Bringing together a bunch of people to let their hair down, or to celebrate something big, parties provide the perfect stage for explosive encounters. From booze-fuelled office bashes that lead to dramatic showdowns, to tense dinner parties that detonate with frank revelations, there’s no denying that such gatherings are a heady cocktail, with the anticipation around them - whether unfulfilled, exceeded, or else transformed into something entirely unexpected - leading to all manner of life-changing scenarios.
Of course, this also means parties provide the perfect set-up for pivotal moments in fiction - since the clink of glasses all too often leads to untold clashes, what better way to reveal who characters really are than putting them in a sparky party situation? (Warning - some of the novels outlined below may contain scenes of emotional intensity. That said, it’s your party, so you can cry if you want to).
Let’s start with an absolute stormer - The Great Gatsby. Though the novel tackles serious themes, there’s no denying it would have been a blast to sashay into one of Jay’s extravagant Champagne-fuelled socials. Then there’s Laura Wood’s sublimely escapist (and emotionally riveting) Gatsby-esque A Sky Painted Gold. Though ostensibly written for young adults, it’s one of the finest coming-of-age novels to be published in recent years, with a shimmering 1920s-setting, and a thrilling storyline that sees a girl-next-door fall for the local aristocrat during a summer of sumptuous soirees.
For costumed opulence, try Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea in which protagonist Zachary embarks on a marvellous magic realist quest after attending a lavish literary-themed masked party in New York. Talking of masks, Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story (the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut movie) is a sexually-charged classic that culminates in a masquerade ball. Or how about Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, in which a cast of brilliant, bizarre characters wind up (but certainly don’t wind down) at Satan’s spring ball?
When it comes to classic social get-togethers, they don’t come more pivotal than the ball scene in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and the party in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Or, for something festively cheering, there’s always Mr Fezziwig’s seasonal shindig in A Christmas Carol.
Back to contemporary reads, Bridget Jones sure knows a thing or two about gatherings that get out of hand (and go wrong). Then there’s The Nest (family 40th birthday dinners have never been so fraught), and Marie Aubert’s Grown-Ups. Centred around a 65th birthday celebration, this explores fractious family dynamics and lifelong sibling rivalry with much wit and wisdom. Or, for a brilliant psychological thriller involving a decadent Halloween party, dive into Bitterhall.
Lastly, mention must go to (arguably) the most iconic literary parties of all - the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland (with a such disparate gaggle of guests, and the presence of mind-altering substances, it couldn’t be anything but volatile), and Bilbo Baggins' eleventy-first birthday in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Without further ado, scroll down for a run-down of some of the best novels featuring fiery festivities.