of his brilliant advisor Thomas Cromwell. Part one of a trilogy, Wolf Hall follows Cromwell’s rise to power in court as he helps the king orchestrate an annulment from his first wife Catherine of Aragon and marry his lover Anne Boleyn. The second book in the series, Bring Up the Bodies, is equally engaging, tracing the fall of Anne Boleyn, brought down (again) by Cromwell. If you like HBO’s The Tudors, you’ll definitely want to read this series. (The third book comes out in 2015.)
I, Elizabeth by Rosalind Miles
One could argue that Anne Boleyn’s failure to produce a male heir put the nail in her coffin—ironic since their daughter went on to become one of England’s greatest rulers. I, Elizabeth looks at the Virgin Queen’s disgraced childhood, ascension to the throne and the machinations behind-the-scenes to keep her on it. Woven throughout are a series of lovers and suitors trying to win her heart (and influence). Her story truly quite unbelievable, especially given the misogyny of the time, and pretty steamy in parts.
Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
Perhaps my favorite historical novelist, Geraldine Brooks dramatizes New England’s earliest European settlements, as told through the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. The narrator, Bethia Mayfield, is the daughter of a minister who converts Caleb to Christianity. Raised on the rugged island of Martha’s Vineyard, Bethia and Caleb are secret childhood friends, and she eventually accompanies him to Boston (although for different reasons), where she watches him progress in his education. Brooks blends history and fiction to present a vivid picture this early American period and the religious and cultural conflicts of the time.
The Women by T.C. Boyle
Frank Lloyd Wright may have been one of the best-known American architects, but the women in his life were equally captivating—or so depicts Boyle in his novel The Women. The book examines the four women who most impacted his life: his young first wife Kitty Tobin; second wife, the drug-addicted Southern Belle Miriam Noel; third wife, dancer Olgivanna Lazovich; and his lover Mamah Borthwick, whose life ended in tragedy. Borthwick’s relationship with Lloyd Wright and her death are also the subject of Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan. (I read both back to back—I was that entranced by Borthwick’s story.)
The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin
An intimate look at the courtship and marriage of Anne Morrow and Charles Lindbergh, this book pulls the curtain back on a world-famous relationship to expose the heartbreak and realities Morrow endured—an intelligent woman forced to live under the domineering hand of her husband and the loss of her child.
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
It’s impossible not to romanticized the world inhabited by the intellectuals and artists of the Lost Generation who aimlessly traveled around Europe in the 1920s. Paris became the hub of this eccentric group—and at the beginning of McLain’s book, young writer Ernest Hemingway convinces his soon-to-be wife Hadley Richardson to follow him there. Through Richardson’s eyes, the reader is immersed in this formative period of Hemingway’s professional life and is exposed to the changing social mores of the post-World War I era.
In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
In 1960, three of the Mirabal sisters, revolutionaries trying to end the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, were found dead in an apparent hit ordered by the government. This novel, told through the eyes of their surviving sister Dede, traces the politicization of each sister and how imprisonment and persecution only strengthened their resolve to end the terror in their homeland.
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield
Although Sittenfield doesn’t exactly make it explicit, her novel is based loosely on the life of former First Lady Laura Bush. A small-town girl haunted by a terrible car accident in her teens, protagonist Alice falls for a charming man from a prominent Republican family. After battling alcoholism, her husband eventually becomes an ultra-conservative governor and a President—which conflicts with Alice’s liberalism.