The story is not so much a love triangle as a love square. The heroine, Bathsheba Everdene, finds herself in charge of running a sheep farm, and she faces a choice between three types of men that most women will recognize: the sexy bounder, the match whom you don't particularly fancy, and the good man who's the one you should go for in the end. Hardy's novels always give a wonderful sense of landscape—great shoulders of heath cliffs and farmland—and of rural English life in the 19th century. But the fact that Bathsheba is a woman doing a man's job gives the book a surprisingly modern sensibility. And the theme—learning that sexual infatuation is not the stuff of which lifetime partnerships are made—is timeless.
Pride and Prejudice By Jane Austen
This is my favorite book of all time. I pinched the plot for my novel Bridget Jones's Diary. I also came as near as I could to stealing its hero, Mr. Darcy, by turning him into Bridget's Mark Darcy. (I thought both plot and leading man had been well market-researched over a number of centuries, and that Jane Austen wouldn't mind. Anyway, she's dead.) Austen wrote about the minutiae of women's lives in a way that is funny and dazzlingly accurate, giving you insights into what was going on in the social world without your even realizing you're getting an incredible history lesson.
Madame Bovary By Gustave Flaubert
I was probably supposed to read this book when I studied literature at university, but I spent a lot of time playing pool and wound up picking it up for the first time last year when I moved to America and put myself on a self-improvement program. It's the portrait of a young wife in provincial France who's dissatisfied with her life and her husband, whom she deems dull and crusty. Eventually, she becomes intoxicated and humiliated by another man. I've always identified with someone who has fallen for the impossibly sexy man and finds it all going horribly wrong.
The Age of Innocence By Edith Wharton
When I started spending time in America, I found reading novels was the best way of getting a sense of the history of where I was. This book is set in 19th-century New York City. Newland Archer makes a giant compromise and has to live with it the rest of his life because he's bound by society and what's expected of him. It particularly interested me because it's about a man making a bad romantic choice.
The Lady in the Van By Alan Bennett
I think Alan Bennett is among the best writers in Britain today. This is a true story about an elderly vagrant lady called Miss Shepherd who lived in a van and whom Bennett allowed to park in his garden. He was never under the illusion that letting this lady on his property was a purely charitable act. There were other factors, like middle-class guilt. Still, their relationship is terribly funny. He always calls her Miss S., and she's always writing to Margaret Thatcher and the president of Argentina.
Summer Lightning By P.G. Wodehouse
Reading Wodehouse novels is like dancing wildly to pop records in your living room at three in the morning while glugging alternate mouthfuls of white wine, frozen yogurt, and leftover chocolate from Christmas. This one involves a party at an English estate, single young men, a butler, various attractive women, a rich aunt you want to keep on the right side of, and a large pig. It's impossible to stay in a fed-up, resentful, or self-righteous state of mind when reading Wodehouse.