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The 10 Best Novels for Social Occasions

At their heart, novels are about how people get on with one another - or fail to. As guides, therefore, on how to navigate the complex labyrinth that is social interaction, avoiding embarrassing faux pas, conversational cul-de-sacs and social no-nos, they offer an invaluable tool kit.
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At their heart, novels are about how people get on with one another - or fail to. As guides, therefore, on how to navigate the complex labyrinth that is social interaction, avoiding embarrassing faux pas, conversational cul-de-sacs and social no-nos, they offer an invaluable tool kit. Here we offer the 10 best novels to help cure you of those ailments which, left untreated, will almost certainly lead to social disaster. With these novels in hand, you'll soon be steering your way through an evening out - be it the office drinks on a Friday night, dinner with the prospective in-laws, or a wild hen night with the girls - with confidence, ease and flair.

1. Having bad manners: "Prep" by Curtis Sittenfeld
Many would say that having impeccable manners is the number one key to social success. Yet working out what constitutes good manners these days can be a minefield. We can think we know how to hold our knife and fork in company - but what about when that company changes, and there's no cutlery in sight? When it comes to appropriate and courteous behavior, context is all. In this meticulously well-observed novel, a precocious Midwestern girl named Lee Fiora wins a scholarship to a celebrated East Coast boarding school, and finds herself suddenly wrong-footed. How to behave in this new upscale setting without looking stupid or causing offense? She quickly learns to hide her lack of knowledge and keep a low profile while she learns the contours of her new social landscape. Her strategy may help you too. As she discovers, manners these days don't exist in a vacuum - they're determined by where you are, what you're doing, and what sort of people you find yourself among. Learn to listen and watch, and adapt accordingly.

2. Arrogance: "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen
Humility is all. There is no greater crime in literature, and perhaps life too, than being too full of yourself - as is made very clear when Mrs. Bennet writes off Mr. Darcy after witnessing his haughty, superior behavior in the course of one evening, despite her having five daughters to marry off and despite Mr. Darcy being by far the most eligible bachelor within sniffing distance. Thinking oneself better than others, and bragging about your qualities, possessions or achievements, is the fastest way to alienate others and turn yourself into a social pariah. Luckily for Mr. Darcy - and you, if you're tarred with the same brush - Mrs. Bennet's playful eldest daughter Elizabeth knows just how to bring a handsome bighead down to size ("I am perfectly convinced... that Mr. Darcy has no defect," she teases, directly to his face). Learn with Mr. Darcy how to make the most of intelligent teasing from someone brave enough to confront you. Who knows, you might even be lucky enough to be transformed into the perfect man/woman by someone like Elizabeth yourself.

3. Being long-winded: "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy
An absolute killer in social situations is to wang on and on about something in which only you are interested, boring everyone around you to tears and/or sending them running to the nearest high building to hurl themselves off the roof. Take a leaf from the father and son in "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy, exemplary models of short-windedness, both. Acres of meaning resonate in the silences after their concise and well-chosen pronouncements. And to illustrate this novel's effectiveness as a cure, we (having just reread it) will leave it at that.

4. Social climbing: "Vanity Fair" by William Thackeray
Those who indulge in the reprehensible pursuit of using others to climb to the top of the social ladder may benefit temporarily from being in the sun. But treating others in this way is dishonest, mean and selfish, and in any case will backfire horribly in the end. If you know you're a name-dropping wannabe, less interested in developing real friendships than in using others for your own advancement, shock yourself out of it with the fate of the shamelessly self-preserving Becky Sharp. Thackeray's entertaining anti-heroine digs her claws into anyone around her who can give her access to titles and royalty - and she gets there in the end. The thing is, there's a lot of competition for the top spot and, as she soon finds out, when you've backstabbed your way to the top, who's going to catch you when you fall?

5. Grumpiness: "The Island of Doctor Moreau" by HG Wells
If you're in a bad mood, lock the door, stay home, and read "The Island of Doctor Moreau." Why? Because bad moods are infectious and the sufferer should put him or herself in solitary confinement for fear of spreading their gloom. When Prendick, a shipwrecked Englishman, is rescued by Dr. Moreau and comes to live on the eccentric scientist's Pacific island, he at first thinks that Moreau intends to turn him into one of the alarming four-legged beasts he sees wandering about. In fact, Moreau has no such plan. But after spending several months in Moreau's grumpy company, something even worse happens to Prendick: his mood turns sour. Dip into this novel as you leave the house and put on a smile along with your coat.

6. Shyness: "The Dud Avocado" by Elaine Dundy
The very shy, of course, might find themselves never leaving the house at all. And when they do, they are usually so preoccupied with being a shrinking violet that they miss out on all the fun anyway. If you're afflicted by this paralyzing and tortuous condition, one option is to stay home and bury your nose in a good book. The other is to work on transforming yourself from shrinking violet to outspoken extrovert, for whom every social occasion is a joy, both for yourself and others. Do this by reading "The Dud Avocado" by Elaine Dundy.

Sally Jay Gorce is about as un-shy as a heroine can get. At 21, this champagne cork of a 1950s English gal goes to Paris to "find herself:" dying her hair a rainbow of colors, posing nude for an artist, and trying out her half-baked French on married men. With her sardonic tone and disdain for convention, Sally Jay is fabulous company for the shy. It's more or less impossible to spend 300 pages in her company without having her breezy attitude to life rub off on you. À l'enfer with what tout le monde thinks of you, you'll come away thinking. Learn to believe in toi-meme!

7. Looking for Mr./Mrs. Right: "The Pursuit of Love" by Nancy Mitford
Let's face it: the unspoken motivation for dressing up and going out is often not the hope that you'll spend the evening chatting to your friends, but that you'll meet someone new, special someone and fall in love. Why else go to all that effort to pluck your stray eyebrow hairs, endure several hours of shouting to be heard over the too-loud background music and sip drinks you don't actually want?

Finding the perfect partner is generally considered to be the jackpot in the great lottery of life - the best way to secure happiness, good health and longevity - and novels share (or reflect, or fuel, depending on your take) this obsession. But have two centuries' worth of reading about the search for Mr./Mrs. Right made us any better at it? Many of us still follow the terrible example of Linda Radlett in Nancy Mitford's "The Pursuit of Love" who, despite starting out with the conviction that true love strikes only once a lifetime, goes about it using the method by which she buys clothes: trial and error. She marries two Mr. Wrongs by the time she finally finds the love of her life - the wealthy French duke, Fabrice. Fabrice funds her shopping sprees and for a while makes her the happiest woman alive - but not, unfortunately, for long. Oh, that she had held out for "the one" at the start! Read this cautionary tale and don't be in such a rush. Chill out, and focus on giving your friends a good time.

8. Ending up with Mr./Mrs. Wrong: "Middlemarch" by George Eliot
If you fail to heed that lesson, you might need this one. Finding yourself in bed with someone ill-suited to you at the end of the evening is never pleasant. But trying to make amends by giving that liaison a go is even worse. If you have a tendency to let this happen, baste your regret the minute your erstwhile lover is out the door with George Eliot's "Middlemarch." The misery the reader feels when the peerless Dorothea Brooke throws herself away on fusty old Casaubon in George Eliot's masterful, groundbreaking exploration of marriage in 19th-century England brings home the enormity of such a mistake, and will ensure that you don't let your unfortunate liaison develop into something more.

9. Lack of seduction skills: "The History of a Pleasure Seeker" by Richard Mason
If the idea of picking up a new lover, suitable or otherwise - or even making a new friend - has you thinking "I should be so lucky," you need to boost your seduction prowess. Do this with Richard Mason's racy tale of sexual and social conquest set in early 20th-century Amsterdam. Piet Barol has some physical advantages that make him attractive to women - and to many men, too - and he's unafraid to use them. But he doesn't rely on looks alone. Much of Piet's charm comes from his knowledge of music - his ability to know whether to play a flirtatious Bizet, for instance, or an abstract Bach, when attempting to secure the affections of a rich society wife. His ready wit, his awareness of social nuance, of manners, of clothing - all this helps. But it's his unassailable conviction in his own irresistibility that clinches the deal every time. With Piet as your guide, you'll soon learn to believe in your own charms too.

10. Hangover: "The Little White Car" by Danuta de Rhodes
Many of the best evenings out are fuelled by a little - or a lot - of alcohol. If your evening was such a success that you find yourself beset with a thudding head the next day, you may find yourself slowly piecing together fragments of the evening into something you would rather forget. If this is the case, reach for "The Little White Car" by Danuta de Rhodes. Because whatever it was you did last night in your drink-fuelled state, we guarantee it wasn't as bad as the drunken exploits of Veronique, the spoilt 22-year-old who emerges from her hangover to the most ghastly and horrendous realization of all. Read it with a wet towel around your head, and the throbbing will magically disappear as your own shame and horror is pushed aside by hers.

Susan Elderkin and Ella Berthoud are the authors of the new book "The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You."

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