For centuries, New York has captured the imagination of artists and entrepreneurs, dreamers and schemers—how else can you explain more than 8.5 million people living in 300 square miles? The city is alive with promise and opportunity, glamour and grit, power and mischief, movement and stasis, hopes and dreams. In so many novels, the city is a character unto itself, and it’s with this premise in mind that we compiled some of our favorite novels where New York City shines with all of its opportunity, heartbreak, and magic.
As E. B. White wrote, “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.” So here's a book roundup of New York City's poetry.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
With Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan—who dazzled readers with her Pulitzer Prize–winning A Visit from the Goon Squad—spins a classic historical novel. Classic in the sense that it’s virtually impossible to put down. Classic in its sepia-toned portrait of New York: set on the Brooklyn docks during World War II, when mobsters ruled, the war loomed, and a young girl dove her way into becoming the first female diver on the squad. Classic in its quintessentially satisfying characters: crooked gangsters, disappearing fathers, gritty sailors, and an intrepid young woman equally at home in a 200-pound diving suit and a green silk dress who unites them all. Classic in its revelation of the dangerous, altruistic, and nefarious choices people make to support their families, their country, and themselves. Manhattan Beach is a classic New York story.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
James McBride, author of the National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird and the beloved memoir The Color of Water, has written a propulsive and comic neighborhood epic set in the 1960s New York with a cast of characters that are beguiling, boozed-filled, and larger than life. When a young drug lord is shot in broad daylight by a bumbling drunk known to everyone as Sportcoat, the Brooklyn neighborhood they live in is upended. As Sportcoat comically and unknowingly dodges the police, his actions ricochet around him, igniting a web of drug wars, backdoor dealings with mobsters, and church brawls that demonstrate just how vital yet fragile communities can be. Deacon King Kong tells the fictional story of one Brooklyn project, but in so doing tells a broader story of race and religion, getting by and getting out, and how grudges and alliances become embedded in the foundations of our neighborhoods. An incredibly satisfying read.
Open City by Teju Cole
There's nothing like the streets of New York—the way they hum in a grid from one neighborhood to the next, from one dream to another. And there's no better meditation on their resilience and existence than Teju Cole's Open City—about a Nigerian doctor who goes for a walk and gets lost in his own thoughts and history, the neighborhoods he passes through, his ex-girlfriend, and the dreams he has. He's interrupted by those he meets on the street, and it's this serendipitous reverie of interaction that perfectly captures the spark of New York City.
Christodora by Tim Murphy
A best book of August 2016, Tim Murphy’s Christodora revolves around the Christodora, an East Village apartment building whose tenants bear witness to the ever-changing city. From the devastation of the 1980s AIDS epidemic to the influx of drug addicts and alcoholics, to the transformation of boho artists to yuppies, Jared and Milly and their adopted son, Mateo, grapple with their shifting Manhattan neighborhood and the unforgettable events of the past that will forever define their future. Told through multiple narrators and moving back and forth through the decades, Christodora is a page-turning epic that crackles with New York City life—in all its messy, addictive, artistic glory.
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
Set in the 1940s, City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert is a New York favorite—in fact, we named it one of our top ten Best Books of 2019. Vivian Morris has just been expelled from Vassar and she’s sent to NYC to live with her aunt Peg—who runs a theater of thespians and showgirls. Within her newfound family and in a new city shimmering with opportunity, Vivian sets out to become someone interesting, and in short order commits a colossal youthful indiscretion that makes her interesting for all the wrong reasons. Erin Kodicek described the book as “bawdy but bighearted”—a novel that makes you feel you are on top of the world walking down the streets of New York City.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Brooklyn, 1930s and '40s. The Second World War is in full swing, but so is the comic book craze, and Joe Kavalier—escape artist, magician and artist—and his cousin Sammy Clay are determined to make their mark on the genre. Their tales of the Escapist and Luna Moth, fighting against the Axis Powers and Hitler himself, will do more than just entertain the masses. This is a great American novel like no other with New York at the forefront.
Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
For many, New York is and was the pinnacle of glamour and sparkling, decadent wealth. In Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly is in search of exactly that. She’s beautiful, young and naive, and is consumed by the desire to find a rich husband. New York is her playground—where mobsters funnel her money, as do her dates, and with a drink in hand, anything can happen, darling.
The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin
Multi-award-winner N. K. Jemisin brings her rip-roaring storytelling skills to her backyard of New York City in this propulsive series starter that is very much a love letter to her home, though not in the way you might expect. Five very different people in New York City discover that they, somehow, have become the living avatars of each of the five boroughs of the city, which is now newly sentient. With that responsibility also comes paranormal powers—as well as an enemy who wishes to destroy the newborn city. Talk about the magic and myth of the city that never sleeps!
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn was a finalist for a National Book Award in 2016, and we named it a Best Book of the Month. Set in 1970s Brooklyn, Woodson’s novel recounts the story of four friends as they transition from the simplicity and exuberance of childhood to the perils and power of adulthood. As Seira Wilson wrote in her review, “Their neighborhood is both lifeline and trap, as so many places are, and it’s hard to say for sure why some break the tether and others become what they once scorned.” Woodson is a remarkable writer who swiftly, beautifully, and effortlessly writes about Brooklyn in all its wonder and heartbreak.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a laugh-out-loud and sob-into-your-sweater kind of book. Jonathan Safran Foer's novel grapples with New York in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Oskar Schell is a nine-year-old inventor, explorer, Francophile, pacifist, jeweler, and detective. After his father is killed on 9/11, Oskar discovers a mysterious key in his dad's closet, and he sets off to discover what it will unlock. In his search, Oskar plunges into the history of Manhattan, traverses the five boroughs, meets survivors and New Yorkers, while experiencing the melancholy of loss—or as he describes it, having "heavy-boots." A remarkable novel about the resilience, beauty, and traumas of New York City.
This article was updated in September 2020.
Beloved books that conjure the city that never sleeps.
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