East of Eden , John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s magnum opus relates the struggles, successes and evolution of a family in California’s Salinas Valley between the start of the 20th century and the end of WWI. His characters scramble to improve their futures, and in some cases, to forget their pasts. But as Lee tells Cal near the end of the novel, “We are all descended from the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers and brawlers, but also the brave and independent and generous. If our ancestors had not been that, they would have stayed in their home plots in the other world and starved over the squeezed-out soil.” If that’s not the epitome of the American idea, we’d like to know what is.
Middlesex , Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides’ gorgeous novel sprawls over three generations of the Stephanides family: Lefty and Desdemona who flee a tiny village in Asia Minor and wind up in Detroit, their son Milton, who marries their cousin’s daughter Tessie, and Milton and Tessie’s children, Chapter Eleven and Cal, our narrator, who is intersex. The novel functions all at once as a captivating family epic, an immigrant story, a love letter to Detroit, and the story of a teenager’s unusual sexual awakening. Sure, their American Dream veered a little off course, but hey, most do.
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents , Julia Alvarez
Alvarez’s charming, episodic first novel takes us through more than thirty years in the lives of four Dominican sisters, who escape the Trujillo regime and move to New York City, where they grow up, struggle to assimilate, search for themselves, and eventually immerse themselves in their adopted country.
On the Road , Jack Kerouac
Well, obviously. Whatever you think of the book that launched a thousand cross-country road trips, there’s no denying that it is deeply American, with all its youth and striving and modern ranging homelessness.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas , Hunter S. Thompson
In Thompson’s roman à clef, Raoul Duke and his attorney charge into The Entertainment Capital of the World on a drug-fueled road trip quest for the American Dream. Things get weirder, wilder and more chemically-enhanced as they go, but hey, “we’d be fools not to ride this strange torpedo all the way out to the end.”
Invisible Man , Ralph Ellison
Published at the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement, Ellison’s essential work both captures the alienation and frustration of African Americans in the 1950s and deconstructs the American Dream as available only to rich white men. Though it is a classic novel about race in America, it should also be celebrated as a novel about the human experience, about each person looking for — and perhaps never really finding — truth outside of their own minds.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay , Michael Chabon
A compelling Jewish immigrant story mashed up with American superheros? Yes, please. Chabon’s celebrated novel tells the story of two cousins who team up to create comic books that reflect their inner turmoil — whether it be being a homosexual in a time when such a thing leaves one open to judgement, ridicule, and even unwarranted arrest, or desperately trying to help his family escape from Prague while falling in love with a beautiful American bohemian. Many of the events in the book are based on the lives of actual giants of American comics, which just makes the novel all the more desperately believable — and all the more American.
My Ántonia, Willa Cather
The final book of Cather’s “prairie trilogy” is arguably her best, a beautiful and affecting elegy to America’s pioneers. On the Nebraskan plain, Jim Burden comes of age and falls in love with the daughter of a Bohemian immigrant, who may be the most American character of them all — a strong and willful woman trying to overcome not only her modest birth but her sex and her immigrant status as well. Plus, we promise you that America’s countryside has never sounded so beautiful as it does in this book.
Beloved , Toni Morrison
Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel is based on the true story of Margaret Garner, a woman who escaped slavery briefly in 1856 and when she was found, killed her own daughter rather than let her be recaptured. In Beloved, Sethe makes the same choice, but remains free, trying to eke out a life for herself and her remaining children in Cincinnati after the horrors of slavery, while her home is haunted by the ghost of her dead child.
The Great Gatsby , F. Scott Fitzgerald
Well, we couldn’t leave off the Great American Novel, could we? At first, Gatsby seems like the embodiment of the American Dream — a rich, respectable man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps — but Fitzgerald tears it all away, exposing the frivolity and emptiness of Jazz Age decadence and the American quest for more more more.