Novel Ways to Get Wise About Money
These great works of fiction ring true when it comes to finance
By Clint Willis

(MONEY Magazine) – Money fuels ambition, incites conflict and embodies power. In other words, it makes for some great stories. No wonder, then, that so many novels focus on money, telling tales about how it drives adventure and reveals deep truths. The best books not only take us to worlds we don't know but help us see the role that money plays in our own lives. Here are five page-turners that impart financial lessons the easy way, via gripping stories with vivid characters.

Best Story About the Miseries of Chasing After Cash

Money: A Suicide Note (1984) By Martin Amis

• PLOT Successful advertising director John Self tries to raise money for his first feature film, in between bouts of expensive, addictive and deeply offensive behavior (typically involving drinking, drugs, spending or sex).

• PAYOFF Yes, you already know that money can't buy happiness. But it's surprisingly reassuring to see how much unhappiness it can buy.

• PRICELESS MOMENT Fleeing his creditors, Self considers committing suicide by aspirin but doesn't have enough money to buy the pills.

Best Epic About the Honorable Pursuit of Money

Master and Commander (1970) By Patrick O'Brian

• PLOT In 1800, British naval officer Jack Aubrey cruises the Mediterranean on a two-pronged mission. By targeting hostile warships, he can win glory; by capturing enemy merchant ships, he can make himself a fortune.

• PAYOFF Forget what you've learned about having to choose between making money and upholding your ideals. Like the patriotic and compassionate Aubrey, you can, in fact, have it all.

• PRICELESS MOMENT A crew member who has previously criticized Aubrey's thirst for riches suggests that the captain is a coward for (sensibly) dodging a much larger Spanish warship. Aubrey knows this isn't true but feels distressed anyway.

Best Cautionary Tale About Debt

Little Dorrit (1857) By Charles Dickens

• PLOT Young Amy Dorrit lives in a dreary London prison, caring for a selfish and profligate father who has been jailed for nonpayment of debts. Can she find romantic love and family happiness outside the prison walls?

• PAYOFF Dickens--whose own father was imprisoned for debt when Charles was young--didn't need a MasterCard to figure this one out: Debt can create a financial and emotional prison for you and the people who love you.

• PRICELESS MOMENT When the family inherits a fortune and the Dorrits make a grand departure from the prison, Amy faints, forgotten amid the hoopla. She has spent so long ministering to her father that she can't face the prospect of freedom.

Best Family Drama About a Poisoned Inheritance

A Thousand Acres (1991) By Jane Smiley

• PLOT In a modern-day version of King Lear, an Iowa farmer, Larry Cook, impulsively decides to turn his treasured property over to his three grown daughters. But instead of prosperity for the next generation, what follows is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions: The family crumbles in a mess of betrayals, death and long-buried, terrible secrets.

• PAYOFF Don't delude yourself into thinking that money and real estate solve family problems; rather, they reflect and may even be rooted in them.

• PRICELESS MOMENT Seething with resentment, one of Cook's sons-in-law accidentally blinds a man in a failed attempt to attack the patriarch, who has treated him dismissively over the years. The perpetrator's wife can't contain her anger with her father either. "I want what was Daddy's," she tells her sister afterward. "I want it. I feel like I've paid for it, don't you?"

Best Novel About Money's Power--and Powerlessness

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) By Tom Wolfe

• PLOT Sherman McCoy, a highly successful Wall Street bond trader and self-designated Master of the Universe, ineptly covers up a hit-and-run accident. An orgy of opportunism erupts among a cross section of New Yorkers scrambling to take advantage of his misfortune.

• PAYOFF If your goal is to insulate yourself from the messiness of society at large, wealth does the job. But once the money runs out, it's time to start panicking.

• PRICELESS MOMENT To make the right impression at a posh dinner party, McCoy and his wife skip a $3 cab ride and hire a $250 car service to carry them the six blocks between their home and their host's--even though the McCoys' financial situation is precarious. "Hemorrhaging money!" worries McCoy. You get to indulge a feeling of superiority at his foolishness, even while recognizing the impulse to keep up with the Joneses.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.