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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.

In recent years, we’ve seen an uptick in stellar novels of the immigrant experience—from Behold the Dreamers to Americanah, from The Book of Unknown Americans to The Buddha in the Attic—and 2017 continues that trend, with an even greater emphasis on refugees’ tales. It seems every month so far this year has offered a handful of stories that give a voice to the displaced, the fishes out of water, the strangers in strange lands. These are 12 of our favorites.

Lucky BoyLucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Fans of The Light Between Oceans will enjoy the moral dilemmas and tremendous heart of Sekaran’s second novel, the story of one boy tangled up in two families. When Soli, an illegal Mexican immigrant, is put in immigration detention, her 1-year-old son, Ignacio, enters the foster care system. He is placed with Kavya and Rishi Reddy, successful Indian-American immigrants. But as much as they may love him, Ignacio is not their son. Read our review.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Already one of the best books of the year, this multigenerational epic from Lee (Free Food for Millionaires) is a powerful account of one of the world’s most persecuted immigrant communities—Koreans living in Japan. This heartbreaking historical novel spans the entire 20th century through four generations and three wars, as a Korean family struggles to find a sense of belonging in a culture that regards them as aliens. Read our interview with Lee.

American StreetAmerican Street by Ibi Zoboi

Don’t mind the YA label: Adult readers should read Zoboi’s debut as well as teens. Fabiola Toussaint, an American citizen by birth, is separated from her Haitian mother while going through Customs, and so she must travel by herself to Detroit, where her American cousins introduce her to a very new world. It’s an unforgettable story of what happens when cultures, nationalities, races and religions collide. Read our interview with Zoboi.

Waking LionsWaking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

The chilling and provocative debut from Israeli author Gundar-Goshen opens with a hit-and-run, when Israeli neurosurgeon Eitan Green accidentally kills an illegal Eritrean immigrant. The victim’s wife, the enigmatic Sirkit, blackmails Eitan into treating sick Eritreans in the desert. With ruminations on pain and medicine woven throughout, this is a superb exploration of how we see—or fail to see—each other. Read our review.

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid

Hamid adds a dash of gentle magic to his tale of refugees and matters of the heart. In a Middle Eastern country on the brink of civil war, Nadia and Saeed fall in love. But soon they must flee their ruined homeland, passing through a doorway that acts as a portal to another city. As they journey around the world, the bonds of love are both forged and tested by displacement and survival. A must-read for 2017. Read our review.

The LeaversThe Leavers by Lisa Ko

Ko’s timely, assured debut received major critical acclaim before it was even published, as Barbara Kingsolver awarded it the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction (given to a novel that addresses issues of social justice). It’s the coming-of-age tale of 11-year-old Deming, who is adopted by a pair of white professors after his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, doesn’t return from work one day. Read our review.

No One Can Pronounce My NameNo One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal

That wry title is only a glimmer of the wonderful sense of humor that permeates the second novel from Satyal. The lives of three Indian Americans living in Ohio unfold with compassionate comedy and a nuanced look at sexuality and gender identity. It’s hard to categorize a book that tackles so many things so well, and the result can only be described as the new American novel. Read our review, and don’t miss our Q&A with Satyal.

Salt HousesSalt Houses by Hala Alyan

Alyan’s debut is a sweeping family tale told through multiple perspectives, and it all begins with the Six-Day War in 1967, when the Yacoub family is uprooted and forced to scatter across the globe. Alyan’s own parents met in Kuwait City and, after Saddam Hussein’s invasion, were forced to seek refuge in the United States. This spectacular novel, touching on questions of home and heritage, was our May Top Pick in Fiction. Read our review.

Live from CairoLive from Cairo by Ian Bassingthwaighte

Bassingthwaighte tapped his own experiences as a legal aid worker to craft his debut, set in 2011 Cairo. Four characters are at the heart of this remarkable novel: an Iraqi refugee who is denied her request to join her husband in the U.S.; the Iraqi volunteer assigned to her case; a lawyer for the Refugee Relief Project; and his translator. There is so much to like about this book, from brilliant characterization to exceptional writing. Coming July 11.

RefugeRefuge by Dina Nayeri

Nayeri moved to America when she was 10 years old, and the protagonist of her second novel makes a similar move, except she leaves her father behind. Over the course of 20 years, the daughter and father build a relationship through four visits, each in a different city. The more their lives diverge, the more they come to rely on each other—especially when the daughter becomes involved in the present-day refugee crisis. Coming July 11.

What We LoseWhat We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons

Perfect for fans of Americanah, the much-anticipated debut from Clemmons unfolds through poignant vignettes and centers on the daughter of an immigrant. Raised in Philadelphia, Thandi is the daughter of a South African mother and an American father. Her identity is split, and when her mother dies, Thandi begins a moving, multidimensional exploration of grief and loss. Coming July 11.

Home FireHome Fire by Kamila Shamsie

From acclaimed novelist Shamsie comes the story of two Muslim sisters: Isma, who has just left London to attend grad school in America; and the headstrong, politically inclined Aneeka, who stayed behind. Their brother, Parvaiz, is seeking his own dream in the shadow of his jihadist father. And then the son of a powerful political figure enters the girls’ lives, setting in motion a tale of complicated loyalty. Coming August 15.

Plus one more: It’s not a novel, but we have to mention Viet Thanh Nguyen’s exceptional collection of short stories, The Refugees. The nine stories, set within California’s Vietnamese community or in Vietnam, are dedicated to “all refugees, everywhere.”

In recent years, we’ve seen an uptick in stellar novels of the immigrant experience—from Behold the Dreamers to Americanah, from The Book of Unknown Americans to The Buddha in the Attic—and 2017 continues that trend, with an even greater emphasis on refugees’ tales. It seems every month so far this year has offered a handful of stories that give a voice […]

The relationship between mothers and daughters is a richly mined topic in fiction. In her beautifully written debut, Gabriela Garcia presents a new classic of mother-daughter literature. 

Of Women and Salt tells the intertwined stories of women in two families from the 19th century to the present day. After an unstable childhood during the Cuban revolution, Carmen leaves her mother behind and immigrates to Florida. Later, in a wealthy suburb, Carmen tries to provide her daughter, Jeanette, with a comfortable American life. Jeanette has a drug addiction, is hiding a tragic secret and is desperately seeking a purpose. 

Their lives intersect with that of Gloria, an immigrant from El Salvador who hopes to give her young daughter, Ana, a better life in Miami. Then Gloria is seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Ana must reunite with her mother at a detention center in Texas. They are deported to Mexico with no resources and forced to start over on their own.

Some novels attempt to tell a sweeping narrative only to get bogged down by a busy plot and too many characters, but despite a large cast from numerous time periods, Of Women and Salt expertly threads each woman’s story to another’s and pulls their stories taut. Disparate hardships propel each of their lives, but they are linked by a shared struggle to carry on in a harsh world, whether each survives her circumstance—or not.

Motherhood is “a constant calculation of what-if,” Garcia writes. At the heart of Of Women and Salt are the sacrifices made by mothers so their daughters can have different lives—perhaps better ones. But daughters may make choices based on their own wishes and needs, and this possibility is ever poised to pierce a mother’s heart. In this way, the novel is quietly heartbreaking. As Garcia writes, “Even the best mothers in the world can’t always save their daughters.”

In her beautifully written debut, Gabriela Garcia presents a new classic of mother-daughter literature.

The fourth novel by Patricia Engel is a 21st-century odyssey about a Colombian family bifurcated by immigration rules. It’s an intriguing, compact tale, rife with both real-life implications and spiritual significance.

Escaping poverty in Colombia, the family initially arrived in the U.S. on tourist visas that later expired. They remained together until the father, Mauro, was briefly imprisoned and then deported. Unable to bring infant Talia to her minimum-wage jobs, mother Elena sent the child, the youngest of three, to live with Talia’s grandmother in Bogotá. 

The story opens as Talia, now a nervy 15-year-old, breaks out of a Catholic reform school where she was sent after an impulsive, violent act. One of the novel’s multiple storylines follows Talia as she hitches rides back to Bogotá, where Mauro waits with a plane ticket to the United States, offering the possibility of a long-delayed family reunion.

Another major storyline follows Elena, who tries to make a life for herself in New Jersey with her two older children. She is mistreated by one employer in a restaurant and disrespected by another. She finally lands a job with a wealthy family, taking care of a son who forms a stronger bond with Elena than with his own mother.

Infinite Country joins a growing category of fiction about the U.S. and its attitude toward Latinx immigrants, and Engel stands out as an especially gifted storyteller who elevates this saga through the use of Andean folk tales. She also heightens our interest by shifting the novel’s perspective to Talia’s sister in New Jersey more than midway through the book, and her voice adds a new dimension to the tale.

Engel does a marvelous job of rendering these characters as individuals, each with a unique story. Mauro’s journey is illuminated by his visits to the sacred Lake Guatavita outside Bogotá, where gods of wisdom reside, and where the birds above the lake mirror the family’s mantra: “We are all migrants here on earth.”

The fourth novel by Patricia Engel is an intriguing, compact tale, rife with both real-life implications and spiritual significance.

Areum’s parents were 16 when he was born. Now they are 32, and Areum is 16, but it is he who is confronting old age. He has a rare syndrome called progeria, which makes him age roughly eight times faster than the average child, so he is a teenager in the body of an 80-year-old. As a gift to his parents, he decides to write down the stories they’ve told him over the years. He hopes to finish before his 17th birthday, which will likely be his last.

Areum struggles with self-doubt as he writes, even scrapping an early iteration of the project before he gains the inspiration to write again. This inspiration comes from a pen pal, and Areum, stuck in the hospital for the rest of his life, develops a crush. He wants to experience life like a “normal” kid, even saying that he wants to make mistakes and be disappointed, because other kids get those opportunities. But Areum’s reality is that while he develops this relationship, he also deals with arthritis and begins going blind.

Author Ae-ran Kim considers age versus maturity in My Brilliant Life, which was originally published with the title My Palpitating Life in South Korea in 2011 and then adapted into a film in 2014. Areum’s parents are children when he is born, and they are in their early 30s when he dies. His existence in their lives caused them to grow up quickly, and even more so when he developed special needs. The presence of a neighborly father and son, both elderly, serves as a constant reminder that Areum will not have the chance to take care of his parents when they are old.

Translated into English by Chi-Young Kim, My Brilliant Life is told in poetic, succinct vignettes, ranging from the stories that Areum writes for his parents to narrations of his present. The text never teeters into gawking over Areum’s ailments, and he remains fixed as a curious, emotionally adept protagonist trying to navigate the awkwardness of being a teenager.

Areum’s reckoning with his fate makes for a wrenching story. This slim book has so much heart, packing quite an emotional investment into its 208 pages. As fleeting as Areum’s fictional life may be, he will not be a character easily forgotten.

Areum’s reckoning with his fate makes for a wrenching story. This slim book has so much heart, packing quite an emotional investment into its 208 pages.

The opening premise of Eman Quotah’s debut, Bride of the Sea, is intriguing: Muneer and Saeedah marry, move from Saudi Arabia to the United States and, as the relationship deteriorates, decide to divorce, going against Muslim tradition. As their world crumbles, Saeedah abducts their daughter and disappears. The novel only gets better from this setup, transforming into a family saga that spans from 1970 to 2018.

This ambitious tale moves between Saudi Arabia and the United States, touching on the Gulf War, 9/11, increased Islamophobia in the U.S., the beginning of women being allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and other moments of social and cultural upheaval. Through it all, the secrets, desires and fears of Muneer, Saeedah and their daughter compose a complex picture of how society and the individual shape and inform each other. When society’s expectations render certain decisions impossible, how can an individual choose to live? This question shapes the novel, from Saeedah’s choice to run away with their daughter and Muneer’s search for her, to considerations of journalistic integrity and how familial ties bind and dissolve over time.

Impressive, too, is the sense of place, the ways that bodies of water connect characters to each other. The details of each country are so richly and vividly imagined that as characters travel, so does the reader.

Structurally and syntactically, Bride of the Sea is a gem. The shift from the opening in 2018 to the events in 1970 is abrupt, and these moments fuse again as the novel concludes. Quotah structures these connections to maintain the reader’s sense of wonder, to keep you reading through the loop as you learn of each character’s identity and fate, their secrets and stories.

The opening premise of Eman Quotah’s debut, Bride of the Sea, is intriguing: Muneer and Saeedah marry, move from Saudi Arabia to the United States and, as the relationship deteriorates, decide to divorce, going against Muslim tradition.

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