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Right now, most of us are cozied up at home 24/7 with our significant others, kids, friends, cats, dogs, monsters, ghosts, and others who may or may not be the optimal roommates at this precise moment. It can be very challenging to be the best version of ourselves. The present is uncomfortable, and thinking about the future can be fraught with the unknown. All of that makes this one of the best times to turn to our fictional friends for guidance.
The characters highlighted below aren’t living under COVID-19 restrictions, but each has been thrust from their normal lives — or a sense of home — by circumstances that are beyond their control. They’re isolated and scared, both for themselves and for the future. And they’re lonely. But they find ways to soothe themselves, to rise to the challenges.
Don’t get the wrong idea: None of these people are forcefully or artificially cheerful in the face of real hardships. They have bad days as flesh-and-blood people do. But all of them also all possess an internal buoyancy that keeps them from sinking too far. Yes, they may complain or lose their patience, but they also carry on and find ways to soothe themselves and others.
Time travel to 1922 Russia to meet the unforgettable Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov who’s been exiled to a cramped attic room at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow.
Our hero: The Count seems to always know the right thing to say, even when he’s in the most dire circumstances. Forced to spend decades within the confines of the hotel, his character is defined by unwavering bonhomie, his generosity and kindness, and a commitment to reading that keeps his mind sharp and his heart soft.
The setting: The glamorous Hotel Metropol on Red Square is an Art Nouveau masterpiece, all stained glass windows, colorful mosaics, and gilded fixtures. It’s a pastel prison for the Count and the others who endure the rise of communism, WWII, Stalinism, and more within its walls.
What we can learn from The Count: Although he hails from a life of privilege, the Count gives meaning to his days by helping others. He wakes each morning with a purpose — whether it’s befriending a precocious little girl or putting in the hours at his newly-acquired job. And he approaches sad setbacks and the daily grind with patience.
A typical day: Each day, the Count gets dressed and grooms himself; exile is no reason to completely abandon one’s appearance. He visits with his hotel friends, enjoys a good meal, and takes on a variety of projects that add lightness and entertainment to his otherwise repetitive days.
Read it if you: Want to spend time with charming characters and need a nudge to be your best self during these trying times.
For what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim. — Amor Towles
It’s 1819 and the captain of the Flying Rose — Mad Hannah Mabbot, lady pirate extraordinaire — busts into a luxurious dinner party and absconds with the chef. It’s a rip-roaring adventure and a moving story about family, loyalty, acceptance, and justice.
Our hero: At the beginning of the story, Owen Wedgwood is nobody’s idea of a swashbuckling hero. How could he be with a nickname like ‘the Caesar of Sauces’? Violently torn from the safety of his kitchen in a posh estate, Owen finds himself aboard ship, among hardened pirates, and forced to cook to save his life. But after several close scrapes with death – and unlikely friendships with his new shipmates — he finds stores of courage he (and we) never expected.
The setting: The Flying Rose is a four-masted sailing ship, the ‘workhorse’ of the golden age of sailing. As Owen is forced to climb a rope ladder, he passes gilded moldings and barnacles and rails carved with gargoyles before he’s locked into a dark cell for two days to reflect on his plight. Eventually, he makes his way to the galley and the larder, where he works his own brand of alchemy to turn unusual ingredients into gourmet meals for Mad Mabbot.
What we can learn from the chef: Once Owen resigns himself to his situation, his creativity in the kitchen far surpasses his fears and insecurities. His desire to succeed — both because he wants to stay alive and for the challenge of cooking itself — override all else. His imagination soars beyond the wooden walls of the galley. It doesn’t happen quickly, but eventually, this focus helps him find his footing in this place that literally ebbs and flows under his feet. And the ship becomes his home, a paradoxical place that encompasses the vast openness of the sea and the confined spaces he shares with the crew.
A typical day: Owen’s days aboard the Flying Rose take on a soothing, albeit tiring, rhythm of sleep, cooking, and documenting his daily activities in his journal. All while he tries to avoid the wrath of the tetchy crew members who would commit him to Davy Jones’ Locker if they thought they could get away with it.
Read it if you: Want to lose yourself in luscious descriptions of food, would like to be besties with a formidable lady pirate, and crave the adventure of being kidnapped by pirates without any of the actual danger of being captured by pirates.
The proper way is lost to me; my compass spins. I therefore give my entire attention to those works that seem to me most incorruptible: the application of heat, the proportion of seasoning, the arrangement of a plate. When robbed of all pretensions and aspirations, with no proper home nor any knowledge of what discord tomorrow brings, I still may have a pocketful of dignity. The Roman pomp and raiment have fallen away, and I see at last the glory of washed feet and shared bread. — Eli Brown
This is the coming-of-age story that started it all, a novel so vividly rendered it feels like an autobiography and featuring our indomitable heroine Jane.
Our heroine: Jane Eyre is a character for the ages: an orphan with no prospects — and no one to love her — who defiantly wends her own way through the world with determination, a strong moral compass, and her unerring belief in her inherent value.
The setting: As an orphan, Jane is reminded everywhere she goes that she has no real home: From her Gateshead Hall (her Aunt Reed’s fine estate where she’s excluded from all kindnesses and pleasures) to Lowood School (a cold, hard pile of stones where starvation and beatings are de rigueur) to Thornfield Manor (where she finally finds physical comfort but is still, mostly, an outsider and left to fend for herself), and finally to the windswept moors and an isolated schoolhouse with only poor villagers’ children for company.
What we can learn from the governess: Throughout all of her many difficulties — abandonment, hunger, cold, poverty, isolation — Jane somehow maintains a vise-like grip on her own self-worth. From the start, when all of the people around her openly disdain her, she believes in her own value. That belief sustains her through every privation. But she’s not without humor or a little bitterness, which makes her all the more relatable. When happiness is snatched from her, and she finds herself alone, again, in a humble one-room schoolhouse, another character asks her: ‘What will you do with your accomplishments?’ In true Janian fashion, she replies, ‘Save them till they are wanted. They will keep.’
A typical day: Whether she’s a downtrodden student at Lowood or a governess in the grand rooms of Thornfield, Jane’s days always seem to begin in the early-morning cold and dark. Her meals are simple, and the majority of her time is spent in learning and, later, teaching. Quiet pursuits like reading, drawing, and rambles in nature fill her days — until the mercurial Mr. Rochester upsets her equilibrium (and sends her on another journey of self-discovery and self-reliance).
Read it if you: Want to be swept away to the 19th-century moors of rural England, to feel righteous anger on behalf of poor Jane, and to revel in her triumphs as she repeatedly overcomes life’s obstacles and shows herself to be a deceptively steely young woman.
I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth—so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane—quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot. — Charlotte Brontë
Eliza Rivers is a bit character in the story of our governess Jane Eyre. But in the context of quarantine role models, she deserves her own mention. Think of it as an alternative version of Jane Eyre in which the formerly spoiled Eliza finds her better nature.
Our heroine: When we first meet Eliza, she’s a miniature cheerleader on the sidelines as her older brother John tortures 9-year-old Jane. Eliza doesn’t inflict any first-hand damage on Jane, but she’s an emotional bully, excluding Jane from all family feeling and cheering on John in his daily torments of their orphan-cousin.
The setting: Eliza continues to live with her mother — and her mother’s slowly deteriorating wealth — at her childhood home of Gateshead Hall. It seems that life with her spoiled, vain sister Georgiana and her malevolent brother John (who eventually succumbs to his vices and dies young) has had an impact on her character. While Jane has been away becoming a governess, etc., etc., Eliza has evolved from a privileged adolescent to a humorless, pious young woman who’s determined to enter a nunnery.
What we can learn from the soon-to-be nun: Let’s set Eliza’s natural bitterness (and petty judginess of her sister Georgiana) aside and turn our attention, instead, to her efficient approach to life. She takes each day, divides it into segments, schedules an activity for each part, and lives her life by the chiming of the clock. Each portion of the day passes in its turn, and by its end, she’s accomplished everything she intended. Yes, she’s a dour thing, but sometimes, knuckling down and plowing through a to-do list is the way to go. Plus, it’s hard to fault her hardcore stance on self-sufficiency.
A typical day: Breakfast, prayer, sewing, prayer, reading, prayer, tea, prayer, bed. Repeat.
Instead of living for, in, and with yourself, as a reasonable being ought, you seek only to fasten your feebleness on some other person’s strength: if no one can be found willing to burden her or himself with such a fat, weak, puffy, useless thing, you cry out that you are ill-treated, neglected, miserable. Then, too, existence for you must be a scene of continual change and excitement, or else the world is a dungeon: you must be admired, you must be courted, you must be flattered—you must have music, dancing, and society—or you languish, you die away. Have you no sense to devise a system which will make you independent of all efforts, and all wills, but your own? Take one day; share it into sections; to each section apportion its task: leave no stray unemployed quarters of an hour, ten minutes, five minutes—include all; do each piece of business in its turn with method, with rigid regularity. The day will close almost before you are aware it has begun; and you are indebted to no one for helping you to get rid of one vacant moment: you have had to seek no one’s company, conversation, sympathy, forbearance; you have lived, in short, as an independent being ought to do. — Charlotte Brontë
In 1942, in Nazi-occupied Holland, a 13-year-old girl named Anne Frank left her childhood home in Amsterdam to go into hiding with her family. They spent the next two years in their ‘Secret Annex.’ This diary is the remarkable documentation of Anne’s experience.
Our heroine: Anne is an awkwardly normal teenage girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances. She’s everything you’d expect from an adolescent narrator: moody, snarky, petty, impatient, funny. And then she obliterates your expectations with her vulnerability, her pragmatism, her propensity for daydreams, and her unrelenting sense of hope.
The setting: When life became far too dangerous for Jews in Amsterdam, Anne’s father swept the family into hiding in a spare room, behind movable bookcases, on the upper floor of the offices for his company Opekta. They stayed there — 5 adults and 3 teenagers — until 1944. As Opekta was still operating, they were required to be silent during the day. Friends of the family routinely risked their lives to deliver food, clothing, and other amusements to the Secret Annex.
What we can learn from Anne: Despite living in an attic with people whose company she does not enjoy — and literally (and realistically) being in fear for her life the majority of the time — Anne never stops living. She demands the things she wants, and she plans for the future she intends to have. Anne throws herself into writing, and it provides a lifeline, giving her purpose, an outlet for her emotions, a way to understand herself, and a means to make sense of the world around her.
A typical day: Silence, writing, studying, sniping, daydreaming.
Read it if you: Want to feel inspired and simultaneously have your heart broken in a very life-affirming and painful way.
It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. — Anne Frank
It’s 2035. NASA’s Ares 3 mission to Mars had been going pretty well for Mark Watney and the rest of the crew. But just six days into their stay, a dust storm literally blows the expedition apart. Now Mark is stranded alone on an inhospitable planet 249 million miles from home.
Our heroine: Mark Watney is a botanist and engineer, the lowest-ranked member of the crew. ‘I would only be in command if I were the only remaining person,’ he quips. And, of course, that’s exactly what’s happened. Mark is in control with exactly one person at his command, and he just happens to be the only person who can save him. The adjectives dogged and resourceful come to mind; despite his horrific situation, he also marvels at it, facing it with wonder and curiosity. In his journal entries, he’s also wildly upbeat with plenty of sarcasm to help keep his dark fears at bay. Exhibit A: ‘I started the day with some nothin’ tea. Nothin’ tea is easy to make. First, get some hot water, then add nothin.’
The setting: Mars. It’s bleak and terrifying and mind-boggling cold, and he’s all alone out there. Did we mention he’s all alone?! In addition to the run of the planet, Mark has at his disposal the portable Habitat left behind by the crew — as long as it doesn’t blow up.
What we can learn from the astronaut: Mark absolutely refuses to give in to negative thoughts. He is 100-percent committed to finding a way to stay alive and get back home, even when it seems devastatingly improbable. He breaks his Herculean tasks into manageable parts and tackles them one by one. (Hello, Eliza!) And through it all, he journals to stay in touch with his humanity and to maintain his sense of humor. But he also allows himself to be vulnerable. Exhibit B: ‘I’d give anything for a five-minute conversation with anyone. Anyone, anywhere. About anything. I’m the first person to be alone on an entire planet.’
A typical day: Mark spends his days in a routine — potatoes, nothin’ tea, journaling — that also allows for working on big projects that are meant to save his life. No pressure there. He does a surprising amount of physical labor, in addition to hard thinking, perhaps a reminder to us all to move our bodies as well as exercising our minds.
Read it if you: Want to laugh in the face of peril and marvel at the magic that happens when science and humanity collide.
It’s a strange feeling. Everywhere I go, I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hadn’t moved in a million years! I’m the first guy to drive long-distance on Mars. The first guy to spend more than thirty-one sols on Mars. The first guy to grow crops on Mars. First, first, first! — Andy Weir
Top image courtesy of Annie Spratt.
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