11 of the Greatest Fictional Parties Ever
The wildest, bawdiest, most unforgettable parties in literature.
October is coming to a close and Electric Literature’s Genre Ball is just around the corner (Friday, October 28th), which got me to thinking about the long tradition of parties in literature, from Tolstoy’s opulent balls to Fitzgerald’s intoxicated soirees.
Writers send their characters to parties for the very same reason we all go: parties allow the unusual and encourage the unexpected. Parties are short stories within in our broader narrative; each has its own compelling arc that starts from the moment you walk through the door and ends the next morning with the groggy brunch post-script.
In that vein, here are eleven novels that deliver all the fun without the hangover. And remember to get your ticket to Electric Literature’s Genre Ball before they’re all gone!
1. The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
If you want to create a decadent costume party, choosing the time and place of Queen of the Night — i.e., 19th century Paris — is a smart choice. The main character, Lilliet Berne, is a soprano who is offered the role of a lifetime — an opera written just for her — only to discover that the production includes details of her life she’d hoped to keep secret. A party with Lilliet will never be dull. This singer knows how to up the ante at a ball, whether she’s leaving halfway through to change outfits or dramatically throwing her diamonds in the trash.
2. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
The opener to Smith’s much lauded first novel is one of my favorites in literature. After being saved from his own suicide by a flock of defecating pigeons, Archie Jones gains a new lease on life. Thanks to his new can-do attitude, when he sees a commune throwing an “End of the world party, 1975”, he wanders in, chats up the young drifters living there, and somehow comes away with Clara, a super attractive young woman who will become his wife. This is precisely the scenario I’m longing for every New Year’s Eve when I can’t find a cab.
3. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
I imagine that the party in Hemingway’s 1926 novel will be familiar to many fans of Coachella: Jake Barnes and a group of fellow expats, including the alluring Lady Brett Ashley, go on a trip to the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona. Though they’re technically in town to watch the bull fights, Jake and company spend more time partying — hard. The group drinks, flirts and fights. With this portrayal of young people in an intoxicated, emotional free-fall, Hemingway established himself as a voice of the Lost Generation.
4. The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien
You don’t throw any old fete for your “eleventy first” (111th) birthday, especially if it secretly doubles as your going-away-forever party. Bilbo Baggins knows that, and he has tents, fireworks, and cooks from every inn and eating-house for miles assembling a feast for the Shire. Bilbo’s party also has that elusive quality — intrigue — his gift to Frodo and sudden exit kicks off the saga The Lord of the Rings.
5. The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
The New York City of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities is like one of his character’s 1980s party dresses; over the top and ugly, though glossed with a certain aggressive glamour. The party scene in particular captures a slice of New York society. WASPY wall street trader Sherman McCoy and his wife Judy attend a Fifth Avenue party titled “The Masque of the Red Death” (a nod to Poe’s story of the same name.) It’s a name-dropping, champagne swilling party where guests come to see and be seen. Things get awkward when Sherman finds out his dinner table seat is next to his secret mistress. It would be fun to be a — horrified — fly on that wall.
6. Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss
It’s New Year’s Eve, 1979, and pretentious gallerist Winona George is hosting a swanky party for artists both established (Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring) and striving. This opener for Prentiss’ debut novel sets the stage for the rest of the book, which captures the electric, changing art scene in New York City in the ’80s.
7. Underworld by Don DeLillo
DeLillo’s decades-spanning novel incorporates real people and events, including one of the greatest parties in history: Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. The masquerade ball was held on November 28th, 1966 at the Plaza Hotel, and the guest list included everyone from Frank Sinatra to C. Z. Guest to the Maharani and Maharaja of Jaipur. Things got weird, in the best way. Example: Lauren Bacall did a spontaneous pas de deux with choreographer Jerome Robbins on the dance floor.
8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Austen’s sharp, comic novel often depicts the misbehavior of the younger Bennet girls. But as much as they embarrassed Elizabeth and almost ruined Jane’s engagement, attending the Netherfield Ball with Lydia and Kitty Bennet is bound to be a good time. Those girls know how to drink, dance, and mingle. Besides, if you get tired, Elizabeth can always entertain you with her running jokes at the expense of the other guests.
9. Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
A celebrity and model-studded anti-holiday party at the Beverly Hills mansion of a seriously messed-up couple: this is the kind of party that brunches are made for. If you’re afraid your friends won’t believe you, bring the invitation as proof of your host’s insanity: it read “Let’s F — Christmas Together.”
10. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh excelled at social satire, and Vile Bodies is an overt snipe at the wealthy young “it” kids of the inter-war generation in England. The novel’s protagonist, Adam Fenwick-Syme, is always attending parties: “Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris…” Unfortunately with all this partying, he fails to notice the war that’s coming to change his life forever.
11. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Jay Gatsby’s house parties at his sprawling West Egg mansion are perhaps the most famous in literature. Gatsby isn’t a casual host — he uses live orchestras, free drinks, and endless feasts to impress his long-lost love, the rich party girl Daisy Buchanan. Like Jake Barnes trip to Pamplona, Gatsby’s over-the-top parties came to represent the wild indulgence of the 1920s.