7 Books About Past Decades That Feel Like Traveling Back in Time
These novels evoke bygone eras so vividly that you might feel like you're living in the past
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The Amazon review for my debut novel was glowing, including words like “compelling” and “fun.” And then there was this: “If you love historical fiction, you’ll love The Last Book Party.” Say what? How could my novel, which is set during the 1980s—a decade of my own youth—be historical fiction? How amusing that this blogger viewed my twenties through the lens of history. Did she find leg warmers as exotic as I did the paint-on hosiery of the 1940s?
Apparently, historical fiction is in the age of the beholder.
When I started writing my novel, I wasn’t thinking about shoulder pads, step aerobics classes and other fads of the 1980s. I wanted to create a fictional version of what it was like to be a few years out of college, working in Manhattan in book publishing and feeling unsure about my future and my desire to write. But by including specifics of my life then—Dictaphones, progressive parties, Laura Ashley dresses, rolodexes and typewriter-written manuscripts submitted to publishers in cardboard boxes—I was conjuring a beloved, and vanished, New York.
As I wrote, I realized how much my plot was tied to that time, when the internet and Amazon were inching toward us, but still unknown, and unimaginable. My protagonist, Eve Rosen, obsesses about new people she meets, trying to figure out their histories and connections to each other, questions that today could be easily resolved by a Facebook search. But then the mysteries about these people would have been gone and with them much of my plot, which concerns Eve discovering how wrong she had been about everyone.
I’m thankful to that blogger for making me see that historical fiction isn’t all about corsets and hoop skirts. While The Last Book Party will be nostalgic for older readers, it offers younger readers a chance to immerse themselves in the 1980s, to imagine life when spinach dip in a bread bowl was a novelty and the best way to stay in touch with a college friend over the summer was to write a letter and put it in the mail. In that spirit, I offer up a book for each of the seven decades before The Last Book Party takes place, books that were so transporting for me that they felt like time travel.
1970s: The Ice Storm by Rick Moody
I’ll never forget reading the first page of The Ice Storm soon after it was published in 1994. Listing all the things that were yet to exist at the time of the story in 1973—from caller ID to Frequent Flyer Mileage, computer viruses to perestroika—Moody’s novel made me realize both that I was old enough to have lived through an era that was gone and that I’d been shaped by that era. The novel’s myriad pop culture references may stymie readers with no visceral memories of the 1970s, but this story about unhappy parents and adolescents in an affluent Connecticut suburb is a devastating portrait of Me generation emptiness.
1960s: Loose Change: Three Women of the Sixties by Sara Davidson
This memoir, which reads like fiction, convinced me how much I was not a child of the ’60s, even though I was born in 1962. Following three young women, including the author herself, who meet at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1960s, this book visits touchstones of the era—the early women’s movement, anti-war protests, group sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll, and free speech. It’s a compelling chronicle that captures the exuberance and disillusionment of the era and how for three young women —a reporter, an activist of the radical Left and a member of the art world—coming of age meant looking back at their free-wheeling past with a new, sobering perspective.
1950s: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
How fitting that I was introduced to this dark novel about 1950s suburban life on the East Coast by the first book club I joined shortly after moving to the suburbs of New York City. Our discussion was passionate—not because everyone loved the book, but because this story of a young couple wrestling with their conflicting desires to be utterly conformist and yet find personal fulfillment gave us all a disturbing sense of the restricted and oppressive lives we might have lived if we’d been born before the women’s movement.
1940s: Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy
After this manuscript arrived in the mail at the literary agency where I was working in the mid-1980s, I pulled an all-nighter to finish it, swept away by this epic novel about World War II narrated mostly by women. The characters—among them a women’s magazine writer turned war correspondent, a female fighter pilot, a member of the French resistance and a Parisian Jew sent to safety with relatives in Detroit—allowed me to picture myself in the pages of history usually filled with stories of men. (It was also thrilling to see a novel I’d read in manuscript pages go on to become a New York Times bestseller.)
1930s: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
This novel about a seedy traveling circus bringing its illusions to an audience craving distraction captures the mood of the Great Depression. The story is told in flashback by Jacob, who as a young veterinary student found himself unexpectedly orphaned and penniless, hopped a train (how 1930s is that?) and encountered the circus. Jacob became the caretaker of the animals and fell in love with one of the star performers, the abused wife of the sadistic circus director. Not an uplifting scenario, but this novel is packed with detailed circus lore and vividly evokes a bygone era and mood.
1920s: Jazz by Toni Morrison
The spirit, sounds, and structure of jazz infuses this novel about desire, love and the weight of the past. Set in 1920s Harlem and told in overlapping narratives, the plot focuses on door-to door salesman Joe Trace, who murders his 17-year-old lover, Dorcas, and on Joe’s wife, Violet, who barges into Dorcas’s funeral and attempts to cut the dead girl’s face. Challenging and inventive, Jazz at once brings alive the mood of the Harlem Renaissance and delves into the scars of slavery that continued to reverberate into the next generations.
Early 1900s: All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
There’s something magical about a book that made this privileged, suburban Jewish girl wish she’d grown up in a poor, immigrant Jewish family on the lower East Side of New York. I was one of three sisters in a secular Jewish family, but I spent hours and hours re-reading this book (and the sequels) about five sisters—Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie—and their Yiddish-speaking parents. Their adventures were admittedly small in scale—a lost library book, a dress borrowed without permission and accidentally stained with tea, cleaning for the Sabbath, a visit to their Papa’s junk shop for peddlers—but it was high drama for me. And it gave me a rare and welcome opportunity not only to read about Jewish girls but to learn at a very young age that sometimes the most powerful way to learn about our own history is through fiction.