The dyed-in-the-wool Wasp tends not to write much of anything: both Isabella Stewart Gardner and J.P. Morgan displayed the maxim "Think much, speak little, write less" in their homes. And certainly that Wasp wouldn't write a revealing book. James Gould Cozzens, a Wasp novelist of a half-century ago, remarked that his father didn't "think writing was man's work. I still think he was right, if the truth were told. If I could have been a really efficient athlete, I never would have written another line." So the best books about Wasps are written by those ambivalent about the legacy, or striving to be accepted within its cozy confines, or fed up with the whole thing.
by John P. Marquand
The book is framed as an extended elegy after Apley, a Boston Brahmin, dies in his mid-sixties. Its devastating suggestion is that he really dies — for all intents and purposes — just after college, when his parents thwart his dreams of being a writer and coax him into the family's way of life: “He began to be a useful committee member upon an important charity, a clubman of the very best sort, a sportsman, a student of business and finance, in short a man who was rapidly preparing to undertake family responsibilities.” R.I.P.
by John Cheever
Okay, it's not a novel — but Cheever's writing always takes my breath away. Just when you think you're on fairly solid ground — namely, Westchester County — along comes a wondrous radio or an elephant marching over the hills. A magical realist who's part Marquez and part Walter Mitty.
by Susan Minot
From the opening page, when "Mum knuckles the buttons of Chicky's snowsuit till he's knot-tight," you know you're in for a Wasp treat — meaning boozing, thwarted communication, and inconsolable loss.
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald was a wistful snob, ever anxious about his place in the firmament: as a youth, finding his father listed in the St. Paul Social Register as a “grocer,” he penciled in the word “wholesale” before it. And in this book he transmutes that anxiety into Jay Gatsby's poignantly ardent social climbing. The self-made Gatsby longs, tragically, for the approval of those who — as Ann Richards once said of George H.W. Bush — were born on third base and thought they hit a triple.
by Richard Yates
About the bleakest book you'll ever read, yet its bleakness is vivid and hypnotic. Wasps playacting and posing in the mirror to see how they stack up against their own dreams (not well). The first great novel about misery in the suburbs, and a template for the TV show "Mad Men."
by Edith Wharton, introduction by Louis Auchincloss
No sex please, we're Wasps. Newland and Ellen's is the longest unconsummated romance ever — a devastating portrait of social pressures crushing true feelings.
by J.D. Salinger
You mean you haven't read it already about, like, twelve times?
Recommending books so good, they'll keep you up past your bedtime. more...
About Tad Friend
Tad Friend is the author of Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor. He is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he writes the magazine's "Letter from California."
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