17 sparkling and suspenseful novels set on the stage or the screen

17 sparkling and suspenseful novels set on the stage or the screen

Readers, one thing I love about recording with fellow bookworms for What Should I Read Next each week is discovering new facets of my own reading life as book lovers share their readerly joys, triumphs, woes, and always their favorite books.

When Ashley Parrish discovered her love of books set in the theater and art world during our conversation in Episode 274: #Bookstagram made me do it, I did, too. I’d never before articulated it, but I consistently enjoy books with any sort of theater setting.

Since then, I’ve noticed many books on my own shelves where drama exists both on and off the stage or screen, and picked up several new-to-me titles that fit the bill. (Pun intended.)

Today, I’m sharing a wide array of fiction featuring actors, camera operators, and set designers—some of whom find way more drama in “real life” than in their scripts.

With drive-in movies, Shakespeare in the park, and local drama camps in full swing, summer is the perfect season to pick up one of these titles. This reading list includes a mix of glitzy, glamorous Hollywood gossip and shockingly suspenseful stories set in the world of the theater.

I hope this book list helps you find the perfect drama to sweep you away.

17 books about the theater or the silver screen

Station Eleven

Station Eleven

In her haunting, wistful novel, Mandel imagines the end of the world as we know it, and it's nothing like you're expecting. Hours after a famous actor suddenly dies onstage during a performance of King Lear, a global pandemic known as the Georgian Flu sweeps the world. In her signature style, Mandel weaves together the stories of five characters, featuring a traveling Shakespeare troupe whose members earnestly endeavor to maintain art and hope. ("Because survival is insufficient.") Readers' appetites for pandemic-related stories may vary, but rest assured this book is anything but depressing; I found it striking, sympathetic, and hopeful. More info →
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Beautiful Ruins: A Novel

Beautiful Ruins: A Novel

Author:
This novel set in a tiny town on the Italian coast contains scenes from plays both real and not, the first chapter of a novel, a movie pitch, and someone else's memoir. In April 1962, an American actress mysteriously arrives by boat to fictional Porto Vorgogna, a tiny pin prick of a town. Dee is gorgeous, alone, and dying. She's been exiled here from the set of Cleopatra, the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton film that remains one of the most expensive and scandal-ridden movies ever made. As the story bounces back and forth between present-day Hollywood and the golden era of film, we discover why a Hollywood power player sent her away—and what happens next. More info →
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Stars Over Sunset Boulevard

Stars Over Sunset Boulevard

Author:
This novel begins in the present day when a distinctive green velvet hat appears at a vintage clothing shop. The hat is instantly recognizable as one that Scarlett O'Hara wore in Gone with the Wind; it disappeared during filming and hasn't been seen since. Of course the hat has a long, strange history, and Meissner takes us back in time to 1938 Hollywood, where two young friends are trying to make it in Tinseltown, each in their own way, and we see how that hat changed both their lives. Classic film fans won't want to miss this backlist title. More info →
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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Taylor Jenkins Reid's first historical novel focuses on an aging Hollywood starlet—fashioned in the image of Elizabeth Taylor and Rita Hayworth—whose successful career is less intriguing to the public than her tumultuous personal life, namely her seven husbands. Before she dies, Evelyn wants to tell the world which was her one true love, and so she plucks a young journalist from obscurity to write her celebrity tell-all. Evelyn is painfully honest and willing to deal with unpleasant truths. Evelyn's qualities make her a strong candidate for an intimate memoir: she's painfully honest and willing to deal with unpleasant truths. As was true with her career, Evelyn knows her weak spots, and expects the sucker punch. In the twilight of life, she knows what she MUST tell the world before she dies, and her revelations will shock everyone. More info →
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Limelight

Limelight

Author:
I love novels about New York City and was intrigued by the Broadway angle here: everyone's counting on teen pop star Carter Reid to anchor a much-anticipated musical revival, but he is wholly uninterested in fulfilling his contract. Enter Allison Brinkley, a newly unemployed mom who just arrived from Dallas and still feels like a fish out of water in the city. When a series of minor disasters connects her with the young star, one thing is clear: Carter needs a parental figure in his life. The story is slow to start, but I thoroughly enjoyed it once it did. I downloaded the audiobook narrated by Carly Robins, and it was a great listen for a solo road trip. (Note: I was especially glad to have the car to myself; it's seriously sweary.) More info →
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City of Girls

City of Girls

In her latest novel, Elizabeth Gilbert delivers a love story set in the 1940s New York City theater scene. Vivian Morris is shipped off to her Aunt Peg after she's kicked out of college. Her aunt's theater introduces her to a dazzling array of people and life experiences. But when Vivian is embroiled in a professional scandal, it will not only turn her new life upside down, it will put her on the path to the great love of her life. Exploring female sexuality and human desire, City Of Girls will have you questioning what it means to be "good." I thought this was SO MUCH FUN, and adored the narrative voice, which is quite different from Gilbert's previous works. More info →
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Actress

Actress

Author:
This reflective and often pained retrospective examines a complex mother-daughter relationship. Daughter Norah's musings are prompted by a graduate student who comes calling, seeking insight into the life of her mother, the brilliant Irish actress Katherine O'Dell. The style is almost—but not quite—stream of consciousness, as Norah examines her mother's early years as an actress, her sudden and enduring fame, and then her encroaching mental illness. I loved this book for its voice: Norah is a remarkable narrator of her mother's story, and I loved the sly way she lets her own story slip into the frame. Audiophile alert: Anne Enright is equally remarkable in her role as audiobook narrator: very few novelists narrate their own, but Enright reads hers here in an incredible performance. More info →
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Now That I’ve Found You

Now That I’ve Found You

Author:
Kristina Forest's YA novels are utterly charming and perfect for breezy summer reading. Her most recent release stars Evie Jones, about to be Hollywood's next big thing. Despite some early career setbacks, she's determined to follow in the footsteps of her her grandma Gigi, aka Evelyn Conaway, aka America's most beloved actress. There's just one problem: Evie's grandma has gone missing. Musician Milo Williams was the last person to see her, and even though Evie isn't sure she can trust him, she enlists him to help her comb New York City in the search. Adventure, romance, and hijinks ensue. More info →
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Into the Drowning Deep

Into the Drowning Deep

Author:
As a confirmed scaredy-cat I was afraid to pick up this sci-fi/horror novel, but a couple of readers I trust told me I could probably handle it. They were right. Here's the deal: researchers disagree about whether mermaids do, in fact, exist, but regardless of their professional opinions, a huge swath of the scientific community sets out for the Mariana Trench, a follow-up to a voyage seven years earlier ended in tragedy with everyone on board lost at sea. No one is exactly sure why; skeptics called the whole thing a hoax manufactured for their documentary audience, and mocked the footage captured by the camera operators and film crew. But the siren skeptics and the true believers are about to discover mermaids are very real—and it will be a miracle if anyone gets out of there alive. More info →
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If We Were Villains

If We Were Villains

Author:
This campus mystery set in the world of the theater, and swimming in Shakespeare, made for a wonderful buddy read. I also love a mystery that starts at the end: we know that Oliver Marks has just been released from jail after serving a ten year sentence, and he's finally ready to tell the truth. But the truth about what? We slowly learn that ten years ago, Oliver was part of a close-knit group of Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, where the offstage rivalries and romances hold just as much drama as their performances. Their final year—the one that lands Oliver in prison—reads more like one of Shakespeare's tragedies. This page-turning suspense novel is packed with Shakespeare references, and perfect for fans of Donna Tartt. More info →
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Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures

Author:
This 2012 backlist title from Emma Straub is a must-read for fans of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Elsa Emerson's family owns the Cherry County Playhouse in Door County, Wisconsin, where she performs for an adoring local audience. After tragedy strikes her family, teenage Elsa flees for the hills of Hollywood, transforming herself into Laura Lamont: studio starlet. What follows is a classic Golden Age of Hollywood story as Laura navigates fame, family, and love affairs in the spotlight. More info →
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Mother May I

Mother May I

I'm always excited for a new Joshilyn Jackson title: she's one of my must read authors, especially on audio. The inciting incident of her latest suspense novel unfolds in the balcony at a school rehearsal for Grease, Jr: The Musical. While Bree catches up with an old friend and fellow parent, someone kidnaps her baby while he naps in his carseat nearby. Bree soon discovers the kidnapper wants to use her to exact revenge for something that transpired long ago, but is far from forgotten. Bree decides that to get her baby back, she can't interact with the kidnapper as herself. Instead, she must step into a role—one that will win the kidnapper's sympathies—and must rely on every bit of skill honed in her acting days to do it. Readers, take note: you'll want to talk about the ending with a friend, so plan accordingly. And while it's obvious this plot includes children in peril, other content warnings apply; please do your research. More info →
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Good Company: A Novel

Good Company: A Novel

A wistful novel about marriage and the stories we tell ourselves, set in the world of theater. When voice actress Flora finds her husband’s old wedding ring in the bottom of a file cabinet—the ring her husband told her he’d lost at the bottom of the lake—she knows something is horribly wrong. On the eve of her daughter Ruby’s high school graduation, Flora questions everything she thought she knew about her past, including her sisterly relationship with her best friend Margot, a TV star who dotes on Ruby as if she were her own. In vivid flashbacks, we learn how Flora, Margot, and their husbands assembled a found family—from their initial connection made possible by a performance catastrophe during a Central Park Shakespeare production to gathering around the table in sunny LA many years later. I inhaled this story of two couples changing over time, together. More info →
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While We Were Dating

While We Were Dating

Heart, humor, and a key moment at an In-N-Out Burger make this Hollywood romance a fun summer escape. Ben (Theo’s brother from The Wedding Date) and Anna meet in a conference room, of all places. He’s presenting his marketing agency’s next big ad campaign; she’s the talent appearing in the ads. The connection is instant: he’s starstruck, and she’s smitten. As they get to know each other better during filming, they develop a real connection, and people can’t help but notice how good they look together. So when Anna’s trusted manager encourages her to embark on a fake romance because the publicity will help her land a coveted role in the Vigilantes movie, she says yes—and when they start playing the part of committed boyfriend and girlfriend for the public eye, things get complicated. Heads up for a few open door scenes. More info →
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Girl, Woman, Other

Girl, Woman, Other

Ashley Parrish didn't realize how much she loved books set in the theater and the arts until she shared this favorite Man Booker Prize winner on WSIRN Episode 274: #Bookstagram made me do it. Told in twelve interconnected stories of Black, British, and LGBTQ+ characters, this propulsive read features a host of fascinating characters, plus a unique structure and style with no punctuation or capitalization. (I found this jarring at first, but quickly adjusted.) Evaristo's mixture of poetry and prose makes for a page-turner; I couldn't wait to see how these characters' lives would converge in this vibrant novel. More info →
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Everything Leads to You

Everything Leads to You

Author:
LaCour is well-known for her evocative writing and character-driven narratives. Here she blends romance, mystery, and a classic coming of age arc for a beautiful (and page-turning) read. After wrapping up high school and a bad relationship, Emi moves into her brother's LA apartment and launches her career in set design, where her obvious talent and passion for the craft lands her a job in the film industry. While working as an intern, Emi finds herself at the estate sale of a Hollywood star where she meets Ava, a stunning girl who catches her interest. The pair finds a mysterious letter hidden among their purchases, spurring them on to an epic adventure—and a slow burn romance. More info →
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Kate in Waiting

Kate in Waiting

Albertalli calls acting her "great unrequited love story," so it's no wonder she writes with such fondness about high school theater departments and young artists finding their way in the world. In her latest novel, two best friends find themselves caught up in a love triangle that threatens to break them up. Kate and Anderson spend almost every minute together, discussing everything from their latest crushes to important life decisions while they carpool to musical theater rehearsals. When their mutual crush transfers to their school, Kate falls hard—and so does Anderson, putting their long-time friendship to the test. Albertalli creates a fabulous cast of characters to root for, but I was especially charmed by Kate, an endearingly awkward and earnest protagonist who's more comfortable being in the background. More info →
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Do you have a favorite book set on stage or on screen? Share your recommendations in the comments section!

P.S. Here are 16 Shakespeare-inspired books for all ages. Need an audiobook recommendation? Check out 20 celebrity memoirs read by their authors.

17 sparkling and suspenseful novels set on the stage or the screen

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43 comments | Comment

43 comments

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  1. Indiana Gigi says:

    The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin is a great addition to this list. For nonfiction lovers, I would recommend both of Julie Andrews’ two memoirs: Home, and Home Work. The first deals with her childhood as a performer on the vaudevillian circuit during World War 2, and her later breakthrough on both the London and Broadway stage. Her second is all about her Hollywood film career in classics like Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. This amazing actress has had a career spanning 75 years!

  2. Deepa says:

    Station Eleven is such an incredible, haunting book – survival is indeed insufficient, art is sustenance. So too Beautiful Ruins, which I need to re-read. I vividly recall the image of a tennis court on top of a cliff!

    I’m going to check out the other books in this list. Thank you.

    • Ginger says:

      I still think about those characters in Beautiful Ruins and wonder what they’re up to before remembering…

  3. Jennie H. says:

    I loved this episode of your podcast and Station Eleven is one of my all time favorites. I would add Hamnet to this list. While the theater isn’t at the forefront, it does give us a look at what Shakespeare’s home life might have been like. It was my most loved book of 2020.
    Planning to add several of these to my to-read list.

  4. Eileen says:

    The Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly as well as her other two books The Lilac Girls and Lost Roses.If you want to read in order start w/Lilac Girls, then Lost Roses.She has become a favorite author of mine Also News Of The World by Paulette Jiles much better than the movie no surprise there. Lastly The Beantown Girls by Jane Healey.

  5. Alison says:

    I’m really enjoying Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, which tells the stories of a female pilot in the 30s/40s and then a contemporary actress making a movie of her life! I enjoyed several of the books on this list, but was surprised by how much I didn’t like City of Girls… kept reading because I expected to enjoy it.

    • Ginger says:

      I just had a friend this week tell me Great Circle was the favorite book of the year so far. It’s on my TBR!

  6. Rebecca Gould says:

    Anne – you have a way of describing books that makes most of them very appealing to me! My TBR is exploding!!!

  7. mimi says:

    Stars over Sunset Boulevard is a great book about female friendship as well as Hollywood movie sets. It was my first book to read of Susan Meissner and I continue to read her books. Thanks for the list. A few are going to be added to my TBR pile.

  8. Raela says:

    I think Roman and Jewel by Dana L. Davis has to be on this list! It’s a YA novel about a Hamilton-esque new Broadway musical version of Romeo and Juliet. The hero is Roman and the heroine is an unknown who got the understudy role for Jewel. Lots of love for NYC and some unexpected character arcs. The audiobook was good!

  9. Dana says:

    I second ‘The Girls in the Picture’. I also read ‘Roman and Jewel’ and enjoyed it. It’s about “Romeo and Juliet” getting the “Hamilton” treatment on Broadway and follows a young actress who’s cast as the Jewel/Juliet standby during the rehearsals. It’s YA, but I enjoyed it

  10. Denae says:

    Love this topic! A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott would also be a fitting addition to this list. It’s set against the making of Gone with the Wind, and I found it to be an interesting read.

  11. Lindsey says:

    “Pretty As A Picture” by Elizabeth Little is another great murder mystery involving a film/movie setting. Highly recommend.

  12. Sue T. says:

    “The Siren” by Katherine St. John takes place during the shoot of a film starring a Hollywood megastar and his ex-wife. The novel is told from shifting points of view: Stella (the ex-wife), Felicity (her assistant), and Taylor (the producer). Trigger warning for sexual assault, but I still enjoyed it a lot!

  13. Beverly J Wrigglesworth says:

    Enter Three Withes by Kate Gilmore (1990)
    This is a cute YA romance about a high school theater technician trying to woo the First Witch in their school’s production of MacBeth. Also, said theater tech lives with his witch mom, fortune teller grandma, Louise the voodoo queen, a senile opera singer, Luna the Siamese cat familiar, and Shadow, Bren’s dog and staunchest ally, in a large and eccentric mansion near Central Park.

    The author is clearly in love with New York City as can be seen in the prose. Bren and Erika’s romantic fumblings don’t go on so long as to be annoying. Bren’s father’s romantic misfortunes are also worth a good laugh.

  14. Lauren says:

    Mazie, by Melanie Crowder, is a YA novel that was published in Feb. 2021 about a young woman from the Midwest who navigates love, family dynamics and her own ambition while she pursues a career on Broadway. I picked this up because it features industrial musicals, which is a fascinating aspect of the musical theatre industry. A fun and fast read.

  15. Shelby says:

    I think All the Stars in Heaven belong on this list! Adriana Trigiani is great at epic family sagas. I don’t think this is Epic, but it does span some time. And definitely gives a good background of Old Hollywood. I enjoyed this audiobook very much.

  16. Paige says:

    The middle grade novel Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan is very tender and funny about a small town production of The Wizard of Oz. The characters are quirky and charming. I loved it!

  17. Suzanne C says:

    Coincidentally, I started reading If We Were Villains this afternoon, before seeing this list. So far, I can’t put it down. Glad I put something in the slow cooker today, because the family might have had to order out otherwise. 😉

  18. Kami Evarts says:

    Small Professional Murder by Ned Averill-Snell, available from Amazon. Lighthearted, with lots of insider experience from the Tampa theater world. Ned is a friend, but I wouldn’t recommend it if I hadn’t really enjoyed the book!
    Also Elizabeth the First Wife by Lian Dolan. Features an action star ex husband, and the Oregon Shakespeare festival. Another really fun read.

  19. Kat says:

    Someday, Someday, Maybe – Lauren Graham. An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson. Jane Dentinger’s Jocelyn O”Roark series, Jennifer Carroll’s Kate Stanley series. And then because I can’t resist a mystery about Shakespeare and his manuscripts, even when they don’t necessarily involve an actual theater production – Jennifer Carroll’s Interred with Their Bones, Chasing Shakespeare by Sarah Smith, The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett, The Sonnet Lover by Carol Goodman and Harvard Yard by William Martin.

  20. Pat says:

    As soon as you said stage, I thought of Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. It follows her life as she works to have a career as an actress. Reading it, I felt like I was part of the summer stock productions!! Very good. This is making me want to reread it!

  21. C says:

    Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts is a novel about Maud Gage Baum, daughter of a pioneering feminist, plainswoman, and keeper of the Oz flame on the 1939 movie set.
    L. Frank

  22. Barbara Ledger says:

    Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls is a great read featuring a young man who gets inveigled into joining an amateur dramatics group putting on Romeo and Juliet, so he can be near the girl he’s falling for. Funny, touching and thoughtful.

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