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7 Classic Science Fiction Books Worth Revisiting
Science Fiction stories delve into all things futuristic, technological, extraterrestrial — you catch our drift. Pivotal authors in the space include Isaac Asimov, George Orwell, Philip K. Dick, N. K. Jemisin, and countless others.
In celebration of both Asimov, his peers, and the entire genre, we’ve put together a collection of sci-fi books that are always worth rereading (or reading for the first time if you’re just getting into these magical worlds of tomorrow). From fun and fascinating intergalactic travels to dystopian futures that will leave you with much to think about, these sci-fi tales are fundamental to the genre.
Foundation Series – Isaac Asimov
The Foundation series began as a few short stories published in the magazine Astounding Stories of Super-Science back in the 1940s and ultimately became an entire series of seven epic books. The tale is set in the distant future where a man named Hari Seldon has invented “psychohistory,” a mathematical means of predicting the future.
Unfortunately, its predictions aren’t very flattering: They foretell a time when humanity will more or less revert back to the Dark Ages. These predictions get Seldon and his crew exiled to a distant planet known as “the Foundation,” where they attempt to shorten the period of decline to come. Apple TV+ also turned the series into a TV show and released the first season in 2021.
Dune – Frank Herbert
As fans of the 2021 Dune film may know, the story is based on the 1960s book by Frank Herbert and its sequels. Dune eventually became a bit like a literary version of Star Wars, as Herbert wrote six novels in the Dune series before he passed away. Later, his son Brian and author Kevin J. Anderson teamed up to produce numerous sequels and spinoffs based on the Dune -iverse.
The saga is set in a future where noble families rule different planets under a sort of intergalactic feudal system. In the first of the six foundational novels, readers are introduced to the heir of one such distinguished group, a boy named Paul Atreides whose family is charged with ruling a planet called Arrakis. When his family is betrayed, Paul embarks on a journey that blends everything from adventure to mysticism in one of the most epic sci-fi tales of all time.
The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
While some earlier sci-fi classics tend to reflect women in the light of the times in which they were written, The Left Hand of Darkness is a whole other experience altogether. The 1969 novel follows the adventures of Genly Ai, an envoy who is sent to a stray world called Winter in an attempt to bring it back into the intergalactic fold.
However, to stand a chance, he must overcome his own preconceptions when he’s confronted with a culture that exists entirely without gender prejudice. As Ai soon discovers, some of the creatures on Winter express multiple genders, while others don’t identify with any at all. If you’re a reader who loves to go deep, this one makes for a fascinating read.
Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
While the actual 1984 may have come and gone, the dystopian novel that shares its name remains a pivotal work of science fiction. The Atlantic notes that “No novel of the past century has had more influence than George Orwell’s 1984 ,” and this assessment is indeed a fair one. Published in 1949, the story follows Winston Smith, who lives under a totalitarian government in which “the Party” controls every aspect of its citizens’ lives.
“Big Brother,” an invisible yet omnipresent leader, is always surveilling the populace to ensure that no one commits so much as a thoughtcrime, which involves no more than thinking of rebelling against the Party. When Smith dares to think for himself, he sets off on a haunting journey that transports readers to a world that’s all too easy to imagine actually existing. While this isn’t necessarily an easy read, it’s an important one that will stay with you for years.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
Though you may not think you’ve heard of this one, it may be a bit more familiar than you think — it’s the inspiration behind Ridley Scott’s film, Blade Runner (1982). First published in 1968, the novel takes place in a dystopian 2021 where entire species have been eliminated by a global war. In an effort to replace live animals, which are highly prized, series of incredibly realistic androids have been developed, some of which are even fashioned after human beings.
However, when the government becomes wary of these AI humans and their disturbing capabilities, it eventually bans them from Earth. Bounty hunter Rick Deckard is sent to “retire” any rogue androids that remain, which doesn’t prove to be an easy task.
Kindred – Octavia E. Butler
Kindred has become a foundational work of sci-fi and African-American literature alike. The story follows a modern young Black woman named Dana who is suddenly deposited back in time to the pre-Civil War South. Through a series of trips between that era and her own time, Dana is forced to contend with the horrors of slavery, racism and sexism while completing a series of tasks.
Though each journey becomes more dangerous, Dana realizes that her own family’s future depends on their successful completion. First published in 1979, the novel remains relevant today with its skillful blend of romance, sci-fi, feminism, equality and adventure.
A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle
A Wrinkle in Time is a classic story of good vs. evil presented through an adventurous sci-fi lens. The tale follows a high school student named Meg Murray, her friend Calvin O’Keefe and her younger brother Charles Wallace. When the three are introduced to tesseracts (or wrinkles in time) by an unearthly visitor, they set off on a journey through time and space to rescue Meg’s missing scientist father.
Along the way, she learns a series of timeless life lessons about everything from the power of individuality to the resiliency of love. Appropriate for both young and adult readers alike, this one is a fun and fascinating tale that seems impossible to outgrow.
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Must-Read New York City Books
New york city: the big apple, the center of the universe, the city of dreams, the city that never sleeps, the city so nice, they named it twice (and more). everyone has a different take on this bustling, diverse city. from the intimate jazz bars of greenwich village to the vibrant streets of harlem, the dazzling lights of the theater district to the quiet brownstones of brooklyn; this city has something for everybody get to know it a little better by taking one of these books out on the town..
Fleishman Is in Trouble
By taffy brodesser-akner, paperback $17.00, buy from other retailers:.
By colson whitehead.
By stephanie danler, paperback $18.00.
I Have Lost My Way
By gayle forman, paperback $10.99.
City on Fire
By garth risk hallberg, paperback $20.00.
The Life of the Mind
By christine smallwood.
By ralph ellison.
by Teju Cole
Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares
By rachel cohn and david levithan, paperback $11.99.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
By michael chabon, paperback $19.00.
The Personal Librarian
By marie benedict and victoria christopher murray.
A Little Life
By hanya yanagihara.
Names of New York
By joshua jelly-schapiro, hardcover $22.00.
by Toni Morrison
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
By truman capote, paperback $16.00.
Isla and the Happily Ever After
By stephanie perkins.
By cristina alger.
City of Girls
By elizabeth gilbert.
Modern Love, Revised and Updated
By daniel jones.
Go Tell It on the Mountain
By james baldwin.
The Sun Is Also a Star Movie Tie-in Edition
By nicola yoon, paperback $12.99.
by Patti Smith
By chang-rae lee, hardcover $27.00.
The Lions of Fifth Avenue
By fiona davis.
By henry james, paperback $9.00.
When I Ran Away
By ilona bannister.
Survive the Night
By danielle vega.
The Beautiful and Damned
By f. scott fitzgerald.
In the Heights
By lin-manuel miranda , quiara alegría hudes and jeremy mccarter, hardcover $40.00.
Trust (Pulitzer Prize Winner)
By hernan diaz.
By jonathan lethem.
My Epic Spring Break (Up)
By kristin rockaway, paperback $9.99.
Down These Mean Streets
By piri thomas.
By alexander nemerov.
By mario puzo, hardcover $50.00.
By camille perri.
Noelle: The Mean Girl #3
By ashley woodfolk, hardcover $15.99.
by Nella Larsen
Angel & Hannah
By ishle yi park.
by Mary Gaitskill
Great Jones Street
By don delillo.
Rules of Civility
By amor towles.
Bright Lights, Big City
By jay mcinerney.
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Best Books Set in New York City
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The 25 best books set in or about New York
It's a feat of extraordinary diligence worthy of a genius mind: to pen a book that truly captures the essence of a constantly changing New York.
It is incredibly hard to write about New York, a city defined by its diversity of character and spirit—but that's exactly why we deem the best books set in or about New York to be some of the most incredible additions to the American literary canon, period.
From always-referred to classics like The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe and Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to more recent publications like Hanya Yanagihara's soul-crushing A Little Life , this unranked list makes up what we believe to be any New Yorker's essential reading compilation.
Although spanning themes and tones, all mentioned books have one thing in common: they celebrate all the tiny things that makes New York so freaking grand.
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'The New York Trilogy' by Paul Auster
Not quite like any other entry on this list, Paul Auster's New York Trilogy is a series of novels that were first published sequentially but have since been presented in a single volume.
It's hard to describe what City of Glass (1985), Ghosts (1986) and The Locked Room (1986) are really about. On the surface, they're detective novels, but, upon a deeper reading, they clearly address the sorts of philosophical and ethical questions that New Yorkers in specific, and Americans at large, constantly struggle with, including matters of identity and mortality.
'Breakfast at Tiffany's' by Truman Capote
It is astounding to think that the author of the literary masterpiece that is In Cold Blood is the same one who gifted the world Breakfast at Tiffany's .
Alas, that is where Truman Capote’s brilliance lays: his ability to inhabit any world and catapult the reader into a romanticized yet true-to-reality version of, well, reality.
The 1958 novella introduces audiences to Holly Golightly, a naive and spoiled society girl played by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film adaptation of the literary work.
Narrated by an unnamed writer who lives in the same Upper East Side brownstone as Golightly, the story revolves around the relationship between the two characters, specifically dissecting how Golightly's lifestyle as an "American geisha," as suggested by Capote himself, affects it.
'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay' by Michael Chabon
For some reason, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is not readily referred to as a must-read New York book of the caliber of, say, Catcher in the Rye . That's a shame.
The 2000 novel did win the Pulitzer Price for Fiction in 2001, after all. What's more, Bret Easton Ellis even called it "one of the three great books of my generation" alongside Jonthan Franzen's The Corrections and Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude.
Chabon's work centers around two Jewish cousins, Czech artist Joe Kavalier and writer Sammy Clay, who is from Brooklyn. The book focuses on their respective lives before, during and after World War II.
'Great Jones Street' by Don DeLillo
Bucky Wunderlick is a rock 'n roll diety who suddenly abandons his band to spend time alone in his empty apartment on—you guessed it!—Great Jones Street, specifically hoping to learn how to deal with the endless scrutiny of his fans and the media.
Although published in 1973, the novel clearly explores topics that are at the heart of today's culture, especially given New York's devotion to the concept of celebrity and the constant paparazzi that swirm around town.
Will humans ever learn how to deal with fame in ways that don't destroy lives? If the time elapsed between the publication of Don DeLillo's tome and today is of any indication, we have not yet learned our lesson.
'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Not many New York-based books feature Long Island as their primary setting—except for what is perhaps considered to be the New York novel par excellance, The Great Gatsby .
The story told in the 1925 book takes place during the Roaring Twenties, complete with the sort of speakeasies and underground cultural pursuits that New York still lays claim to a century later. Nick Carraway is the first-person narrator who is obsessed with millionaire Jay Gatsby and the latter's devotion to former girlfriend Daisy Buchanan. In addition to providing a glimpse into the era within the world of New York, the book has been praised for its indirect commentary on themes like the American Dream, social mobility, racism and antisemitism.
'City of Girls' by Elizabeth Gilbert
It is 1940 and Vivian Morris moves to Manhattan to live with her aunt Peg after getting kicked out of Vassar College. That's exactly when Morris' world virtually expands to include a rotating cast of characters that are associated with the midtown theater that aunt Peg owns.
Elizabeth Gilbert pens an entertaining story that is as much a love letter to New York as it is a manifest intended to relay the importance of the theater industry in shaping the town's cultural spirit.
'City on Fire' by Garth Risk Hallberg
In the past few years, novels about New York have been criticized as not necessarily capturing the essence of a city in the same way that F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Toni Morrison, Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe have been able to do decades ago. That all changed when Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire , the author's first ever novel, was released in 2015.
The book was immediately deemed outstanding, so much so that Hallberg actually received a $2 million advance for his work —a sum by many outlets reported to be the highest ever for a debut novel.
A TV adaptation of the book has been in the works for years and it will finally air on Apple TV some time this year.
Equally reminiscent of The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Goldfinch in terms of tone and themes explored, City on Fire chronicles the aftermath of a shooting that occurs in Central Park on New Year's Eve in the 1970s, bringing readers face to face with a number of very New York City-like characters while exploring subjects like racism and violence that unfortunately still plague town today.
One single question follows a reading of the pretty hefty tome: why hasn't Hallberg written a second book yet?
'Forever' by Pete Hamill
Pete Hamill, who passed at the age of 85 in 2020, was the embodiment of New York. A prolific writer through and through with a deep relationship with Brooklyn (and local sports teams!), Hamill spent his entire life chronicling the city's cultural happenings both at his jobs at The New York Post and the Daily News and all throughout his many books, including Forever , his 2003 work of fiction about a man who is granted immortality as long as he never leaves Manhattan.
If the mere premise of the work gives you the chills, it is because the concept is a clear commentary on the relationship that most people seem to develop with New York: we can't (or don't want to?) ever leave.
'The Best of Everything' by Rona Jaffe
It seems like most successful books about New York chronicle stories that involve the publishing industry.
Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything is one such tome, a best-seller that The New Yorker deemed to be " Sex and the City [if] set inside Mad Men 's universe." The description couldn't be more apt: the book is about three women who meet while working at a publishing house and Jaffe herself reportedly interviewed fifty females familiar with corporate America to make the plot as authentic as possible. If you're thinking the novel to be a precursor to the #MeToo movement, you wouldn't be the first.
'Washington Square' by Henry James
If you haven't heard of Washington Square , Henry James' acclaimed 1880 novel about a father who tries to stop his daughter from marrying a man that he believes only wants her money, you've probably heard of the Academy Award winning 1949 film The Heiress that was based on it (technically, the novel was adapted into a play by that name that was then turned into a movie).
Perhaps one of the oldest tomes on this list, the novel gives a now rare gimpse into Greenwich Village in the 1840s, a neighborhood both very different and alike the coveted one that New Yorkers relate to today.
'Passing' by Nella Larsen
Clearly referring to racial passing, a term that calls out to the practice of presenting oneself as belonging to a different racial group given ambiguous physical attributes, this 1929 novel by Nella Larsen was ahead of its time, likely given the author's own mixed heritge.
Nearly a century following its debut, the book—one of two ever that Larsen published—was turned into black-and-white movie of the same name.
The story across the two formats follows Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, are childhood friends whose lives constantly intertwine and whose relationship heavily rests on Kendry's attempts to pass as white.
'The Fortress of Solitude' by Jonathan Lethem
There's a lot to unpack in Jonathan Lethem's 2003 semi-autobiographical novel set in Brooklyn. First of all, the work spans three full decades—the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, when a variety of personalities, trends and historical facts developed in ways that still resonate within the borough today.
Mostly, though, The Fortress of Solitude is a book about race, a theme explored through its two teenage protagonists, Dylan Ebdus and Minus Rude, one white and the other black. Expect conversations about gentrification and racial culture to take center stage both directly and in more subtle ways throughout the entire book.
In case you were wondering, the title is a reference to Superman's Fortress of Solitude, where the superhero first learned about his true identity.
'Rosemary's Baby' by Ira Levin
It's hard to write a good horror novel, and it's even harder to write one based in New York City—which is probably why no book within the genre has yet reached the level of fame that Ira Levin's 1967 Rosemary's Baby enjoys.
Rosemary Woodhouse and her husband Guy just moved into the Bramford, a historic apartment building in Manhattan, despite being warned about the structure's murder- and witchcraft-adjancent history. Fast-foward a few months and a bunch of Satanic-like happenings, and you're in for some petrifying reading material.
'Bright Lights, Big City' by Jay McInerney
At first read, Jay McInerney's much talked about 1984 novel doesn't feel like an authetic exploration of New York. Something about it simply feels too extra and almost made up.
And yet, upon a second reading, the book suddenly feels just as ridiculous as the mid-1980s were like in New York—which is the exact time frame that the character dwells in.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the book is that, although the narrator is a 24-year-old fact-checker with dreams of writing, the story is told in the second person.
McInerney himself turned the book into a screenplay for a film that was then released in 1988. Eleven years later, in 1999, the New York Theater Workshop produced an Off Broadway stage musical based on the book. Clearly, there is an audience for it.
'Jazz' by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison's books are usually associated with the Black experience around the country. Jazz is not any different, but it also happens to tangentially offer a commentary on life in Harlem in the 1920s.
The 1992 historical novel looks at the marriage between Joe and Violet Trace, both its formation and crumbling, through literary methods that actually remind of the way jazz music is played.
'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath is clearly an icon within literary circles, but not many know that, although a prolific poet, she only wrote one novel throughotu her career, the legendary The Bell Jar. Fun fact: Plath actually originally published the book under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.
Although semi-autobiographical, readers have always associated the novel's plot, which tells the story of 19-year-old Esther Greenwood as she moves to New York City for an internship at a magazine but eventually spirals into mental illness, with Plath's own life: the author committed suicide a mere month after the book was published in the United Kingdom.
'Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger
Classics are classic for a reason, including J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye— a novel that has turned its main character, Holden Caulfield, into a prime example of teenage rebellion and New York the ideal setting for a coming-of-age saga.
The tale is a predictable yet enticing one: after 17-year-old Caulfield gets expelled from school, he roams around Manhattan, getting to know the town and its flowery characters directly but unable to develop any sort of real connection to anything around him.
'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' by Betty Smith
The 1943 semi-autobiographical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn takes place in the Williamsburg of days yore, before world-renowned restaurants and super-tall skyscrapers revolutionized the area and brought it one step closer to Manhattan.
Split into five sections, each detailing a different period of time throughout the first two decades of the 20th century, the novel turns Brooklyn into a sort of character as well, clearly noting how the protagonist's upbringing was entirely interlaced with the neighborhood she calls home.
'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is an interesting entry. The book’s intentions are astonishing and, mostly, delivered: the story is a grandiose one about Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker who survives an accident but is taken in by the family of his wealthy friend given the fact that his mom has died and his father has abandoned him. Looking at the world from his new fabulous home on Park Avenue, Decker befriends the owner of an antique store and constantly refers to a small painting of a goldfinch that reminds him of his mother.
The massive novel is beautifully written, describing New York in ways that perhaps no author before Tartt has been able to do and yet, come to the ending, it doesn't feel complete. It is, of course, totally worth reading regardless.
'Joan is Okay' by Weike Wang
Not many novels focus on the Chinese immigrant experience within the confines of a New York lifestyle—a fact that automatically makes Weike Wang's Joan is Okay worthy of discussion.
The story is about thirty-something Joan, an ICU doctor working at a Manhattan hospital whose parents returned to China following her and her brother Fang's move to New York and the establishment of the siblings' respective careers.
Once her husband passes, though, Joan's mother decides to move back to America to be closer to her children. The relocation kicks off a series of events that has Joan wonder about who she is as a person in respect to her Chinese-American upbringing, her demanding career and the character of a city as unique as New York.
Born in Nanjing, China, Wang is clearly well-versed in the topic at hand—one that doesn't get much attention in the news, especially in light of recent attacks on the Chinese American community.
'The Devil Wears Prada' by Lauren Weisberger
Hereby rests the "Great New York Novel" conundrum: can contendeers like The Bonfire of the Vanities , The Bell Jar and Jazz realistically be mentioned alongside the likes of The Devil Wears Prada ?
Alas, isn't that exactly what New York is? An amalgamation of stark differences that, with a seeming touch of magic, coalesce to present an oddly uniform image of the character of the city?
Based on that premise, the 2003 novel The Devil Wears Prada would likely represent the vast number of fashion students that land in New York in the hopes of making it to Fashion Week. They, indeed, are just as emblematic to the city as, say, New York Times reporters or Upper East Side retirees living in brownstones with driveways.
That is all to say that, yes, Lauren Weisberg's uber successful novel about Andrea Sachs, a Brown University graduate who moves to New York City in the hopes of pursuing a career in publishing, deserves a spot in the local literary canon.
Perhaps even more iconic than the book, though, was its 2006 Hollywood adaptation directed by David Frankel and starring Anne Hathaway as the protagonist and Meryl Streep as the unforgettable Miranda Priestly, the Anna Wintour-like fashion magazine editor that hires Andrea as her co-assistant.
'The Age of Innocence' by Edith Wharton
Basically any book by Edith Wharton belongs on a best books about New York list, but, frankly, not every Wharton book is for everyone.
The Age of Innocence is, perhaps, the most widely read and for good reason: Wharton won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction after publishing it and officially became the first woman to ever be granted the accolade.
Set in the Gilded Age, a period of time under more scrutiny in recent months given the beloved HBO show The Gilded Age , the story is about the upper class. Specifically, it focuses on aristocratic lawyer Newlad Archer and his fiancee May Welland. When Welland's European cousin Ellen heads to New York because of a disgraceful episode in her hometown, Archer falls for her. The plot is certainly expected, but why is that bad?
'Harlem Shuffle' by Colson Whitehead
Culminating in the Harlem riot of 1964, this 2021 book by Colson Whitehead actually originated before his 2019 The Nickel Boys , a novel based on the real story of the Dozier School in Florida that earned the writer his second Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (his 2016 work, The Intuitionist; The Underground Railroad , granted him the first such accolade).
Telling the story of Ray and Elizabeth Carney, who are trying to make an honest living on 125th Street, the novel chronicles the struggles that Ray lives through while trying to stay away from his criminal family. His own cousin Freddie doesn't help matters: after planning a heist-gone-wrong, Ray is pulled in the middle of a situation he was always trying to avoid.
'The Bonfire of the Vanities' by Tom Wolfe
This 1987 Tom Wolfe novel is by many considered to be the quintessential New York work of fiction, originally conceived as a series of books that ran in Rolling Stone magazine across 27 installments starting in 1984.
The author did revise the story before publishing it as a book, which instantly became a bestseller and was turned into a film by Brian De Palma in 1990. Unfortunately, the movie was not as well-received as its literary inspiration was.
The story centers on uber successful New York City bond trader Sherman McCoy, who accidentally enters the Bronx in his car while out with his mistress Maria Ruskin. Attempting to exit the neighborhood, the couple is approached by two Black men whom they believe to be predators and, while trying to race the car away, Ruskin strikes one of the two men.
The plot unfolds across many layers: a police investigation that leads to McCoy slowly losing his sanity, the involvement of a has-been alcoholic journalist seeking to solve the mystery on behalf of a tabloid and the participation of religious and political leader in Harlem who seems to be looking for justice.
'A Little Life' by Hanya Yanagihara
When Hawaiian novelist Hanya Yanagihara released A Little Life in 2015, the world noticed—and everyone seems to still be talking about it.
That's likely due to the candid nature of the author's writing and subject matter: trauma, disability, depression, shame and chronic pain.
To explore the themes, Yanagihara uses four different chacracters, all recent graduates of a prestigious college in New England who move to New York to—what else?—chase their dreams in law, acting, art and architecture. The lawyer, Jude, becomes the undisputed protagonist whom readers want to look away from given his self-harming tendencies but can't.
Benefiting from Americans' penchant for sadness, a universal trait that also explains the popularity of TV shows like The Handmaid's Tale and Sharp Objects , A Little Life is now considered a modern-day classic.
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The 25 Most Significant New York City Novels From the Last 100 Years
Four writers and one bookseller gathered over Zoom to make a list devoted to fiction in which the city is more than mere setting.
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By Rose Courteau , Kate Guadagnino and Miguel Morales
What to say about New York? As both a place and an idea, it’s too big to be summed up or even fully known. But that hasn’t stopped countless writers from trying, often via fiction — which, like the city, lends itself to wandering. If anything, New York’s scale and complexity — the diversity of neighborhoods and industries and lives that coexist here — are what make it an inexhaustible and consistently compelling setting. There’s also the fact that it’s so closely associated with ambition, which, as any storyteller will confirm, tends to be a useful thing for a protagonist to have. And so, despite myriad differences in aims and style, the New York City novel has become its own literary category, one that T explored for this project, which compiles what we’ve deemed to be the 25 most influential New York novels published between 1921 and 2021.
To make the list, we assembled a panel of judges — the novelists Katie Kitamura and Michael Cunningham , the bookseller Miriam Chotiner-Gardner (who works at the quintessential New York bookstore Three Lives & Company in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village), the playwright and television writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and the journalist Mark Harris . Each of them nominated 10 or so books he or she felt strongly about. Then, on a Friday in February, they met up to debate which titles should be included in the final version. These sorts of lists always come with caveats, the most obvious in this case being that this was a deeply subjective exercise shaped by reading histories and preferences. There wasn’t always a consensus about what was worthy and, though there were some undisputed favorites, we didn’t even attempt to rank the books — instead, they appear more or less in the order they did in conversation. In some cases, suggested titles simply didn’t fit the criteria — Edith Wharton’s best-known novels (“The House of Mirth,” 1905; “The Age of Innocence,” 1920) just missed the temporal cutoff, for instance, and we decided that Gatsby was really more of a Long Island man. (The group also agreed not to consider anything written by the panelists themselves or by T’s editor in chief, Hanya Yanagihara.)
When he first heard about the assignment, Cunningham wisely asked whether most New York novels couldn’t just as easily have been set in another city. Upon reflection, though, we agreed that there are certain books, in which New York becomes a character all its own, that you can’t quite imagine taking place anywhere but here. — Kate Guadagnino
Kate Guadagnino: To start with the most obvious question: What is a New York novel?
Mark Harris: I was looking for something that either reflected an aspect of the city that I recognized or showed me a city I didn’t recognize — but that I learned through reading was part of its DNA and maybe spoke to the origin story of the modern city.
Miriam Chotiner-Gardner: I also factored in whether New York had in some way shaped the characters or the story. Not necessarily that the book couldn’t have taken place somewhere else, but the sense that New York played an integral role in exactly how things played out.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins: I grew up in D.C. and was a bookish kid, so my relationship to New York started through what I was reading, which made it sort of a beacon for me — it felt culturally foundational when people would talk about the myth of New York. I think I chose books that either created that myth for me or seemed to affect the impressions of someone who wasn’t native to that world.
1. “Native Speaker” by Chang-rae Lee, 1995
Henry Park, the narrator of Chang-rae Lee’s first novel, is, in no order: the only son of Korean immigrants, an estranged husband, the father of a dead boy and a seasoned spy. What relationship these elements of his life bear to one another becomes an object of introspection when he is assigned to surveil John Kwang, a city councilman from Queens with mayoral ambitions. Kwang appeals to many of the borough’s working-class immigrants and to Henry, who sees in him “an outlying version” of himself and a point of comparison for his late father. Unspooling his fascination with the politician produces a hypnotically discursive exploration of assimilation’s toll and its characterological tendencies — namely, a knack for compartmentalization and code switching. These qualities, of course, also make for an excellent spy. (To go undercover, says Henry, one must possess “an understanding of one’s self-control and self-proportion: you must know your effective size in a given situation, the tenor at which you might best speak.”) Though the book’s ending suggests they also provide little protection from hate. — Rose Courteau
Katie Kitamura: I was particularly interested in books that revealed structures of the city, and the way they organize experience. “Native Speaker” (1995) really emphasizes how New York is a city of languages and how much language has to do with access to power and recognition. It was the first book I put on my list because I’d happened to have lunch with some novelist friends. It came up and they all said, “If we had written that book, we could just retire.” It’s such an uneasy book, too. Immigration stories can sometimes seem like narratives about hope or finding opportunity. This is a first-generation story that is deeply about displacement, anxiety and trauma.
Jacobs-Jenkins: I think Chang-rae’s superunderrated, honestly. A lot of the things he was doing in these early books other people are only now starting to do. He was talking through ideas of whiteness at a time when no one had the language. He’s my former teacher, so I may be a little biased, but I think this is the first book I read where there was a staging of intersections of immigrant communities — of first and second generations — done in a way that felt unapologetic. And then there’s almost a thriller plot inside of that, which felt very assured and bold and refreshing — there’s no spectacle to it, oddly. This and his novel “A Gesture Life” (1999) are both books I think about a lot.
Michael Cunningham: I agree that Chang-rae Lee should be more famous.
Kitamura: But he is very famous, right?
Cunningham: I know, I know. But there should be more statues. There should be more pop-up shops that sell only Chang-rae Lee-related merchandise. As with many of the others I sought out, this book portrays various New Yorks. One of the things I love about living in the city is that you can’t really go out and walk for 10 minutes and look at the people you are passing on the street and imagine that you are, in any way, a typical member of the human species. That may be at least as true of New York as it is of any other major city, and possibly more so.
Guadagnino: That leads me to my next question, and I’d be especially curious to hear what the fiction writers in the group think about this: Does New York particularly lend itself to fiction?
Kitamura: I will say that stories can sometimes feel bigger in New York. I don’t mean just in terms of fiction but, when I’m in the city, the stories, the dramas, the emotions all seem higher, and I think that lends itself to a certain kind of fiction. But Michael, you should answer — I’ve never written anything set in New York.
Cunningham: And I seem only to write things that are set in New York, primarily because I have lived here for a long time and feel that I can at least speak with a certain degree of authenticity about it. If I lived in Paris, the novels would be set in Paris. Though I suspect it’s more possible for someone like me to live in a Paris in which you’d see very few people who aren’t like you.
Chotiner-Gardner: Michael, can I push back against that a little bit? I agree with that premise by and large. I do think many New Yorkers live in enclaves, though. If you lived in the West Village, where the bookshop I work at is, and never left, I think you'd see a very small stratum of New York. Even though most of us wander the city or try to take in different boroughs or even just ride the subway, some people seem to never do those things.
Cunningham: I totally get it. There’s no denying that there are parts of New York that are sequestered. But I’ll push back on the pushback because I’m speaking to you from the West Village, a block and a half from Washington Square Park. Spend the proverbial 10 minutes in the park and you’ll see a lot of people who aren’t white, boho denizens of the Village. It’s almost a question of which block we’re talking about.
Chotiner-Gardner: Sure, and how much you want to look outside yourself, right? How much you notice and put yourself into other people’s experiences, which is why, to some extent, I think we all come to books.
Kitamura: That’s also a great premise for character building, isn’t it? What they see and don’t see as they move through the city. One thing I think the novel [as a form] does particularly well is capture a relationship between an individual and a larger social context or structure. And I think New York is full of that. You can have singular stories that either engage or don’t with the city around them.
Harris: One thing, though, is that when I was reading, I gravitated more toward novels that presented various enclaves or even characters with slightly blinkered versions of New York. I felt like I trusted that more than I trusted a novel that tried to throw its arms around the whole city and make some overweening statement about it. To me, that’s sort of impossible and, with a couple of exceptions, I don’t really buy New York statement novels. In my experience, you do have these cross-sections of humanity, but you also have a lot of siloed neighborhoods and people who live in a specific version of New York and have managed to make it their own small town.
Guadagnino: Branden, what about you? I know drama is different, but has the idea of setting any of your work in the city felt intimidating or inevitable? Do you think of it as just another place or as something more?
Jacobs-Jenkins: I think every writer has a place in them that, when they think about setting, is actually the font but, with maybe one exception, it hasn’t ever really been New York for me because New York was always where I was trying to get to. I have a greater sense of New York as a literary object that casts a long shadow and as a place of ambition. There’s a Sondheim song from “Company” (1970) called “ Another Hundred People ” that talks about how the city is built on a constant influx of youth, and who stays and who doesn’t. The idea that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere was something I felt palpably in my 20s. I’ve spent time away, too, but my husband and I are now returning to New York for the second time; we’re in a different neighborhood, and it feels like we have to reset our entire relationship with the city. It’s a place that’s hard to think of as home, and even then it’s always a new home when you come back to it.
Harris: I grew up in New York City and then, after college, I moved back here with a roommate at the beginning of the crack epidemic. We lived our little life in our apartment and then, after nine months, he said, “I have to get out of here.” He was from Florida originally. He said, “Every time I walk outside, I feel like there’s a knife at my back.” And I was so embarrassed because I thought that was … kind of normal and just the condition of living here. In fact, a lot of the books I picked have some mood of anxiety or dread or terror that connects to how I felt growing up in New York.
Guadagnino: Were you one of the people who voted for “Rosemary’s Baby” (1967)?
2. “Rosemary’s Baby” by Ira Levin, 1967
Those who have seen Roman Polanski’s 1968 film adaptation of “Rosemary’s Baby” will be familiar with the book’s plot: A newly married couple, Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, move into the Bramford, a storied Manhattan apartment building with a dark past. Soon after, Guy, a struggling actor, lands a plum role on Broadway, while Rosemary, who has become pregnant, begins to suspect their good fortune is the result of their nosy neighbors’ satanic foul play. Ira Levin’s descriptions of the Woodhouse’s new home are as clear as a set designer’s, and he deploys the exhausting, occasionally exhilarating ordeal that is New York apartment hunting to quickly establish the couple’s dynamic: Where Guy is smooth-talking, Rosemary is both dreamy and quietly determined — a combination of traits that make her more than a mere damsel in distress. Subtracting the story’s occultism, what remains is an elegantly simple arc of pregnancy and postpartum distress as a woman realizes that her husband is vain and duplicitous and her doctor indifferent to her complaints, so that finally “she stopped reacting, stopped mentioning pain … stopped referring to pain even in her thoughts.” — R.C.
Kitamura: I thought of “Rosemary’s Baby,” as well. It captures something real about the experience of living in the city.
Harris: I was looking for something scary and I was looking for something about real estate, which is basically the same thing.
Jacobs-Jenkins: I put it out there because it feels like the most interesting novel about theater people to me.
Cunningham: At some point during the conversation, I will feel the need to talk about selection envy. How did I fail to nominate that one?
3. “Another Country” by James Baldwin, 1962
Set primarily in the bohemian New York of the 1950s, James Baldwin’s third novel — published eight years after Brown v. Board of Education, and six before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — documents the grieving friends, family and acquaintances of a Black jazz musician named Rufus, who commits suicide following an affair with a white Southern woman. The country referenced in its title is by turns a literal place — namely America or France, where Baldwin himself famously made a second home — and a metaphorical one, representing the space of human experience and the unformed possibilities that lie beyond American repression. Within this matrix, New York is a city where sex and race are organizing principles: While Black Harlem is where white men purchase sex, the West Village is where they find sanction for gay romance. (“Everybody’s on the A train,” the sexually fluid Rufus tells Vivaldo, an Italian Irish friend who later takes up with Rufus’s sister, Ida. “You take it uptown and I take it downtown.”) Baldwin writes his characters’ many erotic scenes with gravitas, but it’s their conversations that feel most naked and, at times, aspirational for the way they unfold — often full of frustration and anger, but also candid and sustained. Still, he leaves the fate of three of the story’s relationships ambiguous. “Imagine,” Ida says toward the book’s end, that you met the perfect person but “no matter when he arrived would have been too late — because too much had happened by the time you were born, let alone by the time you met each other.” — R.C.
Guadagnino: There were three books with three votes. One was “Rosemary’s Baby.” The second was “Another Country” (1962) by James Baldwin, who made the long list twice, which seems fitting since so many people are revisiting his work as of late.
Kitamura: One thing I was thinking about is how this is a list of the 25 most significant books to us at this particular moment in 2022, so you get a history of New York through these titles, but you also get a portrait of New York and our concerns right now.
Jacobs-Jenkins: I was torn between this and “ Go Tell It on the Mountain ” (1953), but “Another Country” was appealing because it was a queer touchstone for me and a rite of passage for all the literary 20-somethings I knew in New York who identified as queer. There’s also this obsessive desire to articulate the psychological entanglements of racial and sexual grievance in it. It’s a flawed book in some ways, but it’s also a social novel that captures a very romanticized period, almost in a Henry Jamesian way, in Greenwich Village. I think it was No. 1 on my list.
Harris: Mine, too, I think. It’s the New York novel that made the deepest impression on me, and it fits all our definitions of a New York novel. It’s about a specific circle of friends and acquaintances, but it also takes a big vision of the city. It does this formally shocking thing, too, which is kill someone you are pretty sure is going to be the main character after about 80 pages and then have that death reverberate for the hundreds of pages to come. In some ways, finding out that a person you sort of know dies and then going out for coffee with your friends to talk about it is the most New York story of all time. And then you let that person go and move on to your own obsessions and issues.
4. “Desperate Characters” by Paula Fox, 1970
The neighborhoods may change, but “Desperate Characters” (1970) suggests that the angst of gentrification remains remarkably consistent. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War over a handful of days in the late, souring 1960s, the novel follows Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a white couple living on the outskirts of Brooklyn Heights, as they struggle to calibrate exactly how responsible they should feel for the misfortunes of others — most immediately their less affluent neighbors, who are being steadily displaced by newcomers like themselves. The story’s catalyst, however, is not a human but a stray cat Sophie has been feeding that, on the day the novel begins, rears up and bites her, lending a brief sense of urgency to her “edgeless and spongy” existence. While the metaphor of social discord as a festering, potentially rabid wound might sound a bit easy, Paula Fox’s narrative feels singular, particularly in the way it captures, through effervescently intelligent dialogue, the tenuousness of intimate relationships. How, the author asks, does our idea of the public good reflect — or influence — our personal sensibilities? The book, trading in irony rather than righteousness, gives no pretense of an answer. When a character tells Sophie she is “drearily enslaved by introspection,” one might read the accusation as an acknowledgment of the novel’s own limitations. — R.C.
Guadagnino: OK, now we’re going to Brooklyn with “Desperate Characters.”
Jacobs-Jenkins: I think Paula Fox is great, and I wanted Brooklyn representation. This is just the borough I’ve lived in the most, and she feels like the borough laureate of that period. She has a lot of interesting books, but this is the one everyone probably knows the best and that captures that Boerum Hill moment maybe the cleanest, at least until Jonathan Lethem comes along.
Harris: Also, I think there’s a version of New York where people almost never leave their apartments and aren’t that interested in the city, and she’s on that list for me. There’s something hermetic about her work that feels true to New York.
5. “The Fortress of Solitude” by Jonathan Lethem, 2003
Dylan Ebdus, the only white boy on his block in Gowanus, and recent transplant Mingus Rude bond over their ambivalent relationships with their parents and a shared love of comics, bucking the neighborhood’s unspoken rules of engagement. The first half of the book records their fast friendship, written with the bubbly charm of a soda-fueled youth. But clouds loom on the horizon. Even when Dylan and Mingus discover a magic ring that they believe allows them to fly, they cannot alter the veering paths their lives take. Dylan goes off to Stuyvesant High School and then to college in Vermont, while Mingus gets caught up in a scheme to sell drugs and ultimately goes to prison for a tragic shooting. Dylan narrates much of the second half of the book, the section devoted to adulthood. It’s a bold ploy by Jonathan Lethem, and a polarizing one. Prematurely jaded by life and full of shame for having abandoned Mingus, Dylan’s not nearly as fun at 35, but the letdown is intentional. When he returns to his old and now rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, he hardly recognizes the place, just as he can’t seem to make sense of his role in the world. He visits Mingus in prison and tries to give him the ring, which once upon a time let them soar. Now it simply confers invisibility, something that Mingus, who rejects Dylan’s offer, knows all too well. Lethem had written about his hometown borough before — “Motherless Brooklyn” (1999) preceded this novel — but never with quite so much candor, flair or heart. — Miguel Morales
Harris: Regarding Lethem, Branden and I both picked “The Fortress of Solitude” (2003). I love that novel, and I love the musical it became. And then he also picked “Chronic City” (2009).
Jacobs-Jenkins: I could go either way: Whereas “Chronic City” is a weirder book that’s actually about New York, “The Fortress of Solitude” is a love letter to a kind of Brooklyn novel. I find it very moving, and I’ve come across people who claim to appear as fictionalized versions of themselves in it, so it feels like there’s roman à clef energy happening within that social pocket he’s writing about.
6. “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, 1952
It is not an exaggeration to say that this debut novel altered the course of American literature — in part because Ralph Ellison rejected outright social realism, instead embracing a blend of styles and registers that include the picaresque, the grotesque and the dreamlike. “The aim is a realism dilated to deal with the almost surreal state of our everyday American life,” he wrote in response to readers of an early excerpt from the book. “Invisible Man” (1952) tracks the pilgrimage an unnamed narrator — a Black American — takes across the country’s racist underbelly. He begins in the Deep South, with all its attendant humiliations, then joins the Great Migration by moving to Harlem, where he comes across an old couple getting evicted and argues with the authorities on their behalf. His gift for oration makes him useful to the Brotherhood (a stand-in for the Communist Party, with which Ellison grew disenchanted during World War II), but just as the narrator’s profile begins to rise, making it harder for the Brotherhood to order him around, he’s pushed aside. Soon after, he sees an old friend, Brother Clifton, get shot and killed for having the nerve to assert his humanity to a police officer. When the unrest comes, as it must, chaos fully ignites the streets of Harlem. The narrator manages to escape underground, safe but unseen, “outside of history.” Roughly two years after “Invisible Man” was published, Ellison began his hotly anticipated follow-up, a novel he’d never complete. But one book was all it took to show that a story didn’t need to be only a protest, a paean to Black lives or a madcap experiment with form — it could be all of these and more. — M.M.
Guadagnino: I reread “Invisible Man” last year and was struck by how scarily familiar the world it portrayed felt. The writing, by contrast, seemed contemporary in an impressive way.
Kitamura: New York is 100 percent integral to the book, so it’s a great New York novel, but it’s also just a great American novel. For me, calling it “a great New York novel” seems to diminish what the book does.
Jacobs-Jenkins: I resisted including it for the reason Katie mentions, that to say this is a New York novel somehow misses why the book is good. If someone asked me for a New York novel, I wouldn’t hand them “Invisible Man.” I don’t think it would even help them understand Harlem and the politics of the time. The passages that really get me are when he leaves for college — that kind of odyssey feeling. That said, I’m not going to stand in the way of Ralph Ellison’s inclusion.
Kitamura: We do tend to think of the New York novel as operating in isolation, but in New York, everybody comes from somewhere else, kind of, and the idea that those histories and the national history are also baked into the city is something that doesn’t always come through.
Cunningham: I was struck, as I went through the long list, by how often New York is a destination and how many of the books New York could claim are actually about getting to New York or leaving New York. It’s like some kind of “Blade Runner” Oz. Dorothy and her crew don’t want to live in Oz. It’s about getting to Oz so they can get home again. I lost count of the number of novels where people eventually move to someplace like California.
Kitamura: Who among us hasn’t wondered about that?
Cunningham: Yeah. New York as a fantasy — as a place where things will be more interesting or better in some way, as opposed to New York as a place where your family has been for generations.
Chotiner-Gardner: And New York as a proving ground, as a place you define yourself against or in relation to and then either move on from and take what you learned there elsewhere or feel ground down by or whatever. It’s a place you come to and a place you leave, versus a place you stay and inhabit and spend a life in.
Harris: One of the novels I read when I was looking for books for this list is by Betty Smith, the woman who wrote “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1943), called “Tomorrow Will Be Better” (1948). I didn’t like it enough to include it, but it’s definitely one of the best New York novel titles ever.
Chotiner-Gardner: Did many of you read new novels in an attempt to prepare for this? I almost exclusively pulled on what I already had read and knew but, Mark, I appreciate that you went out and did new work here.
Harris: Mostly it was what I knew, but I read a couple out of shame. I tried to do some catch-up work because I knew I’d be with actual literary people. I hadn’t read “Manhattan Transfer” (1925). That was my big discovery as a result of the long list.
7. “Manhattan Transfer” by John Dos Passos, 1925
Following the success of his second novel, “Three Soldiers” (1921), a hard-bitten work of realism partly inspired by his experiences as an ambulance driver in World War I, John Dos Passos seemingly became disenchanted with the constraints of traditional narrative. Any book aiming to portray the teeming masses of New York City in all their muck and glory needed, he must have reasoned, to boldly break with tried-and-true storytelling. As such, his fourth novel forgoes conventional plot structure, pacing and characterization, instead dipping in and out of the lives of dozens of the city’s locals: immigrants, day laborers, newly minted millionaires; a killer, a dishwasher, an actress. Their lives are entwined with the fortunes and pitfalls of the metropolis and — given bits and pieces of their encounters — readers play the role of straphangers, overhearing other people’s intimacies as they course through the city. Tracking how much the city changed from the end of the Gilded Age to the Roaring Twenties, Dos Passos reveals the grubby underside of industrialization. One moment a seamstress daydreams, the next the tulle she’s sewing catches fire, and her with it. “Manhattan Transfer” paved the way for scores of other gritty New York novels, but its blend of the poetic and the profane, not all of which has aged well, remains a product of its time. — M.M.
Kitamura: Did you like it?
Harris: Yeah, although it’s the kind of New York novel I generally don’t like: This big yelling guy who decided, “I can write in the voice of an Irishman. And I can write in the voice of …” It contains all these dialects and accents, and every single one of them is terrible. It reeks of “I can own this entire city through my prose.” And yet I ended up being moved by Dos Passos’s desire to get at all of New York — there’s even gay stuff in it, and it’s from 1925. Even though it would be canceled in nine different ways today. It would be a “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) situation. Who killed it? Everybody.
Kitamura: I haven’t read it in a very long time. We haven't got that much from the 1920s and ’30s, so partially I picked it for that reason. I do think it has a lot of problems, but it feels to me like a novel that’s been very influential. You can see shades of it even in something like “American Psycho” (1991) and Don DeLillo. In that sense, it’s been significant. And being significant isn’t the same as being the best, is it?
8. “Passing” by Nella Larsen, 1929
To what extent is race in America, particularly Blackness, a choice, and to what extent is it an inheritance? What are its various obligations, privileges and betrayals? “Passing” (1929), a classic of the Harlem Renaissance, ripples with the complexity of such questions. Set mostly in 1920s Manhattan, the novella follows Irene Redfield, a light-skinned Black society wife, as she reconnects with Clare Kendry, an acquaintance from childhood who has embraced her “white-passing” features, severing nearly all ties to her past and taking a wealthy white husband. Their friendship, at first halting, elicits in Irene an overwhelming gamut of emotions: rage, jealousy and, the critic Salamishah Tillet has argued, sublimated desire. At one point, the book alludes to Rhinelander v. Rhinelander, the 1925 divorce trial in which a white man accused his wife of obscuring her mixed-race ancestry. Though that grotesque case provided a historical precedent for the plot of “Passing,” Nella Larsen’s story stands on its own as an unsettling portrait of two women trying to disentangle the sources of their entrapment. — R.C.
Harris: I thought there would be more ’20s novels, actually. That was one thing I liked about “Passing,” other than the fact that I really loved it.
9. “The Street” by Ann Petry, 1946
More than 70 years after it became an instant publishing sensation and the first novel by a Black woman to sell more than a million copies, this page-turner is rightfully receiving a new wave of attention. Lutie Johnson, a single mother hellbent on providing a better life for her 8-year-old son, moves into a tiny Harlem apartment on 116th Street, a temporary arrangement that gets her “just one step farther up on the ladder of success,” though she’s hemmed in by a handsy super, a neighbor who’s a madam, a son who unwittingly runs afoul of the law and, of course, various power structures. The story illuminates how, absent better alternatives, those down on their luck can fall into vice and violence, but there’s nothing preachy about it. Each character is sharply drawn and, even when acting badly, aches with humanity. Lutie’s aforementioned neighbor Mrs. Hedges, for instance, a busybody, a shrewd entrepreneur and a one-woman neighborhood watch — essentially the block’s Madame Defarge — saves her from getting assaulted, even though she wants nothing more than to pimp Lutie out to their white landlord. Despite every setback, racist put-down and disgusting come-on, Lutie never wavers in her quest, but such faith in the American dream leads to disaster: As Ann Petry writes, Lutie’s son “didn’t have the ghost of a chance on that street. The best you could give him wasn’t good enough.” — M.M.
Jacobs-Jenkins: What’s interesting is how represented Harlem is in the literary world. Not to be this person, but I sort of lumped all these Harlem novels together in my brain and tried to think about which were essential. I just watched the “Passing” movie (2021), but my heart went straight to Ann Petry. I felt challenged by the picture of Harlem she painted, and there’s something remarkable about “The Street” (1946) being a novel from the ’40s that’s almost like a Black feminist text.
Harris: I wasn’t thinking of “Passing” as a Harlem novel, although obviously it is, so much as of how explicitly it’s about different New Yorks and how being able to move unrestricted from one to the other is a privilege and can pose huge dangers and challenges. It’s about that risky shuttling, an essentially New York thing. As for “The Street,” that book has a great sense of the city’s geography. Almost more than in any other novel on this list, you can really feel the streets, how long it takes to walk somewhere, how long it takes to ride the subway there, what it means to drive out of New York and back into it, what it means to round the corner and suddenly feel like you’re on a better block.
Kitamura: It’s a great novel about public transportation.
Chotiner-Gardner: We need one of those on the list.
10. “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” by Michael Chabon, 2000
Michael Chabon took the golden age of comic books, beginning in 1939, as the backdrop for his exuberant third novel, which consists of a delightful series of improbable escapes. For one, the 19-year-old Josef Kavalier flees the Czech capital six months into the Nazi occupation of the city by stowing away in a coffin carrying the Golem of Prague — a legendary protector of the Jewish people, said to have been molded from clay in the 16th century and to have come to life in times of crisis — to safety and takes refuge with his cousin Sam’s family in Brooklyn. With Hitler marching on Europe, Joe and Sam channel their anger, fear and helplessness into developing the comic book superhero the Escapist. Soon, though, they realize a hard truth about the creative life: Their work lacks the power to change the course of current events. When the ship carrying Joe’s brother to America is sunk by a German U-boat days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Joe enlists to seek revenge and later goes into hiding. Sam, for his part, has fallen for the handsome Tracy Bacon, the radio voice of the Escapist, at a time when gay men are routinely rounded up and thrown in jail. Eventually, the cousins reunite at the top of the Empire State Building and begin the work of revealing their secret selves to their loved ones. — M.M.
Guadagnino: A friend of mine reread “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” (2000) recently and said that, for him, something was lost now that comics have practically taken over all of culture.
Harris: I was a comic book kid, so I loved it on that level. But also, when we started this, I thought I would find more Jewish novels than I did and that there’d be more instances of those midcentury guys who used to battle it out in Esquire taking big swings at New York, but then you think about it and John Updike was actually in Pennsylvania and Philip Roth was in New Jersey. John Cheever took the train in, but his work was mostly about those bedroom communities. And Saul Bellow was in Chicago. It’s surprising that Chabon’s novel, which to me captures that essence and is maybe my favorite Jewish novel, didn’t come until 30 or 40 years after them.
11. “The Golden Spur” by Dawn Powell, 1962
“The Golden Spur” (1962), Dawn Powell’s last published novel, was one of several by the writer reissued in the 1990s after a handful of admirers, including Gore Vidal, championed her work’s resurrection. The book’s premise is simple: A young man, Jonathan Jaimison, moves from Ohio to New York City in the 1950s to find his father, aided only by the cryptic diary entries of his deceased mother, Connie, who spent a brief but, it would seem, romantically prolific time in the city some 26 years earlier. Retracing Connie’s steps leads Jonathan to several of her old acquaintances and to her former haunt, a bar called the Golden Spur, once popular among a downtown literary set and now filled with artists and their groupies. Powell manages to give each character an arc, creating a picaresque, occasionally suggestive novel that satirizes the very concept of a social or professional scene and, more subtly, underscores the stealth women have often needed if they want to have a little fun. Undergirding its humor is sympathy for those trying to find a sense of relevance in a city where it’s easy, as one character fears, to feel “as if all this were building up to the real opera, in which there was no part for her.” — R.C.
Cunningham: One of the books I was wondering why I didn’t nominate was “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1958). Is that of interest to anyone?
Harris: It’s definitely significant, but it’s so nasty and sour. I much prefer “The Golden Spur,” where you also have that vibe of going from party to party in 1950s New York. That feeling of the city as this endless, slightly alien social world of house parties, which I love. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is probably my least favorite of that category.
12. “Open City” by Teju Cole, 2011
The ubiquitous figure of the flâneur — a passive, strolling observer of urbanity — finds renewed depth in “Open City” (2011), whose narrator, Julius, a psychiatry fellow living in Morningside Heights, wanders New York as a form of therapy. What he describes while walking is often not what he sees but what has disappeared. Looking out on the construction site where the twin towers once stood, he contemplates the many communities that dwelled there previously, deeming the area “a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased, rewritten.” Landmarks, too, he examines for what they fail to represent: Ellis Island, “the focus of so many myths,” he points out, can hardly speak to the memory, or offspring, of Africans imported to America’s shores as captives. This last point is of personal import to Julius, who emigrated from Nigeria and finds himself the object alternately of white characters’ racism and Black characters’ presumptions of brotherhood. (“I’m African just like you,” chides a cabdriver when Julius fails to greet him.) Cerebral and capacious, Teju Cole’s novel asks what it means to roam freely. — R.C.
Kitamura: In thinking about how people move through New York, I was also thinking about “Open City,” in which the protagonist, unlike some of those characters in the ’20s, can just walk everywhere. It makes you think about what kind of city is revealed to us based on where we cannot go, and this idea of public space and how it operates within a New York novel. And there’s a sense of levering open the city from a very contemporary perch to access its history. I felt like that character was a bit of an archaeologist. I do think it’s an influential novel. When I’m teaching, it comes up again and again as something my students would like to be able to do.
Cunningham: Do we want to go back to this question of whether it’s reductive to call certain great novels New York novels? Do certain books not make the list because they’re so much more than New York novels?
Chotiner-Gardner: It’s interesting, I don’t see those as necessarily being in conflict. To me, the New York novel is a subset of the great American novel, and those two things can exist in parallel and actually in conversation.
Guadagnino: Miriam, I’m curious whether, at the store, the New York novel is a real category. Is it something that people often ask for recommendations on?
Chotiner-Gardner: It certainly is. I’d say we get asked for our favorite books about New York a few times a month, mostly by tourists who want to go home with a quintessential New York book. We have rotating staff-favorite tables around certain themes, and we’ve integrated books about New York into that. They always sell incredibly well, and I think that’s when some New Yorkers come to them, when you call them out.
Jacobs-Jenkins: Now, we’re a group of writers whose conversation is devolving into semantics, but I want to tap into something Katie said about the idea of significance. It’s worth thinking about what that means for some of these. In some ways, “Open City” doesn’t exist without “Invisible Man,” so does that mean I should defer to “Invisible Man” as the forefather of that? I think I’m also having a reaction to all of these stories of Black lives set in Harlem, which feel like a disservice to the city itself. I’m wanting to expand the representation of diaspora life in New York, and now I’m suddenly like, “Where’s Jacqueline Woodson? Where’s Paule Marshall?” Marshall’s “Brown Girl, Brownstones” (1959) is about a Barbadian family living in Brooklyn. I would say it’s a very good book.
13. “Brown Girl, Brownstones” by Paule Marshall, 1959
By the time Paule Marshall decided to channel her childhood into her first novel, the white literary establishment had developed certain tastes for fiction by Black women: These books should be set in Harlem, concerned with the lives of African Americans and plugged into the issues of the day: poverty, crime and so forth. But much like Selina Boyce, the book’s heroine, “Brown Girl, Brownstones” defies expectations. The action takes place in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the Boyces are Barbadian immigrants and, like many other West Indies expatriates, they are upwardly mobile, stretching for that final rung on the ladder to middle-class respectability: homeownership. Silla Boyce, the driven matriarch, pours all her resources into this goal. When her husband inherits a plot of land in Barbados, she sees a chance to make a down payment on a brownstone; he sees a fresh start in their homeland. Amid this conflict, Selina, torn between the two possibilities her parents represent — assimilation or repatriation, a choice that reflects both a burden and a birthright — grows older and wiser. Near the end of the novel, once she’s decided for herself what she wants from life, her mother says, “You was always too much woman for me anyway, soul. And my own mother did say two head-bulls can’t reign in a flock.” While clearly hurt, Silla cannot hide her pride for her daughter, now a woman with a will of her own. — M.M.
14. “Bright Lights, Big City” by Jay McInerney, 1984
Some novels chart their characters’ descent into debauchery; others make it their starting premise. “Bright Lights, Big City” (1984) belongs, thrillingly, to the second category, opening on its young unnamed narrator at a Manhattan nightclub as he searches for yet another line of cocaine — “Bolivian Marching Powder,” he calls it — knowing all the while that he has nothing left to extract from the night but “gratuitous damage and the palsy of unraveled nerve endings.” Such funny, often incisive self-awareness doesn’t save the narrator — a fact checker at a magazine that sounds an awful lot like The New Yorker — from an accrual of bad decisions, but it does propel the story forward with the speed of a stimulant. Told in the rare second person and published during Ronald Reagan’s first presidential term, Jay McInerney’s touchstone novel immortalized the louche glamour to which a certain 1980s New York set — the sort of people who might, for example, opine with a sense of authority on the quality of a revamped Vanity Fair — aspired. (“It’s the Abstract Expressionist approach to publishing,” says an ad man. “Throw ink at paper. Hope for a pattern to emerge.”) But much like the era’s most iconic New York institutions (the Odeon, Raoul’s), a number of which it features, the book remains substantially appealing — not just for its vibrancy but for its ultimate tenderness, which feels, weirdly, like wisdom. — R.C.
Harris: There’s also interesting, debatable New York cocaine/downtown ’80s stuff that we have to choose from.
Jacobs-Jenkins: That’s really one of those cornerstones. It’s either ’80s coke books or Harlem in the ’20s.
Harris: We could make the case for “Bright Lights, Big City.” It does a pretty great job of conveying: “I’ve come to New York. I want this to be the city of my dreams. I want to make it here. And I’m about to crash into a set of really ugly realities.”
Jacobs-Jenkins: I would co-sign on “Bright Lights.” As someone who worked at a magazine, I think of it as one of those beaconlike culture books that everyone in publishing has probably read at some point. And it’s the most successful second-person book I can think of, honestly. It’s really fun.
15. “Speedboat” by Renata Adler, 1976
“There doesn’t seem to be a spirit of the times,” says Jen Fain, the book’s narrator, about the 1970s. Indeed, a deep respect for incoherence animates “Speedboat” (1976), which eschews a conventional plot in favor of nonchronological and episodic storytelling. Jen’s job as a reporter for The Standard Evening Sun, a fictional New York tabloid, lends itself to this approach, with the character mingling observations from her own life with those of friends and strangers. Some are funny. (On the paper’s obituary writer: “He gets things wrong, but he gets them in detail.”) Some, ruthlessly honest. (She admits, among other things, to “racism and prudishness … and reading over people’s shoulders.”) Others are provocatively aphoristic. (“‘All acts are acts of aggression …,’ the professor said. ‘The point is to give them other properties.’”) Many are no longer than a page. Taken together, these perspective-shifting passages recreate the cacophony not just of New York City but of modern life more generally, by the ever-growing glut of information and secondhand experience the average person must metabolize. Renata Adler’s fragmented narrative demonstrates that a sustained attempt to do so democratically can be both pleasurable and perilous. “The point changes and goes out,” Jen says. “You cannot be forever watching for the point, or you lose the simplest thing: being a major character in your own life.” — R.C.
Jacobs-Jenkins: I put this down because I wanted a counterpoint to “Bright Lights, Big City,” which I figured would wind up on the list. Somehow, it’s the other half’s experience of that speedy part of New York. It’s another one of those books people passed around when I was an editorial assistant, and it felt like a discovery. It’s a delicious read, and not out of place in this moment of autofiction, although this was before we had a word for it. I’m a sucker for these weird, ’70s what-the-heck-is-this kind of books.
Cunningham: It’s also interesting in that it’s based in New York and yet we keep leaving New York, do you know what I mean? Almost all the folks we’re talking about are going toward New York, and this is uniquely about Renata Adler being in New York, going away from it and then always coming back to it, which I love. It felt like a different thing, where the city is the given, and then you travel and find the strangeness elsewhere.
Harris: I kept wanting there to be a Joan Didionesque New York book. It does seem like one of these choices should be fragmentary and jagged and alienated and nervous in the way that “Speedboat” is. It just feels like a great flavor of New York book that we don’t have represented anywhere else.
Chotiner-Gardner: Can I ask one more question about significance? I chose books that were significant to me and that I thought were great fiction. Did anybody pick books they didn’t like but thought were significant?
Harris: I didn’t put things on my list that I didn’t like. I mean, I’m certainly not going to make the case for “Rosemary’s Baby” as a great piece of literature, but I will make the case for it as a great piece of plotting, and I really like it.
Jacobs-Jenkins: I put things I would be excited to see on a list like this, not necessarily that I would die to read again. Part of the prompt was to provoke conversation, and some of mine were about challenging the expectations I imagine the average reader has coming to a list like this. But I still feel like I could defend every choice I made.
Cunningham: I made a couple of nominations I will not be defending.
16. “The Flamethrowers” by Rachel Kushner, 2013
We never learn the name of the young woman who narrates much of Rachel Kushner’s second novel, but we do know she’s from Reno. That becomes her nickname, as well as a piece of conversational armor and a persona to adopt, after she moves to 1970s New York City and falls in with a loose group of downtown artists and those who love them. A novice filmmaker, she belongs uneasily to both categories, having shacked up with Sandro Valera, an older, far more established conceptual artist and reluctant member of the rich and influential Valera family. The relationship is tested when they visit Sandro’s family estate in Italy on the eve of the student movement of 1977. There, Reno sees for herself what sort of people the Valeras are. “I was the one shopping for experience,” she later says of a different disappointment, summing up her tendency to throw herself in harm’s way, though to call “The Flamethrowers” (2013) a coming-of-age novel would be to slight the writing’s range and ambition. Kushner uncorks a tale that spans more than half a century and moves as quickly as Reno rides her motorcycle across the salt flats of Utah, briefly becoming the fastest woman in the world. But experience is costly; she totals her motorcycle on her first attempt, badly injuring herself in the process. Similarly, Sandro partly owes his start as an artist to his family’s riches, built on the backs of indentured servants tapping Brazilian rubber trees. Those tensions, between discovery and destruction, invention and exploitation, power “The Flamethrowers” to its unsettling conclusion. — M.M.
Kitamura: I could get behind “The Flamethrowers.”
Chotiner-Gardner: I love that book. It’s partly set in Italy, of course, but I thought the New York sections depicting the art world in the ’70s were pretty incredible. And just her prose on the page.
Jacobs-Jenkins: I felt similarly. I didn’t include it because of the Italy sections, which to me feel like such a huge part of the drive, but I mean, I’m a geek for that performance-art, downtown-scene-adjacent kind of portrait.
Kitamura: Those sections on the art world are done incredibly well. It’s hard to come up with an inventive fictional body of artwork that actually holds water, and she totally does it.
17. “Jazz” by Toni Morrison, 1992
There was no slowdown for Toni Morrison after the triumph of “Beloved” (1987). Her subsequent book, “Jazz” (1992), takes its cues from just that, riffing on one fateful day in 1926. Joe Trace shoots his lover, Dorcas, an event that would come at the climax of most novels but that Morrison boldly puts at the start of hers. She then revisits the incident and its echoes from multiple perspectives, treating her novel’s characters like players on a stage who are each gearing up for a big solo. It’s a democratic approach to the Jazz Age; you won’t find the Cotton Club, Langston Hughes or other leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance in these pages. Morrison takes an era steeped in nostalgia and makes it new, writing of lives tightly circumscribed by daily routine — “You can’t get off the track a City lays for you” — of regular folk like Trace and his wife, Violet, who arrived in New York so full of hope and promise. Their desires, frustrations and obsessions mirror those of the narrator, who bobs and weaves around the story, passing judgment on Joe’s crime of passion, the tragedy of Dorcas’s curtailed life, the rage that grips Violet and the unlikely path to reconciliation in store for husband and wife. Is this voice, so hungry to discover the forces that bond and split people apart, Morrison herself or some disembodied spirit of the metropolis responding to the want and hurt filling its streets? Whoever it is, it sets the novel’s pace, and Harlem’s music swells when it speaks. — M.M.
Jacobs-Jenkins: I felt compelled to try to get Toni Morrison on the list, and “Jazz” is one of my favorite novels of hers. People seem either to love it or to hate it, but I think it’s such a magical, lyrical portrait of Harlem, written extemporaneously. She really used the scholarship that was amassed about the social world of Harlem retroactively to flesh out the literary imagination of that space. It’s one of the most influential things I’ve ever read, and I’m constantly pushing it on people.
18. “Ragtime” by E. L. Doctorow, 1975
It’s hard to summarize “Ragtime” (1975), which interweaves legendarily real characters (the escape artist Harry Houdini, the anarchist Emma Goldman, the model and chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, the financier J. P. Morgan) with purely fictional ones (among them a Westchester family that owns a fireworks business, a destitute immigrant peddler and his daughter, a young mother driven to desperation and the Harlem pianist who woos her). It’s more illuminating, perhaps, to consider the musical genre from which the book takes its title: Originated by Black musicians and popular in the first two decades of the 20th century, ragtime used syncopation to create a sense of swinging looseness in its listeners. E. L. Doctorow’s novel, set between 1902 and the twilight of the 1910s, does something similar — emphasizing the mundane next to the supposedly major, so that a captain of industry becomes a minor character compared to a young boy who understands intuitively that “the forms of life were volatile and that everything in the world could as easily be something else.” Where better to illustrate this point than New York City and its environs, where lives regularly intersect in the most improbable of ways? — R.C.
Jacobs-Jenkins: This was one of my Covid rereads, and it’s an amazing book. It’s one of these weird miracle books from the ’70s that sort of came out of nowhere. I love the way it incorporates real history and gives an interesting social panorama of that era in New York. Granted, a lot of it is set in New Rochelle — the rest of it basically jumps around Manhattan — but I love the idea of a book that doesn’t pretend that everyone who works in New York lives in New York.
Harris: It’s an incredibly ambitious novel, but also a really honorable novel. He wants to explore, through this amazing technique of combining fictional characters and real people, which I don’t think was quite the slam dunk in 1975 that it’s become since, how New York became the city that you love, and how it became the city you hate. Both things are in there — the double helix of early New York DNA. He was writing about a New York of the 1970s through the lens of a much earlier New York, but even now, almost 50 years after he wrote it, there’s a huge amount to draw from the book about the city. I think it’s a tribute to the book that Branden reread it during Covid and still found it resonant.
19. “Someone” by Alice McDermott, 2013
For a relatively quick read, “Someone” (2013) boasts a remarkably high body count. Its narrator, Marie, comes of age between the World Wars, then spends her 20s working as a hostess at the local funeral parlor. There, she acts as a “consoling angel,” bearing witness to the dead and those who mourn them, many of whom she knows from the Irish enclave in Brooklyn where she lives with her brother and their widowed mother. The job — and the era’s harsh realities — acquaint her intimately with the countless, sometimes freakish ways a life can end. But it also tunes Marie’s narrative in to the small, sweet ways it can be lived, and the beauty of interdependence sometimes created simply by proximity. Following her elliptically through marriage, motherhood and old age, the book evinces little “good old days” nostalgia, though it does serve as a quiet meditation on the value of community and mutual care, which often takes the form of nothing more or less than sustained attention. “Someone” is precisely this, a fictional record of noticing, told in the mold of the matriarchs from Marie’s youth who gathered after funerals to discuss the deceased. “There was nothing heavy or morbid about these conversations,” Alice McDermott writes, but “rather an eager, industrious, even entertaining, pleasantness in all of it.” — R.C.
Chotiner-Gardner: This is a quiet novel, not a loud or verbose “I am here, here is New York” type of novel. It’s about the daily life of Irish American families in Brooklyn. I wanted some Brooklyn representation, and its different tonal register appealed to me.
Cunningham: I love Alice McDermott, and I love this book. I would certainly vote for it.
20. “Underworld” by Don DeLillo, 1997
With his 12th novel, which arrived on the heels of “White Noise” (1985), “Libra” (1988) and “Mao II” (1991), Don DeLillo wove together two seemingly disparate subjects: baseball and nuclear annihilation. “Underworld” (1997) begins with an account of the Shot Heard Round the World: the home run that led the New York Giants to win the National League pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers on Oct. 3, 1951, the same day the United States revealed its knowledge of a second atomic test by the Soviets, with all the collective dread that provoked. DeLillo takes a promiscuous approach to history, placing fictional Everymen alongside real-life bigwigs like Frank Sinatra and J. Edgar Hoover. And instead of charting the Cold War chronologically, he leaps ahead 40 years and winds his way among the years, repeatedly returning, with the zeal of a collector, to the echoes of the ballgame. The epochal and the ephemeral carry equal weight in this book — in which a waste-management executive named Nick Shay is compelled to purchase the game-winning ball — and DeLillo exhibits his gift for making existential trepidation very funny: “Things were simpler then. Clothing was layered, life was not.” At the same time, he put more of himself into this novel than ever before, revisiting his Bronx childhood with vivid scenes that crisscross the borough. He also includes a spellbinding dive into the blackout of ’65, when New Yorkers packed the streets to rubberneck together, terrified that the lights might stay out for good. — M.M.
Kitamura: I put DeLillo because it felt odd not to have him on the list. And I know “Underworld” isn't fully a New York novel, so I thought of “Great Jones Street” (1973) and “Cosmopolis” (2003), but then I just went for “Underworld” because, in thinking about significance, I see people trying to replicate that opening again and again.
Cunningham: I underwent a similar internal debate about it. I love Don DeLillo. How could there not be a Don DeLillo novel? I thought about “Cosmopolis,” but it’s not his best.
21. “The New York Trilogy” by Paul Auster, 1987
This triptych of novels published as one volume wears the genre of detective fiction like a shabby coat, trying it on, flipping it inside out and turning the pockets loose for spare change. Paul Auster was a lesser-known author when the book came out, though he’d previously written a well-received memoir, “The Invention of Solitude” (1982), and “Squeeze Play” (1982), a crime novel he composed under his pen name, Paul Benjamin. The subject matter doesn’t scream best seller: All three books in the trilogy center on failed writers who are also failing to solve mysteries. No matter. The plots twist, the dialogue snaps and the humor stings. Auster’s obsessions with identity, language, ambiguity and defeat are revealed on the long, tailing walks through the metropolis that give his labyrinthine novels their switchback shape, and New York looms throughout like a modern-day Babel. The suspect at the heart of the first novel, “City of Glass,” sums up the setting and mood when he says, “I have come to New York because it is the most forlorn of places, the most abject … The broken people, the broken things, the broken thoughts. The whole city is a junk heap. It suits my purpose admirably.” — M.M.
Harris: I think I have a blind spot when it comes to DeLillo, though mainly [it’s because] “Underworld” didn’t occur to me as a New York novel. But I was upset with myself for not picking Paul Auster. If I’d thought of him, I totally would’ve suggested him.
Kitamura: Lazily, I guess, I thought somebody else would definitely say Paul Auster …
Jacobs-Jenkins: Let’s add it.
22. “Homeland Elegies” by Ayad Akhtar, 2020
To convey how much our country’s day-to-day existence seems to have turned into one long season of reality TV, Ayad Akhtar wrote about his life with the flash and swagger of an episode of “The Apprentice.” His book is narrated by one Ayad Akhtar, who, like the author, is a successful playwright. The subject matter, too, is quintessentially American: Readers are presented with a succession of rags-to-riches stories, starting with that of Akhtar’s father, a Pakistani immigrant and cardiologist who claims to have treated Trump himself. “I was a doctor to kings!” he says. Is this true or is it bluster? As with the president the father openly admires, fact-checking him misses the point. The novel is filled with characters who are quick to justify the cozy lives they’ve made for themselves, and kudos to the author for rubbing our faces in the glam lifestyle his narrator gets a taste of, because there’s nothing more American than envying what other people possess. Yet the idea that a brown immigrant, or the son of one, can learn or earn his way into mainstream acceptance is tested throughout — nowhere more so than in a scene in which Akhtar recounts traveling downtown on Sept. 11 to look for his cousin, a student at N.Y.U., only to encounter Islamophobia while standing in line, trying to give blood at the old St. Vincent’s hospital in the West Village. When father and son meet in person for a final time, the tropes of reality TV remain — there is a delicious shouting match at the swanky Manhattan restaurant Eleven Madison Park. Bile is spewed, but the bond between the men remains: “If only I could hold him closer … hold him longer,” thinks the narrator, “maybe what was broken in both of us would finally be mended.” — M.M.
Chotiner-Gardner: “Homeland Elegies” (2020) is a raucous novel about being a Muslim American in New York after Sept. 11 — partly. It’s also about the protagonist’s relationship with his father, who’s a Trump supporter. And it’s a book that very much blends fact and fiction. It has the appearance of being based on the writer’s own life, but you don’t know how much really happened and how much of it is fiction. You go down a Google wormhole trying to figure out what’s true and what’s not. But it has a lot of interesting things to say about the falseness and the greed of the American dream, and also about what it is to be someone who’s searching for that dream but is deliberately shut out of it because of their race or ethnicity or religion. I’m curious if anyone has read this one?
Jacobs-Jenkins: I read the galley, so I don’t know what they changed, but it’s very much in keeping with Ayad’s body of work. For me, its very specific autofictional streak upstages any sense of it as a New York novel, but he does speak from a unique position and has bold ideas about form.
23. “Push” by Sapphire, 1996
Sometimes a voice rings out with such urgency that it forces the literary world to sit up and take notice — Sapphire hadn’t even finished writing “Push” (1996) when her agent started a bidding war for the novel, which eventually sold for half a million dollars. The book’s protagonist is an overweight, illiterate 16-year-old girl who’s carrying her father’s child (for the second time) and who grabs the reader’s attention and never lets it go. For as long as she can remember, Precious has been abused by both her parents and cast off by a system that sees her as too much to deal with and just another mouth to feed. Her remarkable transformation begins when she enrolls in an alternative school, where she finds an adult who finally nurtures her talents and a group of young women who support her efforts to tell her own story. “I think I might be the solution,” says Precious, who ends up crafting moving lines of poetry — “A bird is my heart,” she writes. Sapphire, who got her start as a slam poet, makes a point of including Precious’s verse from her time in the literacy program at the school. These lines always ring true, and the poem the book ends on is simply haunting. The subject matter here is grim, yes, but Sapphire never leaves the reader, or Precious, entirely without hope, a notable achievement for a writer who’s sworn off happy endings. — M.M.
Jacobs-Jenkins: I nominated “Push” partly because I thought it would be an interesting foil for the literary romance that other novels had built up for Harlem at the top of the century. I think this book forces us to confront the reality of New York as a site of a very real and a very different kind of poverty and Black disenfranchisement, as experienced during the Reagan years. It was incredibly significant and really opened up readership: It was excerpted in The New Yorker, but it was also one of the books that’s basically responsible for the invention of the urban fiction shelf.
Cunningham: I think “Push” is a great one. I’m very much in favor of it.
24. “Watchmen” by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, 1986-87
To make “a superhero ‘Moby-Dick,’” as he set out to do, Alan Moore plunged his caped crusaders into a somewhat familiar rough-and-tumble world: The United States has won the Vietnam War with the help of Doctor Manhattan, a near-omnipotent “quantum being” so brutally efficient that he not only fights New York City crime alongside the Crimebusters, he also does the U.S. government’s bidding overseas. Two decades later, with the threat of World War III growing by the hour, the violent past the Crimebusters (as well as their precursors, the Minutemen) share catches up with the most amoral member of the group, who is thrown from a high-rise to his death. So Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Rorschach, Adrian Veidt (a.k.a. Ozymandias) and Doctor Manhattan reconstitute an uneasy alliance to solve the mystery that led to their former colleague’s murder. A probing meditation on the misuse of power, “Watchmen” (1986-87) pushes the form of the comic book to tell a story that has no interest in by-the-numbers good versus evil. Even the most heroic figures are remorseless killers, and the dastardly plot the villain cooks up actually averts nuclear Armageddon. Moore, the artist Dave Gibbons and the colorist John Higgins fleshed out this alternate history by incorporating a nine-panel grid, lush secondary colors, jaw-dropping leaps in time and perspective, a comic within the comic, case studies, excerpted memoirs, in-world celebrity interviews, journal entries and confidential memorandums. Though the story spawned many imitators, few rival its scope and ambition. — M.M.
Jacobs-Jenkins: Can I also go to the mat for “Watchmen”? [Ed. note: Jacob-Jenkins was a writer and consulting producer on the HBO series set in the world of this comic.] It’s a graphic novel that was written by a Brit, but it takes on the mythos and iconography of New York as it was consumed throughout the entire history of comic books — I guess in that way, it’s in conversation with “Kavalier & Clay” — and spins an interesting allegory around the myths of the city and the layers of class. It’s a very magisterial text that I would consider, if only to have that graphic representation.
Chotiner-Gardner: I think it’s interesting to have a different format represented, and a different view on the city.
Harris: It’s a cool choice, and definitely stands up to the other books as one artist’s specific vision of New York.
25. “Harriet the Spy” by Louise Fitzhugh, 1964
Like many of the best children’s books, “Harriet the Spy” (1964) is also for adults. Set on the Upper East Side of the early 1960s, it chronicles the adventures of 11-year-old Harriet M. Welsch as she spies on neighbors and friends, supplementing her observations with ungenerous commentary and recording them in a notebook she carries with her like a totem. If her curiosity gets her into trouble, it also shows her a diversity of life outside of her own home, where her parents have enough money to shunt her onto Ole Golly, a live-in nanny who quotes Henry James and encourages Harriet in her note taking but remains — to Harriet, at least — mostly a mystery. Soon after Ole Golly leaves, Harriet loses her notebook and her classmates discover its contents. Cue the emotional dysregulation. There’s something undeniably feminist in the pride Harriet takes in her “work” and her indifference to conventional femininity. (When someone says she needs to take dance lessons to learn how to move, she retorts, “That’s the way I move, fast. What’s wrong with that?”) But while the novel models a tomboyish girl power, it’s also an ode to the caretakers who give shape to so many children’s lives while their own remain hidden from view. — R.C.
Jacobs-Jenkins: I love “Harriet the Spy.”
Cunningham: Yes, yes to “Harriet the Spy”!
Guadagnino: Is it technically Y.A.?
Harris: Since there’s support for “Harriet,” which I’m so happy about, I should say that it’s a full-length novel, and that Y.A. was not an official category when it was written, though it was significant to me as an 8-year-old. It offers a specific vision of New York, and of what it’s like being a lonely New York kid — albeit a particular kind of New York kid.
Cunningham: I think Y.A. books are underestimated, and I don't agree with the general sense that they’re somehow a lesser form of literature. There were some Y.A. books that I read when I was Y. and A. that have stayed with me for all the many years since.
Guadagnino: OK, I’m convinced.
Kitamura: It’s still big among the 8-year-old set, I can attest.
Guadagnino: I remember reading it and then seeing the movie [“Harriet the Spy” (1996)] and thinking they were both so sophisticated. It felt very New York in that way. The kids are so grown up. Harriet is kind of mean, but lovable.
Harris: I feel like she grew up to be Paula Fox.
Jacobs-Jenkins: Literally, that’s what it feels like. I actually had a notebook in fourth grade full of secrets about other people that was discovered by my classmates. It ruined my life, I destroyed it and then we were all friends again. It is truly describing a rite of passage for a certain kind of obnoxious kid.
Harris: I want to read your version of that so badly, and I want to read your notebook.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Research Editor: Alexis Sottile
Copy Editors: James Camp and Diego Hadis
Production: Nancy Coleman, Amy Fang, Betsy Horan and Jamie Sims
Kate Guadagnino is the Deputy Digital Editor for T Magazine. More about Kate Guadagnino
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27 Modern New York Novels To Read Now
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With so many riveting New York novels published each year, how do you choose? Uncover the best contemporary books set in New York City and State to devour right now.
Growing up in CT, we spent quite a bit of time in New York. For us suburban folk, New York City can be a bit overwhelming.
However, we love all of the culture, museums, life, lights, theater, and food that NYC has to offer. Plus, cupcakes!
We also cannot get enough of the New York City books that publish every year. Like WW2 novels, New York books are quite plentiful.
So, what are some of the best books set in New York? Which New York novels should you read before you go?
Below, we are sharing favorite books set in New York City and State to take you there. Unearth books that will tour you through the New York Public Library and tell you where to grab a delicious fish sandwich.
We have NY train thrillers and a plethora of classic retellings.
Some of these New York City novels will invite you to lavish parties while others will send you into the dark underbelly of…InstaMoms. Let’s get started!
Road trip around the U.S. with the best books set in every state .
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Table of Contents
Best New York Novels
Books set in new york.
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
When we first read the summary for Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane , we weren’t sure what all of the hype was about.
But then, we began reading this story and felt strong reverberations for humanity in our hearts. The first 100 pages emotionally wrecked us.
We were invested, and yes, Keane is brilliant, making Ask Again, Yes one of our top New York novels of all time.
Just like the relationships among its characters, Ask Again, Yes will put you back together, piece by piece. You may never be the same, though.
Peter and Kate grew up together. Their parents immigrated from England and Ireland. Both of their fathers worked together on the police force.
Peter’s mother non-fatally shoots Kate’s dad, halting their friendship and budding young love.
Over the course of 40 years, we watch both families evolve, fall apart, love others, disappear, and try to grow and move on from inescapable and intertwined pasts.
How do we overcome the worst in us, including forces we cannot always control? Are we the products of our childhoods? How healing and powerful is the act of forgiveness?
A brilliant book club book filled with emotion, real-life problems, and undying love, we almost don’t have words for how the pages of Ask Again, Yes will personally affect you – but we know they will.
This is one of those stories that changes you after reading it. We also think Ask Again, Yes is one of the absolute best books set in New York and NYC. Buy a copy of Ask Again, Yes .
Last Summer At The Golden Hotel by Elyssa Friedland
If you are looking for books set in New York perfect for summer reading, we highly suggest taking a family vacation at The Golden Hotel in the Catskills.
Plus, if you gobbled up all of Schitt’s Creek in under a month like we did, we think you’ll appreciate Friedland’s plot and characters.
Back in the day, all the wealthy New England families would flock to The Golden Hotel for contests, reunions, and elite debauchery.
Unfortunately, The Golden Hotel’s two proprietary families, the Goldmans and Weingolds, have failed to enter the 21st century.
With the state of the hotel in rapid decline, the owners must decide if they will sell this iconic Catskill getaway to casino planners.
As the families reunite for one final weekend and vote, their secrets and strongest desires unfold.
Most importantly, we meet their ‘new adult’ and cutting-edge children. How can these Millenials preserve the legacy of their youth?
A slow burn, dive deeper into dysfunctional family relationships, new romances, and age-old friendships.
We love a story with a tidy ending that isn’t predictable or always what you hoped for. The alternative solutions will hopefully make your heart sing.
For New York books, Last Summer At The Golden Hotel will appeal to readers who seek out generational family stories, books set at hotels , and endless nostalgia. Buy a copy of Last Summer At The Golden Hotel .
Not A Happy Family by Shari Lapena
Imagine a family where everyone is waiting for their vindictive and viciously cruel father to drop dead. Not only would they gain back their sanity and sense of self-worth, but they’d also inherit boatloads.
This is exactly the scenario that greets murder mystery lovers in Lapena’s Not A Happy Family.
One of the most gripping suspense books set in New York, this whodunnit has far too many perfect suspects. In fact, everyone appears guilty.
Upstate New York’s Brecken Hill is where want-to-be rich people dream of living. Fred and Sheila Merton are worth millions, but as we know, money can’t buy happiness…or love, tact, and decency.
Fred is hideous to his children, and at their annual Easter dinner, he shreds apart all three of them in front of their significant others.
The children may be different in their careers and attitudes, but they share one huge similarity: Their disgust for their father.
That night, both Mertons are brutally murdered, leaving the kids as suspects. Of course, they all lie to the police about that night and their whereabouts.
Their spouses are torn but equally troubled. Doubt exudes from every person.
We aren’t sure there is a character you’ll trust or actually like, but that’s the brilliance of Not A Happy Family.
For fast-paced, devour-worthy New York novels, start guessing the murderer from page one. Buy a copy of Not A Happy Family by Shari Lapena .
The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James
In 1982, Carly Kirk’s Aunt Viv mysteriously disappears from the Sun Down Motel in upstate New York.
With her mother’s recent death and a love for true crime, Carly heads off to the little cursed town of Fell to investigate her aunt’s disappearance 30 years ago.
In a chilling timeline that jumps back and forth between Carly’s story in 2017 and her Aunt Viv’s in 1982, meet the unhappy ghosts at the Sun Down Motel.
Smell the endless cigarette smoke, get locked in with the candy machine, and watch the drug deals and affairs go down while a young boy runs for the pool.
Will Carly uncover the mystery of her aunt’s disappearance before getting caught up in a deadly tragedy of her own?
The Sun Down Motel is one of our favorite paranormal New York novels , and one that you will devour into the night…with all of the lights on and doors tightly shut.
If you like the My Favorite Murder podcast, the Ted Bundy Netflix series, or Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered , you’ll love The Sun Down Motel. Grab a copy of The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James .
Goodnight Beautiful by Amiee Molloy
One of the creepiest books set in New York, Goodnight Beautiful will make you want to go back and re-read the entire first half…
We got so tripped up on the twist, we kept re-reading the same few pages. That’s all we’ll say .
Kirkus Reviews named Molloy the “master of clever misdirection,” and you know from the start that something is about to go wrong. Will it be deadly?
Sexy playboy Sam Statler and his newlywed wife have just moved from fast-paced NYC to his small hometown in Chestnut Hill, NY to care for Sam’s ailing mother.
Sam is a pretty good therapist, and he and his wife love a little role-playing in and out of the bedroom.
We can’t say much more, but when Sam goes missing, everyone can’t help but wonder if he took his mother’s inheritance and ran. Or, is Sam lying hurt or even dead somewhere?
If unreliable narrators are your favorite, this heavily-set New York novel is for you. Goodnight Beautiful is full of shocking twists and turns.
You can also finish this one fairly quickly. Buy a copy of Goodnight Beautiful .
Vladimir by Julia May Jonas
Are you craving an engrossing and provocative dark academia novel set in Upstate New York? Vladimir is a 2022 book release that will have your boozy book club talking for days.
It’s an age-old story: Our unnamed narrator’s husband sleeps with his younger students.
He is under investigation as the college hires a new but angsty power couple, one of whom is Vladimir.
With a keen sexual interest in Vladimir, the narrator plans one bizarre date at a secluded cabin that takes an even more unusual twist.
The slow-paced narrative promises to suspenseful propel readers forward in one of the best New York novels about sex and power set against age and academia.
Books set in New York don’t get any more deeply messed up and, dare we say, disgusting than this. John and his wife are truly detestable; yet, you cannot stop watching…or reading. Buy a copy of Vladimir .
The Change by Kirsten Miller
Craving New York novels with middle-aged, female protagonists? We most definitely were.
The Change is filled with strong and powerful women who aren’t afraid to talk about periods, sex, and menopause.
Laugh out loud with Nessa, Jo, and Harriet – all of whom have supernatural powers. Nessa can see the dead. Harriet is a witch, and Jo has fiery strength.
While on the beach in the rich, gated part of town, female teenage ghosts approach Nessa.
One of the young ghosts leads Nessa to her dead body, which is wrapped in a trash bag with a disturbingly neat bow.
The women work together to find the killer(s) and avenge these young women. Will the police take them seriously or are they in on it? Who can they lean on and trust?
And, can you get away with murder when you are rich? What does this say about the institutions that are supposed to protect us?
A novel that takes place in Long Island, New York, The Change will most appeal to witchy book lovers .
Find feminist themes of friendship, love, class, and careers. You’ll miss these ladies when the book is over.
We named The Change as one of the best novels of 2022 . Buy a copy of The Change .
Dava Shastri’s Last Day by Kirthana Ramisetti
One of the most thought-provoking and slow-burn books set in New York, Dava Shastri’s Last Day will have you thinking about the life you’ve led, the legacy you leave behind, and the sacrifices you’ve made to achieve that legacy.
Dava Shastri is indeed dying. Yet, she’s not dead yet as the news is reporting.
As her family sits in front of her on secluded Beatrix Island wondering why this is so, they quickly learn that Dava wants to see what the world is saying about her.
Rich, famous, and self-made, Dava has contributed so many wonderful things to the world and helped numerous people succeed.
Yet, as she reads her tributes, she’s shocked that the focus is on the bad. The news is filled with gossip and secrets, including an alleged love affair and a possible secret daughter.
Dava is complicated, imperfect, and utterly amazing, but will she and her children be able to recognize both the good and bad of her impact to reconcile their relationships before she passes away? Grab a copy of Dava Shastri’s Last Day .
YA Novels Set In New York
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
Imagine crying your way through a novel on a Friday night. One of the best YA LGBTQ+ books set in New York (and also California ), don’t miss 2018 Printz award-winning novel, We Are Okay .
Perfect for new adults, LaCour’s emotional & poetic narrative will grab at your heart and never let go.
With poignant and finely examined themes of grief, mental health, and family, readers will appreciate the literary tie-ins as well as the complicated but heartfelt friendship between Marin and Mabel.
Who knew cereal bowls and paper snowflakes could be so affecting?
Mabel and Marin are best friends. An intimate night on the beach solidifies their love for each other, making them more than just friends.
When Marin’s grandfather doesn’t return from a walk on the beach, though, her life suddenly crumples. He was Marin’s only remaining family.
Marin flees to New York a month earlier than expected for college. Leaving without so much as a goodbye, Marin refuses to text back Mabel or clean up her grandfather’s messy secrets and mental illness.
Learning that her grandfather lied, Marin is hurt and orphaned. When Mabel shows up for a three-day visit around Christmas to try to reach her, Marin has to reconcile her loneliness, love, and a broken heart.
Those three days are incredibly powerful and will stay with us long after this book is closed.
For raw New York novels, We Are Okay will touch something in your soul.
The dual timelines add to the suspense of Marin’s future and provide insight into her healing process. Buy a copy of We Are Okay .
The Project by Courtney Summers
We devoured The Project as readers who are fascinated by shows like Kumare , Wild, Wild, Country , Bikram , and Waco . This is one of the best creepy YA New York novels about cults.
When their parents die in a horrific car accident, Lo’s sister Bea joins The Unity Project, a charitable organization that isn’t quite what it seems. Let’s be real. The Unity Project is a cult.
Can Lo expose the group for what they really are? Or, will she fall under its leader’s charm? Can she rescue her sister?
The ending threw us for a loop, and you’ll feel for both of the sisters and their ill-fated decisions.
The Project has strong themes of pain, loss, and community. Grab a copy of The Project .
New York City Novels
In Five Years by Rebecca Serle
Would you change your life’s course if you had one seemingly real dream or premonition about the future? Could you prevent what you saw or was that outcome always inevitable?
This other-worldly scenario greets Dannie Kohan, a lawyer who has planned out the perfect life ever since her brother died in a drunk driving accident.
On the night of Dannie’s calculated engagement, she falls asleep only to ‘see’ herself, 5 years in the future, in the arms of another man.
Oftentimes we can all appreciate a short novel that you can finish in half a day. We devoured In Five Years by Rebecca Serle in under four hours. This is by far one of our all-time favorite books set in New York City, too.
Plus, if you are looking for a friendship and love story, In Five Years will leave you in tears while having all of the feels.
This is not your average love story, either, making the relationships all the more precious and powerful. The ending of the book completely threw us off balance.
TUL named In Five Years as one of the best books of 2020 . This NYC book would be awesome for book clubs. Grab a copy of In Five Years .
The Lions Of Fifth Avenue by Fiona Davis
If you love libraries , literature, and feminism, don’t miss The Lions Of Fifth Avenue , one of our favorite historical fiction books about New York City and its gorgeous library.
In 1913, Laura Lyons and her husband are residing in the New York Public Library superintendent’s apartment. We are jealous .
Although Laura has a lovely family, she wants more for her life, including a career and higher education. She joins a radical women’s rights club and begins studying for a journalism degree.
Laura is knocked off her current course (and feet) when she meets another strong woman. At the same time, the NYPL’s most valuable books start disappearing. Is her family responsible?
With intricate and alternating timelines, in 1993, readers meet Laura’s granddaughter, Sadie. As rare materials once again go missing from the NYPL, Sadie must explore her family’s mysterious past.
Can Sadie save her job while overcoming her own self-imposed spinsterhood? Will Sadie learn from the past?
The Lions Of Fifth Avenue is an evocative historical NYC novel and book about books filled with brilliant women. We loved being transported to New York in both the early and late 1900s.
Thrilling, enraging, and full of passion, you’ll cheer for these women who desire independence and want to leave their mark on the world. Buy a copy of The Lions of Fifth Avenue .
Too Good To Be True By Carola Lovering
A thriller set across New England — CT and MA — as well as NYC, and one of our BOTM selections , we enjoyed Too Good To Be True far more than expected. This NYC book recommendation is especially fitting for Lisa Jewell fans.
Skye Starling has OCD and is worried that she will never meet the perfect husband. Then, Burke Michaels enters the scene and gives her everything she could ever want. It all happens so fast. Is it…too good to be true?
Unfortunately, Burke is…well…married to someone else and something truly sinister is lurking behind the scenes. We also get to know more about Burke and his wife, Heather, through journal entries.
Heather has been with Burke since they were teenagers, and let’s just say that her youth greatly influenced her present situation.
We loved the multiple plot twists throughout Too Good To Be True , and we certainly didn’t see all of the jaw-dropping surprises coming our way.
We also appreciated that the ending wasn’t as neat or as predictable as it could have been. Heather’s obsessions added extra dimension and edge to the story.
Lastly, the plethora of gray areas promise to engage readers. Too Good To Be True would make for a great book club book. Buy a copy of Too Good To Be True By Carola Lovering .
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Sex And Vanity By Kevin Kwan
For Crazy Rich Asian fans, Kwan is back at it with a standalone and A Room With A View retelling, Sex And Vanity .
Travel to the fancy and elitist Amalfi Coast as well as NYC.
Although not quite as character and family-building as his first series, Sex and Vanity promises excessive wealth, a couture rom-com, and quite a few laughs.
Lucie first meets George Zao during a wild wedding weekend in Capri. Chinese-born but raised in Australia, George’s mom is both envied for her wealth but also ostracized for her gaudy taste.
Lucie is a Churchill with pilgrim blood from her father and Chinese-American roots from her mother.
Although Lucie doesn’t like George, they are caught via drone in a comprising situation. She desperately wants and needs him.
Fast forward years later when Lucie is now engaged to new wealth and chump, Cecil. Cecil is a bit of a pompous, racist slug.
With their engagement on the fritz, it’s timely that George has moved to New York City to work on eco-friendly architecture.
Lucie must learn to love herself before she can pick her man.
Kwan immerses readers in pop culture references like Mary Berry and Moira Rose. The excessive imagery paired with themes of racism, ethnicity, and culture, make for a strong New York City novel. Lucie may be no Rachel, but her story is more about self-awareness and love.
Along with being a lascivious and lavish book set in NYC, you’ll also find this title on our favorite island books and Italy books reading lists. Buy a copy of Sex And Vanity .
One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston
You might recognize bestselling author Casey McQuiston from Red, White, & Royal Blue — one of our favorite LGBTQ+ books perfect for new adults .
Now, One Last Stop is one of the most talked-about New York City books of 2021.
Meet twenty-three-year-old August. August has jumped from school to school all over the U.S.
Not quite lost but not yet found, August is intelligent and way cooler than she thinks — but she’s also never been seriously romantically involved.
When August meets a beautiful and mysterious woman on the train, her entire life’s outlook changes. However, Jane looks a little punk-style old-fashioned and is always on the same train as August.
Come to find out, Jane’s from the 1970s and displaced in time. Can August help release Jane from the train’s energy? And if she does, is she losing the love of her life forever?
A feel-good, older coming-of-age story, laugh out loud and be utterly dazzled with this popular time travel romance . You’ll love the friendships and community August builds in New York City.
If the Su Special sounds absolutely delicious and you love books with restaurants, don’t miss our foodie fiction reading list . Grab a copy of One Last Stop .
People We Meet On Vacation by Emily Henry
We debated putting People We Meet On Vacation on our New York books reading list, but parts of the novel do indeed take place in New York City.
In fact, working in NYC is part of the motivation behind Poppy’s career and life crisis. This title is also heavily set in Palm Springs, CA, and will transport you around the world for those tropical luxury vacations.
Travel bloggers can also appreciate that Poppy works for a travel magazine. While she has everything that she could ever want — paid for travel to beautiful and coveted destinations — Poppy isn’t happy.
Uninspired and heartbroken, Poppy’s struggling to write about exhilarating vacations. The fallout with her best friend and vacation buddy, Alex, does not help.
Find laugh-out-loud moments but also a somewhat tedious countdown over the years. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
The terrible AC in Palm Springs and meeting different people from around the world will engage you. Poppy’s boss is our hero.
One of the most talked-about summer NYC books of 2021 , we didn’t absolutely love People We Meet On Vacation as much as others. We are grumpy readers sometimes. However, we can appreciate that our readers adored this novel. We also loved Henry’s Beach Read — maybe we set the bar high. For a fun read about travel, why not, though. Grab your copy of People We Meet On Vacation .
Confessions On The 7:45 by Lisa Unger
Imagine meeting a stranger on a train who could forever change your life — and not in a good way.
Maybe sharing that nip started as an innocent gesture but the next thing you know, someone ends up missing…or dead. Clearly, Selena never read Highsmith.
If you enjoy surface-level train thrillers and fast-paced mysteries, Unger’s Confessions On The 7:45 will have you on edge wondering who is in charge here.
Similar to Pretty Little Wife by Darby Kane and inspired by Highsmith’s Strangers On A Train , Selena catches her husband sleeping with the nanny. She confesses this to a random train commuter. With the nanny now missing, who is responsible?
Something darker is at play. In the end, you’ll doubt your own ethics. This is one of the most chilling New York novels on this reading list. Buy a copy of Confessions On The 7:45 .
Happy & You Know It by Laura Hankin
Another Book Of The Month selection , Happy & You Know It is not our usual type of reading.
However, one of the most hilarious and relevant Instagram books set in New York City, watch as a rich mommy playgroup falls apart over affairs, Instagram, and… vitamins !?
Kicked out of her now-infamous band, Claire is broke and in desperate need of a job. Any job.
When the beautiful and seemingly perfect mom Instagrammer, Whitney, offers Claire a generous salary to play children’s songs for a tight playgroup, Claire immediately says yes.
Despite feeling like the hired help, Claire adores the playgroup and their children, even though she has nothing in common with them.
The closer they get, though, the more Claire realizes that their worlds are not so picture-perfect…
We appreciate the women’s relationships, worries, and growth as a light and humorous New York book. Plus, for fictional books about musicians , you cannot go wrong.
Happy & You Know It is captivating and fun, especially if you enjoy friendship novels . Grab a copy of Happy & You Know It .
The Most Beautiful Girl In Cuba by Chanel Cleeton
Chanel Cleeton is a goddess of historical fiction. Here at TUL, we gobbled up Cleeton’s The Last Train To Key West .
One of the most-anticipated 2021 books set in NYC and Cuba, The Most Beautiful Girl In Cuba is based on the true events and life of Evangelina Cisneros, a falsely accused Cuban prisoner.
Cisneros became a political symbol of the Cuban War of Independence. The story follows three women fighting for liberation in the late 1800s.
The competition between the newspapers, their values, women’s roles, and the importance of the media, especially relevant today, added depth to the plot.
Readers will witness the contradictions of the Gilded Age set against revolution. We championed the feminist tones and romances.
You’ll also learn much more about Cuban independence from the Spanish. Buy a copy of The Most Beautiful Girl In Cuba by Chanel Cleeton .
The Lies That Bind by Emily Giffin
For books about New York City and 9/11, Giffin was one of the first authors to create a fictional story capturing this horrific day and its aftermath.
In The Lies That Bind , Cecily Gardner wants to call her ex-boyfriend, Matthew. A mysterious and handsome man at the bar intervenes and tells her not to.
Over the course of drinks and meaningful conversation, they snuggle in under the sheets together. However, Cecily doesn’t even know his name.
Grant is a trader with a twin brother suffering from ALS. As Cecily falls for Grant, he tragically goes missing during 9/11, having worked in one of the Towers.
When Cecily sees Grant’s face on a missing person poster, a phone call changes Cecily’s current reality.
Encounter a spiderweb of lies and emotions. Giffin questions how we untangle deception and if the truth will really set us free.
Can we forgive and see our own imperfections? Is love still love even if it is grounded in lies? Is love ever pure? Grab a copy of The Lies That Bind .
Well-Behaved Indian Women by Saumya Dave
Simran is studying for a Master’s degree in psychology even though she dreams of pursuing journalism. Engaged to her high school sweetheart, she is also gearing up for a gossipy and large Indian wedding.
Filled with self-doubt, Simran meets her favorite writing idol. When she ends up kissing him, she realizes that she isn’t being true to herself.
Plus, her own mother, Nandini, is struggling within the confines of an arranged marriage and discriminatory career.
In India, Simran’s grandmother is working to change the oppressive and sexist educational system in an impoverished community.
All three women fight hard for their families, communities, and professions while trying to maintain a strong sense of selfhood. Not to mention they are battling sexism, racism, and prejudices.
Well-Behaved Indian Women is one of the most inspiring and beautiful slow-burn, multigenerational family books set in New York City. Find strong messaging and characters that resonate deeply within you.
The commendable ending truly emphasizes the women. Even more relevant today, Nandini’s struggles exemplify institutional white privilege. Grab a copy of Well-Behaved Indian Women .
Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult
Find one of the first mainstream books set in NYC to address the recent global pandemic. Please know that this may be triggering for some.
On a lighter note, if you enjoy island-set books , you will also travel to the Galápagos.
Diana’s surgical resident partner, Finn, convinces Diana to take their vacation to Ecuador while he stays behind to battle the virus. No one realizes how serious things are about to get.
Diana arrives just as Isabela Island shuts down, and thankfully, a local grandmother adopts her. Diana doesn’t speak the language and nothing is open.
Falling into relaxing island life and getting to know the locals, including a young woman who self-harms, Diana reevaluates her current Type A life plan. She stops being a tourista too.
Diana will never leave the island as the same person — although beware of the enormous plot twist.
True to Picoult, find an edgy discussion about pandemic ‘politics’ and its devastating effects on hospitals and staff. Picoult also addresses themes of mental health, family, and the role of science.
Lastly, Picoult promises a book that will transport you to the Galápagos Islands . Swim with the sea lions and spy flamingos in pink lagoons. Read Wish You Were Here .
How To Marry Keanu Reeves In 90 Days by K.M. Jackson
For newer and hilarious rom-com books set in New York City, Bethany Lu Carlisle will have you chasing Keanu Reeves and his look-alikes all over NYC and LA. This is a feel-good, laugh-out-loud novel.
When Lu discovers that her lifelong crush, Keanu Reeves, is getting married in 90 days, her world implodes. He’s supposed to stay sexy, single, and gainfully employed forever.
On top of this heartbreaking news, as a talented artist, Lu is letting a lucrative and much-needed job offer sit on the table. The company isn’t quite letting Lu be herself, and she questions their approach.
Determined to stop Keanu Reeves from the biggest mistake of his life, Lu and her best guy friend non-creepily stalk Reeves. Tru has the hookups, but he also has another agenda.
Both Tru and Lu have unspoken fears as well as longtime crushes on each other. Can Lu prevent the future while letting go of the past? Grab your copy of How To Marry Keanu Reeves In 90 Days .
The Cloisters by Katy Hays
Fans of atmospheric dark academia novels will feel the heat of the summer – and the pressure of the academic world – in The Cloisters .
Ann heads to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in hopes that her summer job will prove her worthiness in the elite academic world.
However, when the position is no longer available, The Cloisters’ suspicious staff eagerly adopt her. We soon learn that everyone is out for themselves and will do anything to shine in the spotlight.
What will Ann sacrifice, and will she survive?
Is her fate already written in the tarot cards she’s researching?
New York City novels don’t get any more deadly or gripping than this. Grab your copy of The Cloisters .
YA Books Set In New York City
Everywhere, Always by Jennifer Ann Shore
If you are looking for feel-good YA indie books set in NYC that will make your eyes misty, pick up Everywhere, Always .
You know that we love Jennifer Ann Shore for New Wave , In The Now , The Extended Summer of Anna and Jeremy , and Metallic Red .
As Avery overcomes the tragic loss of her mother, she finds herself suddenly gaining an entirely new family and life. You may think that you already know this story — where fitting in is hard and her stepmother and siblings are evil.
However, Shore shakes this old narrative into something much more fulfilling and kind. What a beautiful surprise.
Watch as Avery navigates the streets of NYC while her new world both adopts and fully embraces her. You’ll want to hug each and every character as they guide Avery to find herself, peace, and love.
Funny yet deeply touching, this is our favorite YA book and coming-of-age story by Shore so far. Buy a copy of Everywhere Always by Jennifer Ann Shore .
Anna K by Jenny Lee
If you are looking for the YA version of Kevin Kwan (with more drinking and drugs), you’ll love this over-the-top romance written in honor of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina , Anna K . Can you tell that we love New York City novels that are classic retellings, too?
Add in a little Gossip Girl, and I am sure that conservative parents are going to be a little less than pleased with this one. Plus, if you watch Riverdale , this New York City book is for you.
Like Anna Karenina , Anna K. is long, alludes to many of Tolstoy’s characters and their tragedies, and references Tolstoy himself.
How you tie Tolstoy into a Kim Kardashian-like sex tape is beyond us, but we are here for it. Plus, Lee addresses drug addiction, mental illness, and dysfunctional families.
Lee also tours readers through high society NYC teenage life. Explore love triangles, bad and good parenting, and teenage romance.
Anna K is your everywoman, and we hope that you fall for her story as much as we did. Grab your copy of Anna K .
The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
Back in our public library days, we read The Sun Is Also A Star with our teen book club. Everyone was instantly hooked on Yoon, who you might remember from Everything, Everything .
Both a National Book Award Finalist and Michael L. Printz Honor Book, this is one of our top YA New York novels for teens because it is heartwarming yet addresses harder and real immigration issues.
Over the course of one day in New York City, Natasha and Daniel get to know and fall for each other. Daniel is heading to a college interview that he promised his family.
Meanwhile, Natasha’s family is about to be immediately deported to Jamaica. Told in alternating storylines, we watch as their lives keep coming together. Buy a copy of The Sun Is Also A Star .
Follow a blogger who takes literary dates across NYC:
One of our favorite and beloved bloggers, Lauren, has an entire blog with NYC books and literary dates that follow the plots of their stories. Check out Lauren’s website, Literary Dates , to travel “from page to place” with books set in New York City. We know you’ll love her hilarious voice and creative bookish dates.
More Most-Talked-About New York Novels In Our TBR Pile:
The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan (we watched the TV series)
City Of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern – also on our Dark Academia Book List
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – also on our sisters reading list
Save Your Favorite New York Novels For Later
Snag your favorite New York novels here:
What New York City books do you love? What are your favorite books set in New York?
While there are tons of classic books set in New York City, what are your favorite contemporary books? Which books set in New York have transported you there?
Lastly, have you read any of the New York novels above? Which ones did you love? Not love? Let us know in the comments.
P.S. If you love books set in big cities, don’t miss these books set in Los Angeles, CA (and more).
Big City Book Lists
Rome – Ancient & Modern Day Books About London Paris Books
More Books Across America Reading Lists To Love:
Best Books In Every State Books Set In MA Books About Salem, MA & The Witch Trials North American Reading Guide
Christine (she/her) is the owner, lead editor, and tipsy book sommelier of The Uncorked Librarian LLC, an online literary publication showcasing books and movies to inspire travel and home to the famed Uncorked Reading Challenge.
With a BA in English & History from Smith College, an MLIS from USF-Tampa, and a U.S. Fulbright Fellowship in Christine's back pocket, there isn't a bookstore, library, or winery that can hide from her. Christine loves brewery yoga, adopting all of the kitties, and a glass of oaked Chardonnay. Charcuterie is her favorite food group.
I love this list. In fact I love New York City (and State) fiction, I wrote a romantic legal thriller and its sequel. The first is deeply rooted in lower Manhattan and the second is deeply rooted in Westchester County. it’s so easy to do this, because Manhattan is like another character; it’s such a rich tapestry it definitely makes for more than a “backdrop.” Thank you for this list.
Thank you so much, Dawn!
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Top 10 New York novels
From Edith Wharton to Jennifer Egan, the city has inspired countless stories, all of them sharing one major character – the metropolis itself
I n novels, a great city is a setting. But it’s also a character in itself, a huge compound being, that the individuals living in it react to, live in the shadow of, as if it were another actor in the story – a giant that somebody has smuggled into the cast list. New York has such a powerful mythic presence that it has generated whole genres and subgenres. There’s the story of the immigrant, arriving from the Old World and taking New York as the very archetype of the New World’s newness. There’s the story of the rube from Oklahoma or Texas, for whom on the contrary the city scarcely seems American at all. There’s the story in which the city stands for money, quicksilver and dangerous, a solvent of all possible desires. There’s the story of the New York childhood or the New York romance, often intensely nostalgic, in which the city’s pleasurable surfaces mould around the characters – a metropolitan cocoon.
There’s a whole, glittering kaleidoscope of New York fiction already in existence, which makes you hesitate before trying to add to it, especially if you’re an outsider. But I wanted, in my novel Golden Hill , to wind back deliberately to a time that scarcely features in Manhattan’s present iconography, when the giant was a baby. In 1746, when it is set, New York was a small town on the southernmost tip of Manhattan island. Its 7,000 people were English and Dutch merchants and west African slaves; it was xenophobic and aggressively pious; it was loyalist in its politics and provincial in its culture; and everybody knew everybody else’s business.
That’s the opposite, to an almost perverse degree, of what Manhattan would later become. And yet I mean the tiny unfamiliar city I’ve written to be insistently haunted by the giant to come – because despite all the differences, Golden Hill is still a story about an immigrant, and money, and a romance, and the clash between the values of the backwoods and the big city.
In a city with as many moods as New York, and as many ethnic histories running in parallel, fiction is essential transportation. There are no original 18th-century novels written in the city, so far as I know – that’s why I had to write my own – but once NY fiction gets going with Washington Irving, sparks and flutters with Herman Melville, and then expands into the confident literature of a metropolis, there are endless choices. These are only my best 10. Your Manhattan may vary. No, will vary.
1. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925) Technically, a Long Island novel; but it’s the city in its bubble-economy euphoria that has been the scene for Jay Gatsby’s innocently criminal invention of himself, and it’s the city that turns out to control Gatsby’s fate. Fitzgerald’s is the classical statement of New York’s romance when seen from afar. “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”
2. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1921) There are other fictional ways into the rule-governed world of 19th-century Manhattan high society. But Wharton’s story of the prim socialite Newland Archer’s belated discovery of love with the separated, scandalous, Europeanised Ellen Olenska, just as he becomes irrevocably engaged to someone else, is wittier, sharper and more effervescent than anything you’ll find in Henry James.
3. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (2000) Jewish New York in the 30s and 40s, at the moment when local-born geeks in glasses and escapees from Hitler’s Europe were inventing the superhero. It is chronicled by Chabon in exquisite prose attuned to both the art deco magic and the nightmarishness of a city where swastika-adorned zeppelins moored to the top of the Empire State Building .
4. Guys and Dolls and Other Stories by Damon Runyon (2005) OK, this isn’t a novel, because Runyon, who died in 1946, never wrote one. But his Broadway stories , handily collected in this Penguin Modern Classic, are a gorgeous, indispensable parade of tough guys and molls from midtown. All of them talk their heads off in a patented Runyonese that, like Wodehouse’s language for the world of Bertie Wooster, is only half-anchored in the real world, and justifies itself as pure verbal performance. “If I have all the tears that are shed on Broadway by guys in love, I will have enough salt water to start an opposition ocean to the Atlantic and Pacific, with enough left over to run the Great Salt Lake out of business.”
5. Seize the Day by Saul Bellow (1956) Humiliated, desperate, marooned in a retirement hotel on the Upper West Side with his imperviously wealthy father, middle-aged Tommy Wilhelm struggles his way through a sweltering summer day of failed hustles. He reaches a vision of the city as a universal gathering “of every age, of every genius, possessors of every human secret, antique and future”.
6. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (2013) There’s a large constituency that swears by Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale as the defining NY novel of the fantastic, but I’d nominate this as better Manhattan magic, with its lovely turn-of-the-20th-century immigrant encounter between a woman of clay and a man of fire. Two mythologies meet on the Lower East Side, and catch the Fifth Avenue El together.
7. The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (2006) A comedy of manners set among New York’s wealthy uptown, this is also a state-of-the-nation story, heavily shadowed by the impact of 9/11. The portraits of struggling millennials are sharply-etched and contemporary, but there’s Tolstoy hiding behind this story of innocence and ambition, and a proportionate seriousness.
8. The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (2003) The 70s and 80s’ racial crisis in the city, explored not via a shriekfest in the mould of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities , but through a brilliantly wise and painful bildungsroman about a graffiti-centred friendship between a black kid and a white kid in Brooklyn.
9. Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack (1993) Criminally neglected, when it ought to be as celebrated as Lord of the Flies or A Clockwork Orange, this is the city’s moment of maximum danger and decay, projected forward as a brilliant dystopia, and then strained through a schoolgirl diary. When civilisation falls, her pampered parents founder. Twelve-year-old Lola adapts and thrives.
10. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010) Time’s dilapidations and revenges on a group of friends in the Manhattan music business, as mimicked in a set of virtuoso fictions that themselves weave backwards and forwards and sideways in time, finally alighting in a climate-changed New York of the near future.
- F Scott Fitzgerald
- Edith Wharton
- Michael Chabon
- Saul Bellow
- Jonathan Lethem
- Jennifer Egan
19 Quintessential Books About New York City
The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. The City So Nice They Named It Twice. New York City occupies a place in books—both fiction and nonfiction—like few other locales. Whether you’ve lived there all your life , or you have dreams of visiting and seeing what the fuss is all about , these are 19 of the best books about New York City to tap into your nostalgia, feed your wanderlust…or both.
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The Best Nonfiction Books About New York City
1. up in the old hotel by joseph mitchell.
The renowned New Yorker journalist’s collection of painstakingly rendered portraits should be required reading for everyone. Not only is it a fascinating glimpse into the New York City of the mid-20th century, but Mitchell’s thoughtful and elegant prose makes his fondness for the city contagious.
2. Just Kids by Patti Smith
Smith’s remarkable memoir tells the story of her longtime relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, against the backdrop of a gritty city during a magical time (NYC in the 1960s).
3. The Lonely City By Olivia Laing
After an unexpected mid-30s break up and relocation to a series of Lower East Side sublets, Laing explores the isolation of the city by immersing herself in its artistic world. Inspired by the achievements of outliers—including Nan Goldin, Andy Warhol and David Wojnarowicz, the author finds surprisingly comforting insight into the value of urban solitude.
4. By Brandon Harris
A bright-eyed, freshly graduated aspiring filmmaker moves to a historic Black enclave…and finds himself in a budding Brooklyn scene now popular among artistic gentrifiers. Part coming-of-age tale, part sociocultural history, Harris’s narrative highlights the challenges of race and community in 21st-century urban life.
5. Ladies And Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning by Jonathan Mahler
You don’t have to be a Yankees fan to get sucked into this book, a fascinating cross-section of NYC in 1977: a pivotal year marked by crime, economic crisis, the opening of Studio 54, a bitter mayoral election and, yes, baseball.
6. Showtime At The Apollo: The Epic Tale Of Harlem’s Theater By Ted Fox & James Otis Smith
Since its inception in 1934, the Apollo has featured and nurtured thousands of entertainers, many of whom have become legends. In this graphic novel—an adaptation of Fox’s definitive, critically acclaimed history of the Apollo—Fox and artist Smith bring to life Harlem’s storied theater, touching on its significance in music history, African American history and the culture of New York City.
7. When Brooklyn Was Queer By Hugh Ryan
Most are familiar with Greenwich Village’s queer history (2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots), but Ryan unearths a forgotten world of LGBTQ culture across the East River, from Walt Whitman and other literary figures to the lesbians who worked in the Navy Yard during World War II. Ryan, the founder of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, recounts both the many characters who made up the once-vibrant community and the systemic forces that sought to erase it.
8. By Jane Ziegelman
Part history book, part cookbook, this tome chronicles the lives and meals of the residents of one building (now the site of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum ). It’s a captivating look at how the city’s immigrant identity and food identity are intertwined—and if it makes you hungry, just try one of the 40 recipes inside.
9. The Odd Woman And The City By Vivian Gornick
Through a series of funny and melancholic essays and anecdotes, Gornick—a pioneering feminist writer and lifelong New Yorker—reminds us that some of the most inspiring moments emerge from chance encounters with strangers on the city’s streets.
10. The Great Bridge By David Mccullough
It’s no small task to write about one of the most iconic structures in the world, but McCullough’s exhaustive narrative—covering not only the science and engineering but also the tireless dedication and personal sacrifice of the father and son behind it—more than lives up to its weighty subject matter.
The Best Fiction Books About New York City
11. harlem shuffle by colson whitehead.
To his customers and neighbors on 125th street in Harlem, Ray is an upstanding furniture salesman making a decent life for himself and his family. What they don’t know is that Ray descends from a line of crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger all the time. When his cousin falls in with a crowd who plans to rob a hotel, Ray suddenly has a new clientele made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters and other assorted lowlifes. As Ray navigates this double life, he begins to see who actually pulls the strings in Harlem.
12. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953—making Ellison the first Black author to do so—centers on an unnamed man describing growing up in a Black community in the South, attending an all-Black college from which he's expelled, moving to New York and becoming the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of a group called The Brotherhood. With meditations of racism, rage and manipulation, there's a reason it's a hallmark of American literature.
13. Another Country by James Baldwin
Set primarily in Greenwich Village and Harlem in the late ‘50s, Baldwin’s 1962 novel encompasses the downfall of jazz drummer Rufus Scott. He begins a relationship with Leona, a white woman from the South, and introduces her to his friends, including a struggling novelist, his successful mentor and his mentor’s wife. As the relationship becomes more serious, Rufus becomes physically abusive of Leona, and she’s admitted to a mental hospital. Depressed, Rufus returns to Harlem and commits suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. The rest of the book explores the relationships between Rufus' friends, family and acquaintances in the wake of his death, as well as themes that were taboo at the time of its release, including bisexuality, interracial couples and extramarital affairs.
14. The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay by Michael Chabon
This Pulitzer Prize-winner follows the lives of two Jewish cousins, Czech artist Joe Kavalier and Brooklyn-born writer Sammy Clay, before, during, and after World War II. Embarking on an adventure that takes them deep into the heart of Manhattan, Kavalier and Clay become major figures in the comics industry as they share the fears, dreams and desires of two teenage boys discovering romance, careers and American possibility in 1940s New York.
15. Breakfast At Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid Capote’s 1958 novella for this long, you’re missing out. Set in Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1943, it follows an unnamed narrator who befriends Holly Golightly, another tenant in the brownstone where he lives. Holly has no job and spends her time socializing with wealthy men who take her to clubs and restaurants and give her money and expensive presents. Even if you’ve seen the movie, the under-200-page book is well worth a read—and has a very different ending.
16. Open City by Teju Cole
On the streets of Manhattan, Julius, a young Nigerian man finishing the last year of a psychiatry residency, wanders, reflecting on his relationships, his recent breakup with his girlfriend, his present and his past. He encounters people from different cultures and classes who provide insight on his journey, transporting him to Brussels, the Nigeria of his youth and even into his own soul.
17. City Of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
In the 1940s, 19-year-old Vivian has just been kicked out of Vassar College. Her affluent parents send her to Manhattan to live with her aunt, who owns a crumbling midtown theater. When Vivian makes a personal mistake that results in professional scandal, it turns her new world upside down in ways that it will take her years to fully understand. Gilbert’s ( Eat, Pray, Love ) return to fiction is about discovering that you don't have to be a good girl to be a good person.
18. Why We Came To The City By Kristopher Jansma
You’ll fall in love from the first line: “We came to the city because we wished to live haphazardly, to reach for only the least realistic of our desires, and to see if we could not learn what our failures had to teach, and not, when we came to live, discover that we had never died.” Heavy, right? For when you want to feel all the feels, pick up this heartrending story about five friends whose lives in NYC don't turn out exactly as they expect.
19. City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
Immerse yourself in NYC circa 1976 in this epic crime thriller—you’ll meet two estranged heirs, two suburban punk teenagers, a magazine reporter and his neighbor, and the detective trying to figure out what they all have to do with a New Year’s Eve shooting in Central Park. If you’re a Law & Order buff, we have a feeling you’ll breeze through it.
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7 Classic New York City Novels That Perfectly Capture Its Energy
“Best Novels of Fall 2020” — Vogue “Most Anticipated List for Fall 2020” — Parade “Best of Fall 2020” — PopSugar “Best Books of 2020” — Marie Claire
From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Gossip Girl series, a deliciously irresistible novel chronicling a year in the life of four families in an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood as they seek purpose, community, and meaningful relationships—until one unforgettable night at a raucous neighborhood party knocks them to their senses.
Welcome to Cobble Hill.
In this eclectic Brooklyn neighborhood, private storms brew amongst four married couples and their children. There’s ex-groupie Mandy, so underwhelmed by motherhood and her current physical state that she fakes a debilitating disease to get the attention of her skateboarding, ex-boyband member husband Stuart. There’s the unconventional new school nurse, Peaches, on whom Stuart has an unrequited crush, and her disappointing husband Greg, who wears noise-cancelling headphones—everywhere.
A few blocks away, Roy, a well-known, newly transplanted British novelist, has lost the thread of his next novel and his marriage to capable, indefatigable Wendy. Around the corner, Tupper, the nervous, introverted industrial designer with a warehose full of prosthetic limbs struggles to pin down his elusive artist wife Elizabeth. She remains…elusive. Throw in two hormonal teenagers, a ten-year-old pyromaniac, a drug dealer pretending to be a doctor, and a lot of hidden cameras, and you’ve got a combustible mix of egos, desires, and secrets bubbling in brownstone Brooklyn.
Smart, sophisticated, yet surprisingly tender, Cobble Hill is highly entertaining portrait of contemporary family life and the colorful characters who call Brooklyn home.
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Cecily von Ziegesar is the author of Cobble Hill ; Cum Laude; Dark Horses; and the best-selling Gossip Girl book series, the basis for the hit TV show. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.
The city itself is just as much a character in my books as the people. It’s been eighteen years since Gossip Girl , my first book, was published. Many people have told me recently that they’ve been rereading the books and rewatching the show because they needed a reminder of the city at its best. I grew up in Manhattan and now live in Brooklyn. I’ve lived in other places, but I love New York—it’s very much home. I’m finding that I appreciate different things about it as I go through different stages of my life. My daughter was born the same year Gossip Girl was first published. I remember those first weeks of having a newborn in the city in winter, bundling her inside my coat, and just by leaving my building and going for a short walk around my neighborhood, amidst the hustle and bustle, I felt like I was still a part of the thriving city. I have since raised two children here, well into teenagerhood. Our neighborhood of Brooklyn is called Cobble Hill. It’s a great place to grow up because it’s like a small town within the big city; it’s also the perfect setting for a book.
Gossip Girl is about privileged private–high school seniors on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, falling in and out of love, behaving badly, and gossiping mercilessly about one another. It has been called a “social satire.” Cobble Hill is somewhat different. The main characters are adults, but it’s still very much about yearning, flirting, wondering where we fit in in the social hierarchy, and behaving badly. I’m not sure how much we change between teenagerhood and adulthood. Cobble Hill explores the humor therein.
When I write about New York I return again and again to the New York stories that molded me as a writer. I reread snippets of them or get swept up and reread the whole thing. Here are seven of my favorites.
Madame Olenska leaves her marriage and returns to New York. She’s rejected by her old society friends and struggles to find her place. She rekindles an old flame and tries to talk herself into believing it isn’t wrong. Her story was part of my inspiration for Serena van der Woodsen in GOSSIP GIRL, but there’s so much more that inspires me here. Wharton does that thing where we hear the character think one thing and say another. She’s wonderfully omniscient, in cahoots with the reader. And yet she has a deep, soulful empathy and love for her heroine and her foes. There’s an elegance to Wharton’s New York and her well-traveled, well-heeled New Yorkers that is never snooty. It’s genuine, and so romantic: “The worst of it is that I want to kiss you and I can’t.”
Edith Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Age of Innocence , which explores the joys and scandals surrounding the marriage of an upper-class New York couple during the Gilded Age.
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The ducks and the carousel in Central Park. Walking aimlessly around the city when everyone else is in school. Insecure, anxious, romantic, existentialist, declarative Holden Caulfield. Just rereading the fiercely loving way he describes his little sister—“I mean if you tell old Phoebe something, she knows exactly what the hell you’re talking about,” gets me every time. I could never have written Dan in GOSSIP GIRL without Holden Caulfield. There’s a little bit of him in every one of my male protagonists.
Staff Picks: 10 Classic Novels We Truly Enjoyed Reading for School
By Off the Shelf Staff | October 14, 2021
All of my five half-siblings had gone to boarding school, so my father thought I ought to go too. I remember my Phillips Exeter interview distinctly. The interviewer was a young, severe woman who wore a kilt. When she asked me about a favorite book I’d read recently I said confidently, “THE BELL JAR, by Sylvia Plath.” The interviewer was taken aback. “But she killed herself.” The interview spiraled downward from there, and I never went to boarding school. Suicide is not what’s memorable to me about THE BELL JAR. It’s a witty, apt chronicle of the anxieties of a hyperintelligent college-age woman trying (and failing) to find herself in the city. No one writes like Plath. Her word choices startle you awake. I don’t care what that Exeter interviewer thought all those years ago. THE BELL JAR is a crucial chronicle of young womanhood.
Reading Tom Wolfe made me a more daring writer—with language and dialogue and sentence structure, and with iconography, particularly the iconography of the city. This book is bold and funny and gets a particular milieu at a particular time in New York just exactly right. It’s a true social satire. I knew I wanted to do something similar but also very different. Wolfe’s portrayal of New York society is harshly hilarious. He doesn’t seem to care if his rich people are unlikeable. I do laugh at my rich New Yorkers, but I laugh with them and I love them too.
This quintessential story of 1980s New York centers on three characters—a WASP bond trader, a Jewish assistant district attorney, and a British expatriate journalist—as they navigate a cutthroat world of ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed.
I Heart the 80s: 12 Radical Reads About Everyone’s Favorite Decade
By Julianna Haubner | October 27, 2016
Cocktails in Grand Central Station and cigarettes on rainy sidewalks. Glowing apartment windows and doormen hailing taxis. I was first introduced to Cheever’s short stories in my tenth grade English class at Nightingale Bamford, taught by Christine Schutt, a wonderful writer and a great teacher. Reading Cheever’s stories, I learned for the first time the importance of setting and specificity. There’s much in his stories that I recognized from having grown up in the city and from having an older father of his generation. From Cheever I learned to pay attention to character details. “He wore his graying hair cut very short, he dressed in the kind of clothes his class had worn at Andover, and his manner was earnest, vehement, and intentionally naïve.” And I learned that heartbreaking things are happening to the businessman in the fancy trench coat that you see every day on the train.
John Cheever won the prize in 1979 for this tender and all-encompassing collection of short stories that give voice to “the greatest generation.”
THE LONELY DOLL was by far my favorite book as a child. It’s since been knocked off many bookshelves for being inappropriate for children, and maybe it is, but that doesn’t make it any less important to me. Wright’s photographs of Edith the doll and the two stuffed bears exploring the city and the interior of their apartment are incredibly, painstakingly, beautiful. I’ve always wanted a vanity like the one where Edith styles her hair and tries on jewelry and lipstick, knowing she’s going to get into trouble. I had a vivid imagination as a child and I was the youngest, the only girl. Edith was my soul sister. Whenever I open this book, I get a little tearful. I suppose it’s the inspiration for a theme explored in all my books, that someone who can appear so flawless—like Edith, the beautiful doll—is actually messy and complex and very human.
My all-time favorite book, the book I return to again and again. I even had my father read from it at my wedding. It’s exquisite and tragic and optimistically pessimistic. It’s a love story and a murder mystery, social commentary and a history lesson, all rolled into one. I find myself stopping to reread a sentence just for the pleasure of it. Gatsby’s devotion to impressing Daisy and Nick’s observations as a person new to the party—and new to the city and its wealthy suburbs—have informed everything I write. When I’m working on an ending, I always reread Fitzgerald’s inimitable last line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Read the full review here .
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COBBLE HILL is a deliciously irresistible novel chronicling a year in the life of four families in an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood as they seek purpose, community, and meaningful relationships—until one unforgettable night at a raucous neighborhood party knocks them to their senses.
Smart, sophisticated, yet surprisingly tender, COBBLE HILL is highly entertaining portrait of contemporary family life and the colorful characters who call Brooklyn home.
Learn more about CECILY VON ZIEGESAR’s book, COBBLE HILL here!
photo credit: kasto80 / iStock
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