The Gatsby Effect
In honor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday this week, we’re thinking about Gatsby…
... or, more precisely, we’re NOT thinking about Gatsby.
Writing-wise, one of Fitzgerald’s neatest tricks about The Great Gatsby is that even though it’s about the slick and tortured debonair, he isn’t the one telling the story. Readers’ impressions are all filtered through the mind of Nick Carraway—a dedicated but fickle narrator.
We asked our NYPL experts to name other books, written from the first-person perspective, that aren’t really about the narrators. Here’s what they recommended.
Vladimir Nabokov's comedic novel Pnin reads like a group of coworkers making fun of Jerry from "Parks and Rec." Through the eyes of his colleague (and, presumably, professional competitor), Professor Pnin is a physically and linguistically clumsy Russian emigre who just can't seem to catch a break. Though the narrator never misses a chance to point out Pnin's quirks and failures, he remains one of the most lovable and underrated characters in Nabokov's fiction. —Nancy Aravecz, Mid-Manhattan
Daybreak by Brian Ralph. It’s the consistent use of uniform panels that make this story so captivating, with monsters that are eerily elusive and never fully captured visually. The world is bleak and dying, but the characters are vibrant and alive. What we have here is a post-apocalyptic tale of end times, told through a first-person perspective that offers a unique twist... the “narrator” is YOU. —Daniel Norton, Mid-Manhattan
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North is the story of an enigmatic film director, told post-mortem by those in her life: husband, girlfriend, friends, and family. Sophie is a walking contradiction—strong but frail, confident but insecure, loving but distant—but everyone agrees she’s an artistic genius. While these accounts are fairly symmetrical, the exact opposite is true in Rant: The Oral Biography of Buster Casey by Chuck Palahniuk. This story is told first-person by those who knew him, but with drastically different points of view, and the wild, dystopic, often disgusting story is funny and thoughtful but not for the faint of heart. —Rebecca Dash Donsky, 67th Street
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote is the story of Holly Golightly from the perspective of her male admirers. She flits in and out of the scene, while they watch in bemusement. —Arielle Landau, Digital Experience
At one point in Donna Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History, the narrator asks his readers something like, “What can I do to make you understand how this felt?” Destroying that fourth wall pulls you in so close to the narrator that he starts to become invisible and makes you complicit in the story, which is barely about the narrator at all and more about a classmate whom they (you?) murder in the first chapter. —Gwen Glazer, Readers Services
Children & Young Adult
Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl. The narrator, Leo Borlock, tells the tale of Susan Caraway, also known as “Stargirl.” Susan walks into the lives of Leo and his fellow classmates at Mica High and nothing is ever the same again. Susan dazzles, she astounds, she lifts up everyone around her, she is entirely true to herself, and she is unlike anyone else. She is 100% Stargirl and that is precisely why Leo is compelled to tell her story. —Jeff Katz, Chatham Square
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery fits the bill. The story is narrated by an aviator who has crash-landed in the desert and meets our title character, The Little Prince. Our Little Prince is a traveler here on Earth from another planet, and it is his experiences and insights the aviator records in this story. A thought-provoking tale that speaks to children and adults on myriad levels. —Stephanie Whelan, Seward Park
Moby-Dick, which is excellent and funnier than you expect it to be, even considering the long descriptions of whaling minutae. It’s narrated by Ishmael, as we learn in the very first sentence, but it ends up being much more about Ahab and, of course, The Whale. —Kay Menick, Schomburg Center
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. The two main narrators (Lockwood, a wealthy outsider, and Nelly, a longtime family servant) are both peripheral to the story, and the entire structure of the novel is so complex that critics have likened it to a set of Chinese boxes. Barely contained within is the story of the obsessive, untamable passion of Catherine and Heathcliff, a narrative core that continues to enthrall readers, perhaps all the more because of the contrast with the elaborate framework surrounding it. —Kathie Coblentz, Rare Materials
The J.D. Salinger short stories told from the perspective of Buddy—Franny, Zooey, Raise High the Roofbeams, and Seymour. —Arielle Landau, Digital Experience
There are a lot of novels about politics, but few of them are great. Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men is one of the great ones. Narrated by Jack Burden, a reporter turned governor’s aide, the novel tells the story of the rise and fall of Gov. Willie Stark, a demagogue whose life story bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Huey “Kingfish” Long. The strength of the novel lies in watching Jack try to remain a dispassionate observer, only to end up just as tainted as almost every other member of Stark’s entourage. —Wayne Roylance, Selection Team
The Life of Johnson, written by James Boswell, provides the reader with a detailed and affectionately written description of the life of the acclaimed 18th-century writer Dr. Samuel Johnson. Boswell, who was a friend of Johnson, recounts many conversations they had and describes numerous anecdotes he observed over the course of their friendship. Boswell wrote the biography from his own perspective, frequently expressing his own reactions to his friend’s comments and behaviors. —Christina Lebec, Bronx Library Center
Staff picks are chosen by NYPL staff members and are not intended to be comprehensive lists. We'd love to hear your picks, so leave a comment and tell us what you’d recommend.
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