These three books are the quintessential Classics with a capital C. I read them reluctantly at first but soon added them to my favorites list. There is a reason these are well-known. They tug at your heartstrings, make you laugh, and introduce you to people worth knowing and stories worth reading.
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo - Jean Valjean starts this story as a convict whose sentence is up. He was condemned to ten years of hard labor for a minor offense and faces a future full of shame and ostracism. His justifiable bitterness is challenged by an act of grace that sets him on a path to redemption. (I get tearful just thinking of it.) And there is more: the orphaned daughter of a prostitute becomes his ward; Jean Valjean is relentlessly pursued by the uncompromising policeman, Javert; then comes the French Revolution and its famous barricades. Valjean's noble struggle for redemption coincides with a larger political battle for the ideals of Liberté, égalité, fraternité as the old order represented by Javert fails. And even though Cosette is a spineless drip and there are digressions where a modern reader may nod off, hang in there - this is a profoundly moving and exciting story.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas - Jealousy and political intrigue conspire to imprison young Edmond Dantès on the eve of his marriage. Betrayed by his nearest and dearest, and by the perversion of justice, he is sent to the Château d'If, a prison fortress on an island where his enemies intend for him to die forgotten. Instead, he meets a fellow prisoner who educates him and reveals the secret hiding place of a vast fortune. Dantès escapes and uses the money to remake himself into the urbane Count of Monte Cristo with one goal in mind: vengeance. This book has been adapted into film more times than I can count because it's the perfect adventure story. There's a chapter that I would give my right hand to have written where the Count has a conversation with an oblivious enemy on the nature of revenge - a thrilling example of dramatic irony.
Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray - Becky Sharp is the coolest character ever. She's smart, beautiful, ruthless. She is poor and orphaned, but has the looks and charm to get what she wants from men who have the wealth and power she craves. (She is a forerunner of Margaret Mitchell's Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind.) Becky uses every tool at her disposal to scheme her way into a better caste. Thackeray uses this sharp-witted minx to expose the failings and hypocrisies of high society, where appearance is everything and everyone is obsessed with money.