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In the tightknit community of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Poughkeepsie, New York, 23-year-old Arlo Dilly’s life is dictated by his ultraconversative uncle, Brother Birch, and an equally religious American Sign Language interpreter named Molly. Arlo is deafblind, and his sheltered upbringing and sensory limitations mean that his life has been highly controlled by those around him—until a 40-something interpreter named Cyril Brewster changes all of that quite unintentionally.

When Arlo decides to take a writing course at a local community college, Cyril accepts the job as his summer interpreter. Cyril isn’t an expert in the form of ASL that Arlo uses, referred to as Tactile or TSL, but he’s hoping to make some extra money and, concerned as he is about “beelining for homosexual obscurity,” escape Poughkeepsie for good. It isn’t long before Cyril begins to appreciate Arlo for who he is: a determined young man who is smart, funny and full of curiosity.

With Cyril as his champion, Arlo begins to ask questions about things as small as his bowl haircut and daily bologna sandwich, and as big as the truth about his boarding school sweetheart, S. At its heart, The Sign for Home is about a young man doing everything he can to be with the love of his life.

Chapters alternate between Arlo’s and Cyril’s narration. Passages that depict how Arlo experiences touch, smell and ASL are especially well done; his sections unfold in the second-person singular, so his lessons and revelations feel all the more intimate, revealing a layer of emotional intelligence and humor that would be lost if the story were told only from Cyril’s first-person perspective.

Debut novelist Blair Fell has worked as an ASL interpreter for more than 25 years, and also has been an actor, producer and director. The Sign for Home draws on all these experiences to tell a story that is tender, hilarious and decidedly uplifting.

The love story of Blair Fell’s deafblind hero is tender, hilarious and decidedly uplifting.

The history of world literature is filled with second novels that pale in comparison to their author’s stellar freshman achievement. How many debuts have had the spectacular success of Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain? More than 500,000 copies sold and the 2020 Booker Prize is not a bad way to start a literary career.

Readers will be happy to learn that Stuart’s follow-up, Young Mungo, is even stronger than his first book. This tale of two gay Glasgow teenagers caught amid various forms of prejudice in the early 1990s is a marvelous feat of storytelling, a mix of tender emotion and grisly violence that finds humanity in even the most fraught circumstances.

You know you’re in for a tough upbringing when your alcoholic mother names you after a patron saint known for having “started a fire from nothing, or . . . something,” as 15-year-old Mungo explains. But Mungo has bigger problems than his name, which Stuart describes in heartbreaking detail. Mungo’s alcoholic mother, 34-year-old Mo-Maw, often disappears on wild drinking sprees. When under the influence, she’s a harsher version of herself, transforming into a “heartless, shambling scarecrow” that Mungo, his brother Hamish and sister Jodie have nicknamed “Tattie-bogle.”

Hamish is a gang leader who leads fights against working-class Catholic youths, and he forces Mungo to join the Protestant cause and take to the streets with him. “I need to sort you out,” Hamish tells him. But Mungo doesn’t need sorting out. He needs more time with James Jamieson, a Catholic boy with whom he has fallen in love and who tends to birds in his beloved dovecote.

Scenes between Mungo and James are the most beautiful in the book. They stand in contrast to the moments that are among the most brutal: To toughen up Mungo, Mo-Maw sends him on a fishing trip with two thugs of questionable repute. That trip, like so much else in the book, doesn’t go the way Mungo, or his mother, ever anticipated.

Some plot elements in Young Mungo may disturb, but all are sensitively rendered, and the simplicity of Stuart’s writing makes them all the more powerful. One of the myths of St. Mungo is that he once brought a dead robin back to life. No such restoration occurs in young Mungo’s hardscrabble life, but as Stuart shows, hope often lies where you least expect it.

Douglas Stuart’s follow-up to Shuggie Bain is a marvelous feat of storytelling, a mix of tender emotion and grisly violence.

For as long as the field of psychology has existed, one central debate continues to rage: Is human behavior a product of genetics or environment, nature or nurture? In her debut novel, The Orchard, Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry comes down squarely on the middle of the fence. Set during Russia’s volatile period of perestroika, the restructuring of the USSR in the 1980s, this coming-of-age tale tracks the emotional, political, intellectual and social growth of Anya Raneva and her small circle of friends.

Most of us who grew up in the United States during the Cold War had little insight into the lives of our Soviet peers, and it’s here that Gorcheva-Newberry does the reader a great service, offering a peek behind the Iron Curtain and its veil of propaganda. In a postscript to the novel, the author outlines the unsettling cavalcade of events to which her contemporaries were subject. “In a single decade, my generation lived under Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin,” she writes. “We witnessed the collapse of the Soviet empire, the August Coup of 1991 and the October Coup of 1993. . . . We saw tanks rumble down the Moskva River quay and surround the [Russian] White House.”

If there is such a thing as clear-eyed sentimentality, The Orchard evokes it, with its warts-and-all recollections of youthful passions, when the road ahead seems like one endless string of possibilities. At one juncture, Anya and her best friend, Milka Putova, compose a letter to President Ronald Reagan, hoping to wrangle a state-sponsored invitation to the U.S. similar to the one Russian leader Yuri Andropov had recently extended to an American girl. Anya and Milka’s request is a long shot, but in their “Soviet universe, a life without an occasional miracle could be a bottomless pit. So we thought we could nudge our socialist fate a little and take a chance.”

But miracles, by definition, don’t happen all that often. And in the meantime, life goes on, and adolescence yields to adulthood—or, as we discover on a tragic occasion or two, doesn’t.

No one in Anya’s circle ultimately winds up where they thought or dreamed they’d be, which is a quintessentially Russian literary endgame. And as Anya reflects on her youth, she recognizes that both nature and nurture had their roles to play. “Russian people are fatalists; we believe that our future is preordained, irreversible,” she says. “But then, we also believe in miracles, one grand sweep of imagination. Perhaps it’s what allows us to survive and to endure. And maybe it isn’t that at all, maybe it’s our enormous pride, the aggrandized vanity, which we carry to the grave, and the rest is just weather, wind and rain, spurts of blinding snow.”

With her debut novel, Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry does the reader a great service, offering a peek behind the Iron Curtain and its veil of propaganda.

There’s a saying you might have heard: Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Fortunately, two authors—one veteran, the other new to fiction—have ignored this warning and written novels about classical music, and we readers are luckier for it. 

The Great Passion by James Runcie, author of the acclaimed Grantchester Mysteries, is a beautiful coming-of-age novel set in 18th-century Germany. In 1726, 13-year-old Stefan Silbermann is mourning the death of his mother. His father makes arrangements for Stefan to attend a music school in Leipzig, an especially useful education for a boy whose family’s business is building and repairing church organs. At school, lonely Stefan is tormented by the other students, finding solace only in singing and in the presence of the demanding but empathic choir director, Johann Sebastian Bach. 

Stefan’s heavenly singing voice and sensitivity endear him to Bach, who enlists Stefan as a soloist in many of his cantatas. But Stefan remains deeply unhappy, and when he runs away from the dorms, Bach invites him to live at the Bach family home. There, Stefan basks in the warmth of domestic life, assisting Bach’s children with chores and working as a copyist for the great composer. 

When another tragedy strikes, this time in Bach’s family, Stefan is a firsthand witness to the way grief can be a catalyst for musical genius, watching and then performing in the work that will become one of Bach’s most celebrated compositions, “The Passion According to St Matthew.” Stefan’s exposure to Bach’s creativity, family and devotion to God is the restorative balm that the young man needs in order to move forward with his life.   

On the other end of the spectrum is Brendan Slocumb’s debut novel, The Violin Conspiracy, a fast-paced thriller about a young Black violinist and his search for a priceless instrument, set against the backdrop of systemic racism within the world of contemporary classical music.

Ray McMillian has a dream of becoming a concert violinist, and nothing will stand in his way: not his unsupportive mother and uncles, his disinterested teachers or the industry’s inherent racial bias. When Ray’s beloved grandmother gifts him with her grandfather’s violin, it brings him a step closer to his dream, and when the instrument is revealed to be an extremely rare and valuable Stradivarius, his star really begins to rise. 

Ray is on the verge of attending the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow when the prized instrument is stolen and held for ransom. Suspects range from members of Ray’s own family, eager to claim the insurance money, to his musical rivals in Europe. Even the descendants of the family who once enslaved Ray’s great-great-grandfather are claiming the instrument belongs to them. As Ray travels the globe, not sure whom he can trust, music remains the only constant in his life, supporting him no matter the situation. 

Despite their differences in literary styles, locations and eras, these novels are connected by more than just their musical themes. Resilience is a powerful presence in both stories, whether in the face of personal pain and grief or against the constant pressures of embedded prejudices. Music is the conduit through which two young men learn to overcome loss and fight against insurmountable odds, offering not only a reason to live but also a way to thrive.

Classical music is a powerful force in new novels from James Runcie and Brendan Slocumb, inspiring their heroes and illuminating the way forward.

We begin each new reading year with high hopes, and sometimes, when we’re very lucky, we find our expectations rewarded. So it was with 2021.

It must be said that a lot of these books are really, really long. Apparently this was the year for total commitment, for taking a plunge and allowing ourselves to be swallowed up. 

Also, it should come as no surprise that books-within-books frequently appear on this list. For all our attempts at objectivity within our roles as critics, we just can’t help but love a book that loves books. Amor Towles, Ruth Ozeki, Jason Mott, Maggie Shipstead and Anthony Doerr all tapped into the most comforting yet complex parts of our book-loving selves. 

But most of the books on this list hit home in ways we never could’ve prepared for, even when we had the highest expectations, such as in Will McPhail’s graphic novel, which made us laugh till we cried, and Colson Whitehead’s heist novel, which no one could’ve expected would be such a gorgeous ode to sofas.

And at the top of our list, a book that accomplishes what feels like the impossible: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ epic debut novel, which challenges our relationship to the land beneath us in a way we’ve never experienced but long hoped for.

Read on for our 20 best works of literary fiction from 2021.

20. What Comes After by JoAnn Tompkins

In JoAnne Tompkins’ debut novel, faith is simply part of life, a reality for many that is rarely so sensitively portrayed in fiction.

19. How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

To those disinclined to question the role that economic exploitation plays in supporting our modern lifestyle, reading this novel may prove an unsettling experience.

18. Gordo by Jaime Cortez

In his collection of short stories set in the ag-industrial maw of central California, Jaime Cortez artfully captures the daily lives of his characters in the freeze-frame flash of a master at work.

17. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro continues his genre-twisting ways with a tale that explores whether science could—or should—manipulate the future.

16. Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford’s graceful novel reminds us that tragedy deprives the world of not only noble people but also scoundrels, both of whom are part of the fabric of history.

15. Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen is one of our best chroniclers of suburban family life, and his incisive new novel, the first in a planned trilogy, is by turns funny and terrifying.

14. In by Will McPhail

Small talk becomes real talk in this graphic novel from the celebrated cartoonist, and the world suddenly seems much brighter.

13. Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

With hints of Jami Attenberg’s sense of mishpucha and spiced with Jennifer Weiner’s chutzpah, Melissa Broder’s novel is graphic, tender and poetic, a delicious rom-com that turns serious.

12. The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.

Robert Jones Jr.’s first novel accomplishes the exceptional literary feat of being at once an intimate, poetic love story and a sweeping, excruciating portrait of life on a Mississippi plantation.

11. Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

In her exceptional debut novel, Ash Davidson expresses the heart and soul of Northern California’s redwood forest community.

10. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

“There are few things more beautiful to an author’s eye . . . than a well-read copy of one of his books,” says a character in Amor Towles’ novel. Undoubtedly, the pages of this cross-country saga are destined to be turned—and occasionally tattered—by numerous gratified readers.

9. Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

Devastating, hilarious and touching, Torrey Peters’ acutely intelligent first novel explores womanhood, parenthood and all the possibilities that lie therein.

8. A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

Peter Ho Davies’ third novel is a poetic look at the nature of regret and a couple’s enduring love. It’s a difficult but marvelous book.

7. The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

What does it mean to listen? What can you hear if you pay close attention, especially in a moment of grief? Ruth Ozeki explores these questions in her novel, a meditation on objects, compassion and everyday beauty. 

6. Matrix by Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff aims to create a sense of wonder and awe in her novels, and in her boldly original fourth novel, set in a small convent in 12th-century England, the awe-filled moments are too many to count.

5. Hell of a Book by Jason Mott

A surrealist feast of imagination that’s brimming with very real horrors, frustrations and sorrows, Jason Mott’s fourth novel is an achievement of American fiction that rises to meet this particular moment with charm, wisdom and truth.

4. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Sorrow and violence play large roles in the ambitious, genre-busting novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr, but so does tenderness.

3. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Like Dante leading us through the levels of hell, Colson Whitehead exposes the layers of rottenness in New York City with characters who follow an ethical code that may be strange to those of us who aren’t crooks or cynics.

2. Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

In her exhilarating third novel, Maggie Shipstead offers a marvelous pastiche of adventure and emotion as she explores what it means (and what it takes) to live an unusual life.

1. The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

From slavery to freedom, discrimination to justice, tradition to unorthodoxy, celebrated poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers weaves an epic ancestral story that encompasses not only a young Black woman’s family heritage but also that of the American land where their history unfolded.

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.

Most of the books on this list hit home in ways we never could’ve prepared for, even when we had the highest expectations. Read on for the 20 best literary fiction titles of 2021.

Jung Yun’s second novel is a riveting story of a Korean American woman claiming a country that has done its best to reject her.

After decades as a model, Elinor Hanson went back to school and reinvented herself as a journalist. Barely supporting herself with freelance work, she is surprised when one of her graduate school professors offers her a plum assignment: covering North Dakota’s oil boom for a prominent magazine. Elinor, who grew up on a U.S. Air Force base in North Dakota, is curious about the changes this new gold rush has created, so she agrees to travel home.

Elinor barely recognizes the state she left behind. Its small towns burst with new arrivals seeking opportunities, and fracking has all but destroyed the land. But the anxiety expressed by longtime residents is dishearteningly familiar to Elinor, and her encounters with sexism and racism quickly bring back the trauma of life on the air base. Elinor is the daughter of an American airman and a Korean woman who met overseas, and on the base, other wives withheld their friendship from Elinor’s mother, while other husbands were all too willing to flirt.

As Elinor grapples with the difficult assignment, she is drawn into an unsolved missing persons case: a white woman who disappeared while jogging eight years ago. But that story doesn’t allow her to forge fresh investigative paths or distract from the rage she realizes has been simmering since her teens. In fact, the longer Elinor stays in North Dakota, the angrier she becomes, and a meeting with her sister only exacerbates the flood of bad memories. When some of her former classmates reach out about a harassment suit against her professor, she begins to question his motivations in passing on the assignment in the first place.

O Beautiful moves swiftly, with all the force of a finely honed thriller. As Elinor reckons with her past and the ways people have treated her, her mother and her sisters, she begins to examine the anger and love she feels for both her family and country. Open-ended and openhearted, O Beautiful may provide Elinor with more questions than answers, but it also instills in her a newfound determination to claim America as her own

Open-ended and open-hearted, O Beautiful instills a newfound determination in its Korean American heroine to claim America as her own.

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