I've been reading too much political and cultural criticism lately and it gets rather disheartening. To counteract this, I'm looking for some well-crafted fiction with sympathetic characters, preferably something recent.
In the past when I've needed a pick-me-up I've gone to most of Jane Austen (though I find I've less patience for Emma these days), Jane Eyre, and Byatt's Possession. (Byatt's Still Life, while wonderfully written, is not a book to leave one with a sense of contentment.) Over Christmas I reread most of the Anne of Green Gables series. Gaiman's Stardust has also been a good choice in the past. Now I'm looking for something new—both new to me, and relatively modern.
What would you recommend to me for aesthetically pleasing prose, an engaging storyline, and some compassionate, well-developed characters? Books that make you want to read more, to write more? Obviously I'm asking for recommendations that I would like based on the above examples, but I'm also curious about what books others go to for comfort and restoration. There was a post almost two years ago about comfort reads, and that's partially what I'm seeking, but I'm more specifically seeking books with beauty and gentleness. I hope that makes sense.
Edit to add: Short of a situation the protagonist leaves in the first few pages, I've absolutely no patience for abusive relationships. Tess of the d'Urbervilles is right out.