Readers, today I’m sharing a long list of books in one of my favorite (and completely made-up) sub-genres: compulsively readable literary fiction.
Genre distinctions are tricky (or downright odious, to some authors), so let me explain what I mean. (Cue my high school German teacher, who began every explanation of European culture by saying, “This is a generalization, and all generalizations are false. However …”)
First, the literary. I love a good literary novel, the kind of “serious” novels that probe human nature (and especially human shortcomings), focus on the interior lives of their characters, and generally focus on meaning over entertainment.
This is the kind of work coming out of Iowa, especially, and Boston and New York. These are the titles bandied about by committees awarding Pulitzers, Man Booker Prizes, National Book Awards. Many of these are called “quiet” books. “Lighthearted” and “fun” are not words typically used to describe literary fiction, and they’re rarely called page-turners.
Second, compulsively readable. What can I say? I want what the literary crowd too often tells me I can’t have, not with their work: I want a page-turner. I mean a book that is strong not only on interior characterization but also on plot, one that tempts me to keep reading way past my bedtime, one that makes me want to know what happens next.
Today I’m sharing 15 titles that delivered on both counts: books that manage to be both literary, and compulsively readable. I hope you find something perfect for you on this list, and I can’t wait to hear your suggestions in comments.
I recently enjoyed reading this (for the third time), finding it every bit as good as I remembered. In his debut, Towles plunges you into the streets of the glittering streets of Manhattan, circa 1938, and into a circle of unlikely friends whose lives turn on one impulsive decision. I love the craft here: Towles sets his scenes so well, and the opening and closing scenes frame the story beautifully. This Gatsby-esque novel keeps surprises with shocking plot twists, including the unforgettable ending. More info →
I love stories that bring together seemingly unrelated plot lines in interesting ways, and Mandel delivers with her post-apocalyptic tale of a global pandemic, a traveling Shakespeare troupe, and a graphic novel. Her spare writing and numerous strong moments heighten the story's impact. When I first picked this up, I was afraid it would be depressing, but I found it striking, sympathetic, and hopeful. A National Book Award finalist. More info →
The story centers around a smart, strong-willed Nigerian woman named Ifemelu. After university, she travels to America for postgraduate work, where she endures several years of near-destitution, and a horrific event that upends her world. The novel grapples with difficult issues without becoming overwrought. I would not have read this based on the flap copy, but I was hooked from page one. Terrific on audio. More info →
In 1974 New York City, Phillipe Petit walked a high wire strung between the Twin Towers. This true event is the backdrop to McCann's National Book Award-winning fictional response to 9/11, in which he tells the interlocking stories of three New Yorkers struggling with their own personal tragedies. More info →
The joke in publishing is that it takes Tartt ten years to write her novels—and if you spend a decade writing something, it had better be good, right? This story begins with a murder, and the lonely, introspective narrator devotes the rest of the novel to telling the reader about his role in it, and how he seemingly got away with it. The setting is a small Vermont college, the characters members of an isolated, eccentric circle of classics majors, who murder one of their own. Strongly reminiscent of The Likeness in setting, Crime and Punishment in plot, and Brideshead Revisited in tone. More info →
Opening line: "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist." In Jones's third novel set in Atlanta (which is now followed by a fourth, and it's a good one), Jones writes about the link between two African-American half sisters, one legitimate and one secret, only one of whom knows the other exists. That is, until the secret of their father's second marriage starts to force its way into the open. More info →
Cleave knows how to tell a good story, and in his sophomore novel, he weaves together the lives of his narrator Little Bee, an illegal Nigerian refugee who has renamed herself to evade pursuit by the Nigerian militia, and a recently widowed Londoner. (Though my favorite Cleave novel is Everyone Brave Is Forgiven.) More info →
By exploring the stories of two sisters, who met different fates in Ghana more than 200 years ago, Gyasi traces subtle lines of cause and effect through the centuries, illuminating how the deeds of ages past still haunt all of us today. Her debut (named NPR's Debut Novel of the Year) follows the generations of one family over a period of 250 years, showing the devastating effects of racism from multiple perspectives, in multiple settings. For the first hundred pages I didn't quite grasp what the author was up to, but when it hit me it was powerful. A brilliant concept, beautifully executed. More info →
This is the story of a family in middle America, two parents and three kids, completely normal—with one major exception. Daughter Rosemary is our narrator, who insists on page 1 that she needs to skip the beginning of this story and start in the middle instead. We soon learn that when Rosemary's sister left, everyone else fell apart, and they're still picking up the pieces. Don't read the description, just start reading. (Before a Modern Mrs Darcy team member gave this Man Booker Prize finalist to her sister, she removed the jacket so she wouldn't be tempted.) More info →
Bennett's debut isn't an easy read, but it's so good—and one that I still think about even though I read it many moons ago. This coming-of-age story depicts how grief predictably consumes a 17-year old girl growing up in a tight-knit African-American community in Southern California, and how two friends get pulled into the tangled aftermath. More info →
In Hamid's latest novel, a finalist for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, two young people meet and find love during a time of great political unrest in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. As violence simmers and then explodes into war, they survey their options and make the difficult decision to flee the city, perhaps taking advantage of the rumored doors that open almost magically into other lands, like Syria or San Francisco. An evocative story improved by the restrained element of magical realism, and strongly reminiscent of The Underground Railroad. More info →
I've been working my way through Kent Haruf's back catalog and enjoying it so much—if that's the right word. In this small-town Colorado story, Haruf weaves three families together in surprising ways. All are dealing with their own private tragedies, and everything is about to get worse, for all of them. This was a National Book Award finalist, and it's one of those books that begs to be discussed: it would be an excellent book club pick. (Heads up, readers: triggers abound.) More info →
Adebayo's debut is a powerful, emotional story about love, family, and fidelity set against the backdrop of the turbulent political climate of 1985-2008 Nigeria. The story begins with Yejide’s mother-in-law arrives at her door with a guest in tow: her husband’s second wife, that she didn’t know he’d married. Named one of the 10 best books of the year by the New York Public Library. More info →
This modern retelling of Antigone was long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and powerfully probes themes of love, political allegiance, and terrorism. I’m not sure I would have realized this was rooted in the Greek myth if I hadn’t been told: Shamsie’s story feels modern, timely, and incredibly relevant to current events. (First line: “Isma was going to miss her flight.“) More info →
Ng's second novel opens with a house on fire, literally. It belongs to a suburban family, and it wasn't an accident: as one character reports, “The firemen said there were little fires everywhere." But who did it, and why? That's the setup for this literary thriller, which explores what happens when an itinerant artist and her daughter move into a seemingly perfect Ohio community, and thoroughly disrupt the lives of its residents. More info →
Which of these titles have you loved (or not)? What are your favorite books that fit this category—what would YOU add to the list?