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A war bubbles at the core of The Fortunes of Jaded Women, but perhaps not the one you’d expect. Rather than retreading the conflict that has been the focus of most Vietnam-centric literature for the past 70 years, Vietnamese American author Carolyn Huynh offers up a refreshingly buoyant and irreverent debut novel about a fiery group of estranged mothers and daughters. 

Ever since their ancestor Oanh left her husband for another man, the Duong women have been cursed to be unlucky in love and only give birth to daughters. Oanh’s current living relatives are therefore able to find professional success but never lasting love. Despite all living in Orange County, California, sisters Mai, Minh and Khuy n haven’t spoken to one another—or to their mother—for the last 10 years. The sisters’ relationships with their own daughters are hardly any better.

All this changes when Mai visits her trusted psychic adviser in Hawaii and is rocked by the revelation that this will be the year her family experiences a marriage, a funeral and the birth of a son. But Mai is warned that if she isn’t careful, it will also be the year she loses everything. The Fortunes of Jaded Women chronicles the riotous year that ensues as the fractious and feisty Duong women finally reconnect, heal their wounds and forge a new future as a family.

Celebrating Vietnamese culture and community, The Fortunes of Jaded Women is a delight that rises above mere frothy literary confection. The sprinkling of fantastical elements and abundance of sisterly squabbles and scandals keep things juicy and bring plenty of laughs, but the characters are the real stars of the show. Each woman is joyfully rendered and fully developed, offering a welcome contrast to cliched depictions of meek and docile Asian women, and a powerful subversion of monolithic depictions of a people who have for too long been solely defined by tragedy. 

The Duong women have fire in their bellies, desire in their hearts and the grit needed to overcome any obstacle. The Fortunes of Jaded Women will certainly appeal to fans of over-the-top excess a la Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, but readers who love rich explorations of thorny mother-daughter relationships and the ways we weather trauma and grief will also find much to enjoy.

Celebrating Vietnamese culture and community, The Fortunes of Jaded Women is a delight that rises above mere frothy literary confection.

The bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet returns with another spellbinding tale of memory’s power to bind us together. At once heartbreaking and uplifting, The Many Daughters of Afong Moy connects women who are generations and worlds apart. 

Dorothy Moy lives in Seattle in 2045. A depressive and anxious 31-year-old poet, Dorothy experiences flashbacks, but not of her own experiences; she sees people and places that are unfamiliar to her. Then Dorothy’s 5-year-old daughter, Annabel, begins to exhibit peculiar behavior, describing visions she’s seen and talking about a boy looking for her. Hoping to spare her daughter a life of perpetual disquiet, Dorothy turns to epigenetics, the study of how behavior and trauma can be passed down through generations. She begins experimental therapy to discover the origins of her mysterious memories.

Ford’s writing is seductive as he intertwines the lives of Dorothy, Annabel and their ancestors within a rich swirl of history and imagination. We meet Afong, inspired by the first Chinese woman to immigrate to the U.S. in 1834, who tours the country as a spectacle for theatergoers; Lai King Moy, a young girl living through the bubonic plague outbreak in early 1900s San Francisco; Faye Moy, a nurse in her 50s who’s serving with the Flying Tigers, a combat air squadron, to fight against the Japanese during World War II; Zoe Moy, a student at an unconventional boarding school in 1927 England; and Greta Moy, a single woman in 2014 who develops a dating app just for women. 

As Ford unravels the intriguing stories behind Dorothy’s recollections, he leads readers through her process of reconciling inherited memory with her present reality. The unfurling of ancestry and the passage of time are masterfully controlled and poetic, sumptuous and stark. Each time period is as expansive as the next, and within these eras, Ford plumbs the different sociocultural views and the changing roles and expectations of women, all while highlighting his strong characterization. 

Exploring the bonds that transcend physical space, The Many Daughters of Afong Moy is an enthralling, centuries-spanning tale, a masterful saga that’s perfect for fans of The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende and The Last House on the Street by Diane Chamberlain.

Jamie Ford’s writing is seductive as he intertwines the lives of Dorothy, Annabel and their ancestors within a rich swirl of history and imagination.
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Following her gorgeous story collection, the National Book Award finalist Sabrina & Corina, Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s first novel opens with a scene of fairy-tale resonance: An abandoned infant of unknown parentage is taken in and raised by a village elder. From that moment on, Woman of Light retains a mythic quality while following the stories of five generations of an Indigenous North American family, from their origins, border crossings, accomplishments and traumas to their descendants’ confrontation and acceptance of their family history.

In 1930s Denver, young Luz Lopez is a launderer who was taught to read tea leaves by her mother. Luz’s brother, Diego, is a snake charmer who works in a factory, and together they live with their aunt Marie Josie. But after Diego is attacked for dating a white woman, he must leave town. Soon after, the visions that have haunted Luz since her childhood return in full force, spelling out the harsh experiences of her ancestors as they navigated the lands between Mexico and Colorado.

Though Luz’s visions drag her back in time to stories from her family’s past, Woman of Light is grounded in Luz’s present. We are immersed in the closeness of the Lopez family, the joyful plans for cousin Lizette’s wedding and Luz’s growing intimacy with childhood friend David Tikas, son of the neighborhood grocer. David hires Luz to be the secretary of his new law office, and the young lawyer’s commitment to progressive causes offers Luz a framework to better understand the racial hostilities and anti-labor movement that plague her community.

Denver plays a starring role in Woman of Light, from the church-sponsored carnivals to the Greek market and the Opportunity School where Luz takes typing classes. The setting provides a rich, multicultural perspective of the American West, and while Fajardo-Anstine underscores the systemic racism in U.S. history (the threat of the Klu Klux Klan is ever present), she never does so at the expense of her characters’ resilience and hope.

Woman of Light is truly absorbing as it chronicles one woman’s journey to claim her own life in the land occupied by her family for generations.

Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut novel retains a mythic quality while following a woman's journey to claim her own life in the land occupied by her family for generations.
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Joseph Han’s beautifully strange debut novel, Nuclear Family, is full of ghosts and spirits, real and metaphorical. At first it seems to be a relatively straightforward intergenerational saga about a Korean family in Hawaii, but soon the inventiveness of Han’s storytelling becomes apparent, and readers are submerged in a world where nothing is quite as it seems.

Hoping for a fresh start away from his family, 20-something Jacob Cho takes a job teaching English in Seoul. Not long after his arrival, he attempts to cross the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, and is taken into custody. Back in Hawaii, his family is consumed with worry. His parents are struggling to keep their restaurant in business, while his sister, Grace, spends more and more of her time getting high.

None of them know that Jacob has been possessed by the ghost of his dead grandfather, Tae-woo, who is desperate to get across the DMZ to reunite with the family he left behind during the war. In Jacob, Tae-woo sees his best chance to get across the wall that has kept him—and countless others—separated from those they love, even in death.

Through this literal possession of a young man by a sly and grieving grandfather, Han tells a moving and specific story about more symbolic possessions—how violence possesses bodies, how history possesses the present and how a person’s stories remain alive in their descendants, even if those stories go unspoken.

Events unfold through a dizzying array of voices: Jacob, Grace and their parents; Tae-woo and his fellow ghosts; Jacob’s other grandparents; and a kind of Greek chorus of local Hawaiians, both Native and immigrant families. Han zooms in and out, moving between perspectives, times and places. These quick shifts in tone and voice can be disorienting, but they also give the novel its momentum.

Nuclear Family is about the trauma of living with invented borders, about dispossession and exile, and about the unhealed wounds of war that are felt across generations. Han’s characters—both dead and alive—are haunted by the past, even as they seek to escape it. Darkly funny, delightfully surprising and with a sprinkling of unusual formatting that reveals hidden subplots, Han’s debut bears witness to the brutal realities of war and imperialism while honoring the many kinds of magic that exist in the world.

Darkly funny and delightfully surprising, Joseph Han's debut novel, Nuclear Family, explores the trauma of invented borders through the possession of a young man by the ghost of his sly and grieving grandfather.

When college student Salo Oppenheimer’s Jeep tumbles off a road near campus, two of the vehicle’s passengers—Salo’s girlfriend and a close friend—are killed on impact. A third, the friend’s date, is badly injured and transfers colleges. While Salo’s physical injuries are barely noticeable, his emotional scars will shape the rest of his life.

Despite Salo’s skepticism about his ability (or even if he deserves) to be happy, he marries and fathers triplets. His wife, Johanna, wants children more than anything, so she endures fertility procedures to conceive Harrison, Lewyn and Sally. But the triplets don’t fill the emotional vacancies created by her husband, and when the children leave for college, Johanna tells Salo she’s going to return to the couple’s remaining blastocyst. Seventeen years after their births, the Oppenheimer siblings reluctantly welcome a fourth.

In The Latecomer, Jean Hanff Korelitz (The Plot) guides readers through the Oppenheimers’ tumultuous—and often emotionally impoverished—family history. The novel sprawls across 45 years and more than 400 pages, offering each segment of the family ample time to tell their stories: the parents, the triplets and the latecomer herself, Phoebe.

Korelitz embeds a vast range of details within the tale, from the procedures necessary for the children’s births to the art collection that pulls Salo away from his family, from the family’s Jewish history to a character’s fascination with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. An extensive network of subplots helps to define the characters’ relationships to one another, though all this groundwork-laying can feel frustrating; the promised title character, whose birth is an intrusion to her siblings’ lives, isn’t mentioned until more than 100 pages in and doesn’t step to center stage until the novel’s final third. But this delay allows Korelitz to develop both the rich plot and the nuanced characters who populate it.

Ultimately, Phoebe’s late arrival encourages the rest of the Oppenheimers to realize how their father’s life-changing car crash altered all of their lives. The Latecomer’s blending of family history and research explores how generational trauma can change everything, even for those who don’t know about the incident at its center.

In Jean Hanff Korelitz’s rich family saga, 18-year-old triplets receive a fourth sibling, forcing the family to reexamine their bonds.
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The Cabrelli family has lived on the Italian coast for generations as local jewelers and pillars of their community. On her 80th birthday, family matriarch Matelda is grappling with her slowly failing health and unresolved family traumas. As Matelda takes stock of her life during a series of visits with her granddaughter Anina, she reflects on the great love stories woven through her family history and the bitter losses the Cabrellis have endured.

In 1939, Matelda’s mother, Domenica, is sent from her home in Viareggio, Italy, to work in a French hospital alongside other young women from around the world. Domenica’s initial homesickness quickly subsides as she and the other nurses go to pubs and dance on the pier. When anti-Italian sentiment sweeps through much of Europe, the hospital nuns move her to a convent in Scotland. There, Domenica meets the first love of her life. But after tragedy befalls their young family, Domenica brings 5-year-old Matelda back to the family home in Viareggio, where Domenica finds a second chance at love with a childhood friend, and Matelda begins her new life in a strange country.

Adriana Trigiani is the author of many beloved books, including Big Stone Gap and The Shoemaker’s Wife. The Good Left Undone is deliciously told, with fully explored characters, mouthwatering descriptions of Italian food and charming yet quirky towns. What’s exceptional about The Good Left Undone is how seamlessly Trigiani knits together different stories from many places and times, bringing it all together in one poignant and satisfying book.

This is a gorgeously written story about intergenerational love and heartbreak, the futility of regret and the power of a life well lived. It’s also a love letter to Italy and its beautiful and painful history. As a character in the novel says, “This is the place where the worst happened, my deepest pain and highest dream. Both reside in me, but I’ve learned that the love is greater than any hurt.”

Adriana Trigiani’s The Good Left Undone is a gorgeously written story about intergenerational love and trauma and the power of a life well lived.
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Poet and former attorney Tara M. Stringfellow makes her fiction debut with Memphis, drawing inspiration from her own family history to craft a wonder of a novel. Stringfellow’s grandfather was the first Black homicide detective in Memphis, Tennessee, and her grandmother was the first Black nurse at Mount Zion Baptist Hospital. Through her poignant and heartfelt prose, Stringfellow honors the spirit of her city as she brings three generations of a Black matriarchal family—and their resilience, determination and endless capacity for love and joy—into the spotlight.

The novel begins in 1995, when Miriam North, her children in tow, flees her husband’s violent outbursts and returns to her ancestral home in Memphis, a change that offers the possibility of spiritually reuniting with Miriam’s maternal roots. The North women have lived in the historically Black neighborhood of Douglass for generations, and despite the devastating scars left by segregation, anti-Black terrorism and domestic violence, these women are unconquerable. 

Miriam’s stubborn and loyal sister, August, runs a hair salon attached to the North house, and Miriam’s oldest daughter, Joan, is an exceptionally talented artist with a close bond with her younger sister, Mya. Over the course of the novel, the voices of Miriam, August and Joan intertwine, later incorporating the additional voice of Miriam and August’s mother, Hazel, an activist and adept quilter. Together their stories span nearly 70 years in a nonlinear narrative that reveals the impact and eternality of ancestry. 

Stringfellow’s intricately developed details are unrivaled, and the simplest moments make the North family instinctively relatable. It’s not the parties, calamities or deaths that hold a reader’s attention in Memphis, but rather a walk to buy butter pecan ice cream on a Friday afternoon, or a quiet afternoon spent with Joan and her sketchbook. With honesty and genuine affection, Stringfellow captures each of her characters’ unique personalities while preserving their uncanny familial resemblances. Furthermore, Memphis establishes a new standard for the role of a setting in a novel; Memphis is celebrated not only as a place but also as a people, a culture and, most importantly, a community. 

Stringfellow has created an irresistible family in the Norths, who are sure to be beloved by readers for the ways in which they persevere.

First-time novelist Tara M. Stringfellow celebrates the city of Memphis as not only a place but also a people, a culture and, most importantly, a community.

Serena Drew is returning to Baltimore after a daytrip to meet her boyfriend’s family. As she and her boyfriend wait for their train home, she thinks she spots her cousin Nicholas Garrett. Her boyfriend is incredulous; how can she be unsure whether or not the man is her cousin? But Serena doesn’t come from the sort of family in which first cousins recognize each other in the wild.

Anne Tyler is a master of interpersonal drama and intricate depictions of characters’ lives. Her astute observations have earned her a Pulitzer Prize (Breathing Lessons) and two turns as a Pulitzer finalist (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist), among other accolades. In French Braid, her skilled storytelling once again takes center stage as she reveals the minor family dramas that have resulted in Serena’s inability to positively identify her cousin. Chapter by chapter, Tyler follows a different member of the Garrett family, beginning with a family vacation in 1959 and ending in spring 2020.

As Tyler turns her attention to each Garrett, she reveals finely honed character portraits. Daughters Lily and Alice are opposites, and their little brother, David, often goes his own way. Mother Mercy searches for her identity as the kids grow up and leave the house, but father Robin is left confused; he has always been content with his home and family exactly as they were.

Each chapter is as well-crafted as a short story and reveals the heart of its central character. Tyler weaves these individual tales together to build something even greater, and like the braid of the novel’s title, this interpersonal family drama becomes more substantial as its pieces combine.

“That’s how families work, too,” says David, reflecting on the lasting effect of a French braid. “You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.” (His wife laughs and asks, “You are finding this out just now?”)

French Braid is a case study of the circumstances and interactions that shape the lives of one family.

Anne Tyler is a master of interpersonal drama, and her skilled storytelling takes center stage in French Braid.
Review by

“I write about foods with a strong sense of place,” notes a character in Black Cake. The same could be said about its debut author, Charmaine Wilkerson, whose exquisitely paced family drama begins on a small unnamed Caribbean island in 1965 and quickly shifts to 2018, where it makes stops in London, Scotland, California and Rome. Readers will quickly find themselves immersed in a mysterious, gripping journey, one that unfolds in brief but bountiful chapters and even includes a suspected murder.

When Eleanor Bennett dies in 2018, she leaves a recording with her lawyer, instructing her two adult children to listen to its full eight hours together. Her son, Byron, is a renowned ocean scientist working on mapping the ocean floor, and his sister, Benny, is a bit of a lost soul who left the family eight years ago. “You children need to know about your family, about where we come from, about how I really met your father,” Eleanor says. “You two need to know about your sister.”

This revelation is shocking; Byron and Benny had no idea that such a sister existed. In addition to her deathbed message, Eleanor has also left a black cake in the freezer for Benny and Byron to share “when the time is right.” The confection, a Caribbean version of plum pudding, is a family favorite and figures prominently—and creatively—throughout the novel.

The sea is a strong presence in Black Cake, its hidden depths paralleling the many veiled events of Eleanor’s past. The innate pull of the ocean, especially warm Caribbean waters, influences and transforms several of Wilkerson’s characters. As the family lawyer muses about Eleanor’s oceanographer son, he says, “The oceans are a challenge. And what about a person’s life? How do you make a map of that?” In Eleanor’s case, that map is full of surprises, and Wilkerson skillfully charts its course, showing “how untold stories shape people’s lives, both when they are withheld and when they are revealed.”

Wilkerson navigates multiple points of view and time frames while addressing—always with just the right touch—issues of domestic violence, race, sexual identity, colonialism, prejudice and more. Fans of family dramas by Ann Patchett, Brit Bennett and Karen Joy Fowler should take note. Black Cake marks the launch of a writer to watch, one who masterfully plumbs the unexpected depths of the human heart.

Read our interview with Charmaine Wilkerson, whose debut novel explores an island of mysteries and a cake full of surprises.

Black Cake marks the launch of a writer to watch, one who masterfully plumbs the unexpected depths of the human heart.
Interview by

“I never intended to write a story with a cake in it,” says Charmaine Wilkerson, former broadcast journalist and, with Black Cake, first-time novelist. “It just sort of walked into the story.”

And what a remarkable story it is. Wilkerson’s exquisitely written novel is a globe-trotting, multigenerational family saga set in the Caribbean, California, London, Scotland and Rome. Its rich plot—which includes a suspected murder—unfolds at an enthralling pace. 

The novel begins with a short, enigmatic prologue set in 1965, then jumps ahead to 2018, when an attorney summons Byron Bennett and his estranged sister, Benny, to listen to a lengthy recording made by their late mother, Eleanor, who divulges startling secrets about her life. “Please forgive me for not telling you any of this before,” she says. 

“I have always kept that recipe in a place where I keep precious things.”

When Benny was growing up, her mother taught her to make the special titular black cake, saying, “This is island food. This is your heritage.” Wilkerson, who grew up in Jamaica and New York and now lives in Rome, explains during a video call that the Caribbean fruitcake known as black cake has long been a family favorite, a descendant of “the good old-fashioned English plum pudding . . . transformed, over time, by tropical ingredients.” 

Long ago, Wilkerson’s mother mailed her a copy of her recipe, filled with comments and instructions. Later, after Wilkerson’s mother died, a younger relative asked her for a copy. “I don’t think I’d looked at it for years,” Wilkerson recalls, “but I knew exactly where to find it. I’ve moved a number of times in my life. I am not the neatest person in the world, but I have always kept that recipe in a place where I keep precious things.” 

Don’t expect to find the recipe within the pages of this novel, however. Wilkerson didn’t want readers to presume that this is simply a culinary tale. “It’s about the idea that there’s the story you tell about your life, about your family history, about your culture. And then there are the stories that are not told, or concealed, or not fully revealed,” she says. “The cake symbolizes the history of this family, in which the children, who are now grown, really don’t know the half of what their parents went through. Their journey of discovery is going to actually change the way in which they see not only their parents, their family history, but their own relationships.”

Warm, engaging and thoughtful, Wilkerson speaks precisely and with a hint of a lilt in her voice, a remnant from her childhood in Jamaica. Although she repeatedly states that she’s a private person, the handful of memories that she shares are reminiscent of her prose—sensory-­filled, memorable and layered with meaning. She recalls her first taste of sugar cane during a school field trip, when the bus broke down next to a sugar cane farm and someone chopped up pieces for the children to taste. She also offers a tantalizing clue to how she ended up living in Rome: “Most people who end up moving to Italy and staying there move for two reasons: It’s either art history, or it’s a love story. You can guess which one.”

Read our starred review: ‘Black Cake’ by Charmaine Wilkerson

Black Cake cover

Prior to writing this novel, Wilkerson spent several years working in short fiction—notably, flash fiction. The crafting of Black Cake first began when she wrote a short scene about two teenage girls swimming in Caribbean waters in the 1960s. “They were driven by this visceral ambition and connection with nature and this determination to swim, despite the fact that they were afraid,” she says. Next, she wrote some seemingly unrelated scenes set in contemporary times. “At a certain point,” she says, “I realized they were all the same story. And that’s when I knew I had a novel, you know—that I wasn’t just all over the place. I was circling an idea.”

Like a shark, perhaps?

Wilkerson laughs, saying, “That’s me, a shark. I don’t always manage to get a bite of food, but I did this time.”

She certainly has. Black Cake is slated to become a Hulu series with Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films and creator Marissa Jo Cerar (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) at the helm—not too shabby for someone who has long dreamed of telling stories. “I’ve always dabbled and written and read,” Wilkerson says, “but the act of writing regularly and making sure that you don’t lose the thread when you have all these different voices is something that takes consistent work. I came to that fairly recently.” 

“That’s me, a shark. I don’t always manage to get a bite of food, but I did this time.”

While Wilkerson’s mother gifted her with her prized recipe, her father’s work as a textile artist helped her zero in on her writerly goal. She remembers loving the smell of the dyes in his studio, and admired how he “was able to take art and turn it into a discipline.” After his death in 2013, she took one of his flannel shirts (which she still wears regularly) and finally began to write fiction. “I realized I had to stop thinking that I was being frivolous and recognize that it was work. So, I made some changes in my life.”

As a child, Wilkerson watched her father swim in the ocean toward the horizon until he disappeared, and similar imagery figures prominently in Black Cake. (Byron is a renowned oceanographer whose mother taught him to surf, and who encourages young people to “catch the wave and ride with it.”) “I think that’s what we do in life,” Wilkerson says. “We try to make a plan, but then life happens, and we try to use everything we’ve brought with us.” 

Undoubtedly, she has ridden her own wave like a pro. “This is what I have wanted to do for a long time,” she says.

Photo of Charmaine Wilkerson by Rochelle Cheever

Rooted in memories of her family, Charmaine Wilkerson's debut novel explores an island of mysteries and a cake full of surprises.

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.

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Leif Enger’s third novel, Virgil Wander, centers on the eponymous protagonist who lives in the quaint, rustic town of Greenstone, Minnesota. By day, Virgil begrudgingly works as the town clerk, but by night, he is the proprietor of the Empress, a fledgling movie theater that specializes in projecting its exclusive and illegal film collection. During a drive one snowy evening, Virgil’s car skids off the road and crashes into Lake Superior. Luckily, he is a saved by Marcus Jetty, the owner of the local junkyard. Virgil emerges from the accident with a fleeting grasp of language and flickering memories of his former life.

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