Jealousy or Admiration? The Books I Wish I’d Written

This week’s topic makes me think of the movie As Good As It Gets.

Because when I think of the books I wish I’d written, it almost sounds like jealousy. How come I didn’t think of that? How come I haven’t written a line so good I want to carry it with me always?

There’s Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Loosely inspired by the Japanese Embassy Hostage Crisis in Lima, Peru in 1996, Bel Canto takes place in an unknown South American country, on the night that the vice-president is holding a party at his mansion in honor of a Japanese business titan. The mansion is stormed by terrorists and all the guests are held hostage for weeks.

Being from Peru, my family and I followed the events of the real-life hostage situation very closely. I only learned about Patchett’s book much later, a couple of years after I’d already written (and temporarily abandoned) the first drafts of Chasing the Sun. But of course I was drawn to it, and I instantly fell in love with this book, which is now easily one of my top 10 favorites. Besides, I relate to it on so many levels, not just because I’m Peruvian, but because Bel Canto deals with themes that I wanted to explore in my own work: fear, terror, and the power of the human spirit to adapt to such experiences in order to survive.

There’s Little Bee by Chris Cleave. The story as a whole is phenomenal, but for me especially, what I’ll never forget is this line:

“We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me. A scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.”

(I was in and out of many hip surgeries as a kid, and I have a large scar which, when you’re young, is a source of pain and insecurity. But I’ve grown to love my scar—I wouldn’t remove it, even if I could—and I could never articulate  why until I read this line.)

And finally, there’s Room by Emma Donoghue. Told from the point of view of a little boy named Jack, whose only world is the 11 x 11 room he and his mom inhabit (unbeknownst to him) as captives, Room literally made my heart beat faster as I read it. I remember that I had to stand up and walk around as I read one particular scene, because my adrenaline was out of control from the suspense.

Reading these books, I often wished I’d written them, or that I could write like these authors. The themes, the language, the heart-pounding narrative…all were things that I realize now, inspired me.

Which brings me back to As Good As It Gets. Reflecting on these books reminds me of a famous line from the end of the movie.

It’s not jealousy. It’s just that these books make me want to be a better writer.

What about you?

Author: Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel CHASING THE SUN (Lake Union/New Harvest, June 2014), about a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife's kidnapping in Lima, Peru. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Visit her online at

14 Replies to “Jealousy or Admiration? The Books I Wish I’d Written”

  1. omg, ROOM. That book is the definition of a page-turner. I recommend it to everyone. It defies classification, I think. Just a really intriguing, good story.

    Heh, heh, I like ’em dark, too.

    1. What it is about the dark books? My sister once asked me to recommend some books for a trip, and since she was also going through some tough times I thought, “okay, let’s keep this light and hopeful.” And apparently even THEN she thought my book selections were too dark! Oops…

  2. I like ’em dark, too! And I’ve so gotta read ROOM now. Sounds right up my alley.

    I love Ann Patchett, Natalia. She’s so good. Have you read her memoir about her friendship with a fellow writer? (Of course, can’t remember the title or the name of the fellow writer right now.) I read that memoir back-to-back with the memoir the writer friend wrote about herself. Wow. That was interesting.

  3. Oh yeah, ROOM is one of mine too! (And now I know for sure I need to read LITTLE BEE.) Others include:

    – BELOVED by Toni Morrison
    – CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein
    – TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS by Cheryl Strayed
    – MONSOON by Wilbur Smith

    And several more… Btw, I’m specifically talking about the list of books I loved but wasn’t jealous of — there’s a separate list of books I loved and AM jealous of, hahaha.

    1. OMG, you HAVE to tell me what you think of Little Bee if you ever end up reading it. It’s just…perfection.

      And can you believe I still haven’t read Beloved? I’m embarrassed to type that sentence. It’s definitely on my list.

  4. Yes, exactly. What a great post, Natalia. I have several books that fall into this category; books that when I read them, I thought, “Holy cow. I’ll never be able to write like that.” And then, after a bit of time had passed, I thought, “Someday, I’ll be able to write like that.” Great books make us want to become great like that, or at least one step closer. THE INVISIBLE MOUNTAIN by Carolina de Robertis is one book that blew me away. And THE SNOW CHILD by Eowyn Ivey is another. The writing in those books make me ache to be a better writer.

    1. Yes, definitely The Snow Child…how could I forget that one? It’s also easily one of my top 10; I was completely enchanted by every single word, image, and scene.

      I really love Carolina de Robertis…have you read her latest, Perla?

      1. I started reading Perla, but I couldn’t finish it. Did you read it? It was SO different than Invisible Mountain; the writing style and the approach to telling the story was very unique. I’d even say experimental. And I was completely lost. Add to that the disturbing subject matter, and I just couldn’t get through it. But I loved her debut so much, I’d definitely give her another shot with whatever she comes out with next.

  5. Is interesting how you can turn “bad feelings” or bad emotions-jeoulsy or envy on “good ones” – joy,admiration, good wishing.
    Thank you for sharing with us your joy of writing and expressing your joy of living and loving your work

  6. What a great post, Natalia. I also LOVED Bel Canto and Little Bee. The former completely transported me to that house and made the implausible seem logical and even inevitable. I’ve had a copy of Room on my bookshelf for a long time; now I know that I really do need to read it.

    While I am an English teacher and a journalist, I’ve never written fiction. But I have read several books that both inspired me to write and yet made it seem futile. My favorites in this regard include A Death in the Family by James Agee, “Barn Burning” by Faulkner, “The Basement Room” and The Comedians by Graham Greene, The World According to Garp by John Irving, A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin, and everything by Alice Munro.

    Recent books that blew my mind include The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin, News from Heaven by Jennifer Haigh, The News from Spain: 7 Variations on a Love Story” by Joan Wickersham, and The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol (published just yesterday!).

    Great stories, brilliantly written. Read them!

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