The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I've always thought of The Great Gatsby as the quintessential "well-made novel". The characters are fully realized. The narrator is used incredibly effectively. The plot is neat. The images and symbols are clear, effective and grow naturally out of the descriptions. There's nothing irrelevant, no asides or distractions or meandering sub-plots. It's short and it works. And the writing is exquisite—there's a quote I've heard in another context on almost every page. In my opinion, Fitzgerald was the stylist of his generation, though possibly a bit backward-looking (while Hemingway's style was forward-looking, by which I mean Fitzgerald's style had more in common with Robert Louis Stevenson while Hemingway's pointed the way to the stylist of my generation—Joan Didion).
The story is about the American dream—and I suppose non-Americans read it to understand what that's all about—how a youngster from the Lake Superior shores could go from nothing to a major in the US Army in wartime to that fabulous house in West Egg with all those lovely shirts, but could still gaze achingly at the green light across the bay on the dock of a much less fabulous house owned by "real" rich people. Gatsby's money didn't come clean, but then neither did John D. Rockefeller's. But Gatsby was "worth the whole damn bunch put together"; even though Nick disapproved of him thoroughly, he shone in comparison with Tom and Daisy who "retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was than kept them together, and let other people clear up the mess they made".
"Gatsby believed in the green light, in the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us," says Nick, and—in case you don't buy the American Dream story—Nick is reminded of "the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world…when man must have held his breath in the presence of the continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."
Fitzgerald didn't live long enough to see the moon landing….