Thursday, July 24, 2014

Favorite Novels Set in New York City

Earlier this month, I spent a week in New York City. While I was there, I started thinking about all the great fiction I've read that takes place in New York. It's not surprising, I suppose, that writers find inspiration in the Big Apple ... after all, Manhattan is the center of the publishing industry, and the city as a whole has drawn writers and other artists for more than a century. Still, it's interesting to think about the wide variety of novels for which New York City provides an evocative setting; in some cases, the city, or a part of the city, seems almost like a character in and of itself.

I decided to create a list of my ten favorite novels that take place in New York City. These range from classics to children's books, from historical fiction to contemporary novels. I know I have left out a few novels that some would say are quintessential New York stories . . . but these are my favorites. Here they are:

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton: Wharton's masterpiece about the Golden Age of Old New York is one of my all-time favorite books. The characters are magnificently drawn, and the satire about the elaborate customs of the city's aristocracy is witty and fascinating. You know, I think it may be high time I re-read this classic.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer: Foer's beautifully written novel is layered and emotionally resonant. It is a 9/11 book, of course... but it's also about tragedy and grief in a larger sense, and how people can overcome terrible things and still live on.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: I loved this novel set in 1930s Manhattan. It's full of sharp and witty prose, and filled with interesting, multi-dimensional characters. A delicious and intelligent read.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg: As a kid, I relished this novel about two siblings who run away from their suburban life to the big city, where they hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: Egan's series of linked stories about people connected to the music business is set mostly in New York, although some of the narratives take place in California and other locales. I found this inventive book to be equal parts clever, funny, and sad.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Of course. This list just wouldn't seem complete without Fitzgerald's 1925 classic about decadence, excess, idealism, and the pursuit of the American Dream.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: Tartt's novel, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is beautiful, flawed, and unforgettable. The Goldfinch struck me as very much a 9/11 story. The main character, Theo, loses his mother in a fictional terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is unmoored by the experience, and his psychological wounds take a decade to heal; Theo seemed to me to represent New York itself, struggling to recover after the tragedy.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh: This classic and ground-breaking coming-of-age story about a girl sleuth living on the Upper East Side was one of my absolute favorite books as child. I must have read it a dozen times. Can you believe that it was first published in 1964 and celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier this year?

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann: McCann's intricate and gorgeously written novel of interconnected stories, set in 1970s New York, offers a nuanced portrait of love, loss, and hope.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr: Carr's literary thriller takes readers back to New York in 1896 and the seamy underside of the Gilded Age. The young Theodore Roosevelt, police commissioner of New York City, organizes a team of unlikely allies, including a psychologist or "alienist" in the parlance of the time, to hunt a serial killer targeting adolescent boys. Definitely an interesting companion piece to read alongside The Age of Innocence.

What do you think . . . Are these some of your favorite New York novels, too? What have I left out that you consider a great New York story?


  1. Great topic and list! I've read and loved 8 of these. Hope to get to The Goldfinch very soon, but I'm not sure about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close... should probably give it a try at some point.

    1. I worried that Extremely Loud would be too emotional to read... But I ended up loving it. I keep meaning to read one of Foer's other novels, but haven't gotten a chance yet.

  2. I was born in Brooklyn, lived in Queens as a teen and young adult, and then lived for awhile in upstate NY-- Sullivan county-- so I enjoyed reading this list!
    NYC is like a main character in its own right in many books, it is so atmospheric. I now live on the west coast, but look back at my time there fondly. From the Mixed Up Files..such a good read. One of the last places I requested to visit before moving away was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, love it!

    1. Yes, love The Mixed-Up Files! You know, it's interesting how many novels have scenes that take place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.... That place really takes a hold of the imagination, doesn't it?

  3. You've got some great ones listed here! I especially love From the Mixed Up Files... I never read it as a kid but listened to it on audio with my sons, and we all loved it. Harriet the Spy was one of my faves when I was a kid, too - oddly, though, my sons didn't like it much - thought that Harriet was mean to the other kids which never really bothered me - I guess they are better people than me! lol Which is great.

    Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is my favorite movie, and I really want to read the book (which is on my shelf), and I'll be reading The Goldfinch in August.

    I read two novels this year set in NYC which I really loved and where the city is a big part of the story: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon and Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.

    Great idea and fun list!


    Book By Book

    1. Ah, the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay--definitely a great New York story! Yes, that should really be on the list. I haven't read Tell the Wolves I'm Home, but I would like to.