Launching a first novel is an uncertain thing. Which signal the beginnings of a successful career? Which are flashes in the pan? It’s often hard to tell.
With these 25 debuts, however, there was no doubt. These authors astonished right out of the gate with strong storytelling prowess and memorable voices. Read on for our list of the best debuts from the century’s first decade: 2000-2009.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
Perhaps the defining debut of the 2000s, Smith’s multicultural portrait of London life perfectly captured The Way We Live Now. While totally specific in its jump-off-the-page characters and true-to-life setting, it manages to have a universal feel as well—this could be your family. This is the sort of ambitious, accomplished debut that it’s impossible to ignore, and Smith has gone on to prove her talent with three more very different but equally accomplished novels.
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2000)
“This best-selling novel is the work of a whiz-kid,” says our review—which about sums things up. Imaginative, quirky and humorous, the novel also tackles the Jewish diaspora and the effect of the past on the present, ideas that Foer continued to explore in his second bestseller, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (2001)
Though she’s now one of the leading voices in historical fiction, back in 2001 Brooks was best known for her prize-winning work as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. She broke through the fiction barrier with a bang to tell this story of a small English village that goes into quarantine when the black plague is discovered within its boundaries.
Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles (2002)
Prize-winning poet Jiles takes on a little-known slice of American history: the imprisonment of women during the Civil War. After being unjustly accused of spying, 18-year-old Adair is taken from her family home in the Ozarks to the St. Louis jail. With the help of a sympathetic Union soldier—who promises to find her once his duty is over—she manages to escape and embarks on a harrowing trek home. Jiles excels at depicting the horrors of a land and people ravaged by war, and her strong and spirited heroine is one readers will root for.
Three Junes by Julia Glass (2002)
An old-fashioned family drama, Glass’ fiction debut is told in three parts, a triptych that gives a full picture of the complicated bonds within the McLeod family—parents Paul and Maureen, their oldest son Fenno and their twin sons David and Dennis. Brilliantly rendered, full of characters who feel like people you know, this is a polished, perfect first book.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002)
The brutal, violent death suffered by Sebold’s narrator in the opening chapter sets the tone for this bold and visceral first novel. Susie Salmon is just 14 when she goes missing on the way home from school. Though her own life is over, she continues to watch the struggles of her family from heaven as they attempt to discover what happened to their beloved little girl.
Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones (2002)
Jones’ debut is a sensitively written coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of Atlanta’s African-American neighborhoods in 1979, where black children were being murdered by an infamous serial killer. This historical drama serves to deepen Jones’ careful exploration of the dangers of growing up—and especially, the dangers of growing up black.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2003)
In her first novel, Lahiri continued to showcase the elegant, deceptively simple writing that marked her Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection, expanding her scope to tell the story of Gogol Ganguli, the American-born son of Ashoke Ganguli, who arrives in Massachusetts from India in the late 1960s as an engineering student, and Ashima, Ashoke’s wife through an arranged marriage.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
Hosseini was a practicing physician in California when he wrote The Kite Runner, a surprise hit that illuminated Afghanistan’s tortured history through the powerful story of two boys. The novel sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S., and Hosseini has since published two other bestsellers.
The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2003)
This “staggeringly accomplished” first novel takes as its premise a surprising piece of history: Some free blacks did, in fact, own slaves themselves. Jones takes a clear-eyed look at this morally complicated time through his complex characters, including Henry Townsend, whose own parents worked for years to buy his freedom only to see him enslave others, and Jim Skiffington, a local sheriff who is personally against slavery but must uphold the laws of 1850s Virginia.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (2003)
Christopher Boone is 15, and something of an autistic savant. Yet his ability to name every prime number doesn’t help him parse the emotional turmoil of his home life. When he embarks on a mission to find out who stabbed his neighbor’s dog with a gardening fork, Christopher—who narrates the story in an inimitable voice—ends up stumbling on a much greater mystery.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)
Who would have thought that an 800-page book starring two magicians could become a major bestseller? Though Clarke’s epic, Dickensian tale set in an alternate 1806 England might have come in on Harry Potter’s coattails, it had a style all its own. As magicians Strange and Norrell—the first in possession of abundant natural, effortless but undirected talent, and the second something of a scholarly pedant—attempt to bring magic back to England, Clarke brings magic back to the world of literary fiction. Fans of The Night Circus and The Golem and the Jinni—you’re welcome.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (2004)
We readers love our books about books, and Ruiz Zafon’s first adult novel—also a bestseller in his native Spain—is one of the best ever written. A twisty, Gothic tale that contains a story-within-a-story, it features a mythical “Cemetery of Forgotten Books,” a reclusive author and a Barcelona that is still reeling from the Spanish Civil War. Part noir, part coming-of-age story and part mystery, this is 100% page-turner.
gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson (2005)
The somewhat staid world of Southern fiction got a jump-start when Jackson appeared on the scene. Though it targets themes of redemption, family bonds and the weight of the past, Jackson’s writing deals honestly with the South’s complicated past, possesses nary a jot of nostalgia and is anything but treacly. Her debut showcases all of the above and adds a saucy, strong heroine to boot.
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (2005)
Novels set in prep school are a dime a dozen, which makes the fact that Prep stood out from the crowd an even more impressive feat. As middle-class, Midwestern girl Lee learns to swim among the sharks at her upscale boarding school, Sittenfeld perfectly captures all the pain and drama of growing up, making for a solid, perceptive debut.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (2006)
Starring a bookish young heroine who gets drawn into a Gothic mystery involving a reclusive female writer, this dark horse debut took bestseller lists by storm upon publication and has been a perennial hit with book clubs ever since. Setterfield, who taught French before becoming a published writer, took her time coming out with a follow up, releasing her second novel nearly 8 years later.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (2006)
Voice is a big part of what marks a debut as special, and the hyper-literate, exuberant, creative voice of Marisha Pessl was one that readers could love or love to hate—but not ignore. This ambitious coming-of-age novel is also a suspenseful mystery, a story of adolescence and a touching portrayal of the father/daughter relationship. Pessl’s long-awaited second novel, Night Film, was released in 2013.
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris (2007)
Narrating a novel in the second-person plural is a risky choice—especially when it’s also your first book. But Ferris pulls it off with aplomb in Then We Came to the End, a high-wire act of a novel that takes a collection of office archetypes—the go-getters, the slackers, the petty tyrants—and brings them vividly to life. Written in just 14 weeks, this vibrant and lively story marked Ferris as a true writer to watch.
Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón (2007)
The turbulent political history of South America is not often plumbed for fiction, but Alarcón does this complicated subject justice—and tells a moving tale besides—in his lyrical debut, set in an unnamed South American country. “This book is about telling the stories that people didn’t want to hear before, that were inconvenient to hear,” he told us in an interview. Alarcón’s second novel, At Night, was published in 2013.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (2007)
Díaz’s first novel, which had been anticipated for nearly a decade, stars an overweight nerd who couldn’t be more different from Yunior, the womanizing antihero introduced in Díaz’s celebrated story collection, Drown. Yet the two share a talent for falling in love, and as Díaz recounts Oscar’s journey in that inimitable voice, readers fall in love as well.
In the Woods by Tana French (2007)
Occupying the narrow territory between suspense and literary fiction, French’s debut is a psychologically acute, harrowing police procedural. As Dublin detective Rob Ryan and his partner and best friend Cassie Maddox investigate a 12-year-old girl’s murder, Rob finds that the case stirs up a childhood trauma he can no longer ignore.
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (2008)
Quirky and bold, Lauren Groff’s debut is both the story of an individual—Willie Upton, who has been told that her father isn’t the person she thought he was—and a town: Templeton, in upstate New York. As Willie pores over Templeton history in order to discover who her father is, readers are treated to the colorful histories of its varied residents. Told in several voices, including that of the area lake monster, this is a lively and compelling first novel.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2008)
One of the signs of a successful novel is its ability to spawn imitators—and we’re still feeling the impact of Stieg Larsson’s hard-boiled Swedish thriller starring a heroine who, to put it mildly, doesn’t take crap from anyone. Sadly, Larsson died before seeing his novels published, but his legacy lives on in the flood of Scandinavian thrillers and kick-ass heroines that swamp bookshelves worldwide.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (2009)
Like Khaled Hosseini, Verghese trained as a doctor before turning to fiction, and his first novel stars twin siblings who both practice medicine. Marion becomes an excellent if unheralded surgeon, but Shiva, with no formal medical training, becomes a pioneer in fistula repair, a skill desperately needed in Ethiopia. As this epic tale unwinds across continents, the conflicts between the two very different brothers are juxtaposed with the larger crises in the outside world.
American Rust by Philipp Meyer (2009)
Set in Pennsylvania, in the heart of the Rust Belt, this literary debut portrays a disappearing small-town, blue-collar America with clear-eyed perception. Best friends Isaac and Poe had planned to escape their dying hometown of Buell for college. But when these dreams are crushed, both must try to salvage their futures. Meyer, whose second novel, The Son, was published in 2013, writes with authority, and his work has been compared to American greats like McCarthy and Faulkner.