A few Fridays ago I introduced a miniseries featuring some of my favorite audiobooks. This week, I’ll be focusing on fiction. I’m so excited to share these picks with you!
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (narrated by Barbara Rosenblat and Cassandra Morris)
Of course, I must start with the audiobook that got me hooked on listening to books. As I posted a few weeks back, I received a copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog audiobook at BEA a year and a half ago. It’s not a novel I would have gotten through in print; it’s too dense, too ponderous. Read aloud by a pair of talented narrators, however, the book quickly drew me in and became one of my favorites. I listened to The Elegance of the Hedgehog nearly in its entirety during a weekend-long road trip.
Set in France, the novel follows two characters who live in the same Parisian apartment building. Renee, the concierge (read by Rosenblat), keeps up the dull facade the building’s tenants expect from her so as not to arouse suspicion. But behind her closed door, Renee carries on a rich intellectual life. She loves opera, reads Tolstoy, and studies philosophy. Meanwhile, Paloma, the extraordinarily precocious twelve-year-old upstairs (read by Morris), has decided, based on observation of the people around her, that life is meaningless. She has given herself until her thirteenth birthday to find a reason to continue living; if she cannot, she is prepared to commit suicide. The voices of both characters are delightfully unique. It is a beautiful story with complicated characters, brought to life exquisitely by skilled readers.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (narrated by David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones)
I think that, by now, many people have read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. In print, it never interested me. But, as a bookseller a few years back, I felt like it was one of those books I should have read. I got the audiobook from the library and listened to it at the gym. As you may have guessed, seeing as it’s made my recommended fiction on audio list, I quite enjoyed it.
We meet Jacob Jankowski when he is in his 90s–he can’t remember exactly where–and living in a nursing home, an arrangement he hates. As he reflects on his life, he tells the story of his youth. A week before his final veterinary school exams at Cornell, when he was 21, his parents were killed in a car accident. When it came time to take the final, he couldn’t write a word. Instead, Jacob ran away and joined a traveling circus, using his veterinary skills to care for its animals. The world Jacob entered was dark, gritty, and dangerous, peopled with explosive personalities and shady characters. Except for Marlena–she was the bright spot in Jacob’s world.
The novel alternates between old Jacob (read by Jones) and young Jacob (read by LeDoux). The contrast between the two Jacobs was heightened, for me, by the two separate narrators: one slow and gravelly, the other young and energetic. I couldn’t wait to get back on the treadmill every evening to continue the story.
City of Thieves by David Benioff (narrated by Ron Perlman)
My brother isn’t a big reader. So when he told me he’d stayed up until 4 in the morning to finish City of Thieves, I paid attention. My library at the time offered the audiobook for download. I spent a day listening to it while cleaning and doing laundry, so enthralled by City of Thieves that I hardly minded my boring tasks.
Set during the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, the novel is told from the perspective of Lev Benioff, the author’s (fictional?) grandfather. Arrested for looting the corpse of a German soldier and for being out past curfew, Lev finds himself imprisoned with Kolya, who turns out to be quite a colorful character and a good foil to the more reserved Lev. They are brought before the Russian colonel, who takes their ration cards and gives them a task: they must procure a dozen eggs for colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake by the following week. Should they fail, they will either be killed by the colonel’s men or starve to death without their ration cards. What follows is their search for this precious commodity, which brings them face-to-face with unspeakable atrocities and unforgettable people.
Ron Perlman, the narrator, embodies Lev perfectly. It was like listening to Lev tell me his story, which is a characteristic I adore in an audiobook. Though the story spans only a few days, it packs enough nail-biting action to keep you listening.
Oryx and Crake (narrated by Campbell Scott) and The Year of the Flood (narrated by Bernadette Dunne, Katie MacNichol, and Mark Bramhall) by Margaret Atwood
I loved by Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. This pair of dystopian novels tell two sides to the same story: in the not-so-distant future, most of the human race has been wiped out by a deadly pandemic. Having survived somehow, the characters of both novels must learn to navigate the new landscape. Oryx and Crake follows Jimmy, while The Year of the Flood is told in alternating chapters by Ren and Toby.
Each novel spans only a brief time in each character’s present, instead allowing the story to unfold through flashbacks to their lives before the “waterless flood.” Through these flashbacks, each story on its own as well as the two books clicks into place in a masterfully coherent big picture. More than once I was struck with “Oh!” moments when tales aligned or some piece of the puzzle was casually revealed. The way the stories build on one other is fascinating to behold. Not to mention that Atwood’s fabricated future is, in my opinion, both creepy and well done.
It’s hard to explain much about either book’s plot without beginning to unravel the mystery. As the mystery unraveling was one of my favorite aspects of the story, I’ll direct you elsewhere for summaries, should you be interested. Here you go (titles link to GoodReads): summaries for Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.
The readers for both books are fantastic. I can still hear them in my head; they became the voices of Atwood’s characters for me. My one complaint was the musical numbers in The Year of the Flood, supposedly sung by God’s Gardeners, a religious group to which Ren and Toby belonged. They just…didn’t seem to fit. (There’s a sample at the book’s website, if you’re curious!) Luckily, it was easy to just skip them, which I eventually started doing. Overall, I didn’t want to stop listening to either book, and I didn’t want either to end.
Do you have a favorite fiction audiobook? How about a favorite novel you think would work well as an audiobook?