Fictions about the rich are a sneaky bunch. While uncovering the machinery of a fantasy, they also indulge the longing for an invitation to the party. Characters often stand out for their enormous wealth and property, and for the silence and lies that bind them to that exalted status.
In the US, for example, the word slavery – the institution that created so much of the nation’s wealth – does not appear anywhere in our constitution, and our fictions dramatise that silence over and over again, showing the strongholds of property and power that defend boundaries of class, colour and bloodline.
Often, these are multi-generational stories of families, of great houses. They are tales of place, power, privilege – and parties, of course. Parties where the uninvited or accidental outsider can sneak in.
“Everything happens at a party,” a character remarks in my new novel The Guest Book, which follows three generations of the Miltons, an “old money” family that has run out of cash. The Miltons’ wealth is gone, but not their place – an island off the coast of Maine – or the sense that it is theirs. “We repeat what we don’t know,” another character says. What this family “doesn’t know” is the racism that underpins their status, the bed beneath their dream.
The following fictions taught me how to imagine and shape my own. They are big, juicy stories of love, betrayal and memory; rich in the stuff and sorrow of dreams.
1. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Not much unites the US at the moment, but almost every US citizen has read The Great Gatsby. Why? The benighted, besotted James Gatz from nowhere, from no place, believes he can write his own future, and – given enough money – rewrite his past. The spectacle of his gorgeous, doomed vision has been taught as the expression of the American Dream and of its impossibility, Gatsby’s glorious parties spinning out into the summer nights, never mind the darkness, never mind the rules of class, or of race, or the truth of the past.
2. Run River by Joan Didion
Didion’s first novel begins with the sound of a gunshot heard by a woman calmly fastening a watch to her wrist in her bedroom, and takes us back through the events leading up to that shot – back through her memory, and further back into the history of her family, among the first settlers of the state of California. The novel combines Didion’s characteristically minute observation of class and power with a plot that spins relentlessly forward, never letting you forget that it must return to the moment of that opening shot.
3. Howards End by EM Forster
The Schlegel sisters, clear-eyed, witty members of the intelligentsia, comfortably off and highly educated, are at the centre of a novel that pits their situation and point of view against l of the “new money” family who possess the old family house of the title – a place that burnishes the family’s sense of superiority, even though none of them choose to live there. A secret of inheritance buried at the beginning of the story hangs in plain sight, begging to be revealed.
4. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence
I would pair this 1928 novel with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), both stories about women coming to see the gilded bars surrounding their social class. Chopin’s novel is set in a summer colony off the coast of New Orleans, where the heat and languor and beauty of her cage pairs with the intensity of her sexual awakening. In much the same way, the natural, excessive beauty of the Chatterley estate, the deep green afternoons dripping after rain, underscore Lady Chatterley’s release into a kind of freedom in the arms of the gamekeeper.
5. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Wharton’s 1920 novel skewers the turn-of-the century Gilded Age, when the social, political and economic power of the US was centred in the 400 families of Old Manhattan who danced in Caroline Astor’s ballroom, and “dreaded scandal more than disease”. Wharton shows the power of a class to divine and then divide true love in a trenchant novel anatomising duty and passion.
6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane enters the wealthy House of Rochester as a governess, and finds it to be in possession of a wandering secret, a secret that insists on its telling, a secret in the form of a woman, dark and furious, and shut away. This story of a girl coming to find her voice in the face of a world that would dismiss her is one of my touchstones.
7. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The story of the beautiful and tragic Caddy Compson is told in three separate monologues by her brothers: the mentally damaged Benjy, the suicidal Quentin, and the monstrous Jason. Chronicling her quest to escape her family, the town in which they live as high-society-gone-to-seed, and the systemic poison of the post-bellum south, the voices in the novel fuse so that you are often not precisely certain who is speaking. At times the story breaks into narration by one of several of the family’s former slaves. The sense of a house, a town and a country in a perpetual state of blindness, though speaking all the while, builds and builds through this masterpiece.
8. The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy
The immense pleasure of this enormous novel is its breadth, moving slowly, magisterially forward through a wealth of characters, a mass of overlapping secrets, desires and ambitions. Such misunderstandings and false starts might undergird any family, but they centre here on Soames Forsyte, Galsworthy’s “Man of Property”. Beginning in 1896 and ending in the 1920s, it is the saga of a nation seen through the particular lens of one of its families as much as it is a love story and the story of a house.
9. Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
Stoppard’s 1993 play tells the tragic story of Thomasina Coverly, moving back and forth between two generations of her family, one in 1809 and the other in the present. The pathos of history – when the past doesn’t know what’s coming, and the present doesn’t know what’s past – is laid bare here. The play, which remains compelling on the page, alternates past and present while remaining in one place – the room of the family’s estate – an image of the layering of history.
10. The Swimmer by John Cheever
Just as this list must begin with Gatsby, it must end with John Cheever’s landmark short story from 1964. One midsummer Sunday afternoon, Neddy Merrill sits beside a friend’s pool, one hand around a glass of gin, the other submerged in the water, and decides to swim the eight miles home, through friends’ and neighbours’ yards, from pool to pool. What begins as one man’s lark, firmly rooted in the wealthy suburban world outside New York City, slowly grows into an allegory of the traps and cages of the rich, and of the desperate, physical yearning to swim out of oneself. Where Neddy Merrill finds himself when he reaches home is as hauntingly beautiful as that green light signalling the end of Gatsby’s dream at the end of Daisy’s dock.
• The Guest Book by Sarah Blake is published by Viking. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on orders over £15.