By Rebecca Renner
If you’re searching for a classy, smart name for your new little one, look no further than modern classic novels. The term “modern classic” refers to a novel that has been deemed–by literary critics, readers, or, more often than not, both–to be noteworthy in that it defines the time in which it was written, often elevating the mundane, the struggles of the common person, into the realm of myth. In other words, they’re meaningful, profound stories. What better place could there be to find inspiration for a meaningful baby name?
Despite using the word classic, I have tried to shy away from more classic or well-known names in making this list. So these names are more poetic and unusual and also strive for something a little different, so that some of the novels you may consider major modern classics have been omitted from this list, because their characters have more common, traditional names.
Estha – This exotic unisex name is short for Esthappen, the twin of Rahel Yuko in Arunhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Though some pretty earth-shaking and dark things happen to Estha in Roy’s novel, he grows to become a protective and rounded character. This would be a very unusual and distinctive name for a brother.
Theo – A more common diminutive for Theodore, Theo takes on new life when associated with Theo Dekker, the hero in Donna Tartt’s coming-of-age novel, The Goldfinch. Though you may be reluctant to name a child after this accidental art thief, keep in mind the depth and growth his character shows in this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Internationally popular, Theo now ranks at #354 in the US, 33 in England and Wales, and 19 in France.
Pelagia – This beautiful name belongs to the eponymous Corelli’s lover in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernière. Also the name of several early Christian saints, including the patron saint of actresses, Pelagia is a poetic name that is begging for new life. (In the film version, Penelope Cruz plays Pelagia as shown).
Orleanna – With its origin in the place name Orléans, a city in France that the American New Orleans inherited its name from, this elegant name belongs to the heroine of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Changed by the events of the novel, Orleanna becomes a Civil Rights activist, making her a worthy namesake.
Calliope – This name represents one of the most unique characters on this list. Calliope (aka Cal) Stephanides is the intersex protagonist of Jeffrey Eugenides’s groundbreaking novel Middlesex. Cal goes through a lot in the novel, but in the end, she truly lives up to her namesake, the Greek muse of epic poetry, by being able to find beauty and meaning in life’s hardships. Calliope debuted in the US Top 1000 in 2016.
Werner & Marie–Laure – The young Nazi who changes to become a hero and the blind daughter of a Parisian locksmith respectively, Werner and Marie–Laure are the hero and heroine of Anthony Doerr’s much-celebrated Pulitzer-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. Tied to the poetic imagery of a cursed jewel and an elaborate locking mechanism built to look like a miniature city, these names bring with them a wonderful lyricism that makes them stand out.
Willem & Jude – Another couple with a star-crossed fate, Willem and Jude bring a note of poetic tragedy with their classical sound. Two of the main characters of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, Willem and Jude fall in love after years of friendship, and they finally find happiness in each other’s’ arms. Jude is becoming a popular middle name for girls.
Kellen – This main love interest from All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood isn’t your traditional knight in shining armor. He’s a tattooed biker, and he’s been on the wrong side of the law. And yet, he’s one of the most sincere, kind suitors I’ve read in a recent book. Though his love story is complicated and fraught, Kellen would make an excellent namesake for a rebellious but sweet boy.
Florens – In Toni Morrison’s novella A Mercy, the girl with the unusual but beautiful name Florens experiences heartache from the start. Bartered into servitude by her mother to pay their domineering owner’s debt, but years later, she experiences both love and loss, and she grows enough to become the narrator of the story.
Of course there are many other lovely and poetic names from modern literature– these only represent a few of my favorites. What would you add? Leave a comment with your favorite name from a contemporary novel.
Rebecca Renner, an MFA candidate at Stetson University, teaches American literature and creative writing in a chill Florida beach town. While not reading, writing fiction, or blogging on beckyrenner.com, Rebecca frolics with her dog Daisy Buchanan and travels.