We know 2013 has been an excellent year for television, a shocking year for celebrity splits, and an exciting year for Oscar-caliber movies, but it’s also been an outstanding year for literary fiction. In fact, the books that hit shelves throughout ’13 were intelligent and compulsively page-turning.
As admitted bookworms, we’ve compiled a list of 22 buzzy novels we loved in 2013. Take a look at the selections below and let us know in the comments section below if you’ve already read any of the novels, and which you’re planning to dive into this winter!
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right? That’s the question behind this novel that had critics raving and topped every “best of” list this year.
What it’s about: On a snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife, before dying immediately. On the same night, she’s born again and lives. Confused? Atkinson manages to imagines several possible lives for the same character, who is born and dies repeatedly in a variety of ways.
Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
Critics called this novel this year’s “Gone Girl” thanks to its twisty plotlines and dueling narrators, plus it’s super of-the-moment with parts of the story told via Facebook posts, text messages, and email newsletters. It definitely wasn’t as meaty at “Gone girl,” but a good read nonetheless.
What it’s about: 15-year-old Amelia has seemingly jumped off the roof of her ritzy Brooklyn private school, but her single lawyer mom receives an anonymous text message: “She didn’t jump…” Hooked yet?
2. We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
Bulawayo’s debut novel is, essentially, one of displacement and arrival, got rave reviews from both critics and readers.
What it’s about: The first half of the book is about 10-year-old Darling’s life in just-liberated Zimbabwe, where she faces war, violence, poverty, bullying, and political unrest, among other catastrophes. In the second half, Darling—now high-school age—moves to America to live with her aunt, and has to reinvent her self as an American teenager, navigating the internet, a part-time job, and Americans as a whole. Expect razor-sharp language (and some satire, too.)
3. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Veteran author Wolitzer’s buzzy novel starts out at an artsy sleep-away camp and spans several decades in the life of one group of friends.
What it’s about: Five talented and privledged teenagers (who dub themselves “the interestings”) meet at an artsy summer camp in the summer of 1974, and the novel traces their lives—careers, jealousy, competition, class, love—through the present. Expect lots of pitch-perfect references to various decades told via a compellingly non-linear structure.
4. Constance by Patrick McGrath
“Daddy issues” get a whole new meaning in McGrath’s moody eigth novel.
What it’s about: Constance Schuyler—beautiful and impossibly cool—lives alone in Manhattan in the early 1960s. One night at a literary party, she meets Sidney Klein, a poetry professor twenty years her senior. Constance ends up marrying Sidney, but not without trepidation. After she moves into his apartment, she’s tortured by memories of the bitterly unhappy childhood she spent with her father in a broken-down house in upstate New York. Needless to say, psychological drama ensues.
5. Traps by Mackenzie Bezos
The “traps” in Bezos’ new novel are largely those of the emotional variety.
What it’s about: Reclusive movie star Jessica starts out on a four-day road trip to Las Vegas to confront her con of a father who’s been selling her out to the paparazzi, and on the way, meets three very differerny women: a dog shelter owner, an ex-military bodyguard and a teenager with newborn twins. Eventually, their stories intertwine in highly interesting ways.
6. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Social satire is the name of the game in this seriously witty debut novel.
What it’s about: The story follows three super-rich and pedigreed Chinese families and the gossip, backbiting, and scheming that occurs when the heir to one of the most massive fortunes in Asia brings home his ABC (American-born Chinese) girlfriend to the wedding of the season. Expect details on It-girls, socialite magazines, and an insider look at the Asian jet-set.
7. Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
The best-selling author of “Prep” and “American wife” is back with a new novel about—surprise!—sisters that’s out June 25.
What it’s about: Identical twins Kate and Violet were born with innate psychic abilities, and we learn that Vi chooses to embrace her visions and Kate tries hard to hide them. As adults, they both find themselves back in their hometown where Vi has pursued a career as a psychic, while Kate, a devoted wife and mother, has settled down in the suburbs. The twist: A minor earthquake hits and another major one is on the way. Psychic visions obviously play a big role in what follows.
8. The Dinner by Herman Koch
The entire plot of this novel takes place over the course of one dinner.
What it’s about: One night in Amsterdam, two couples meet at a chic restaurant for dinner, where they proceed to make mundane small talk. However, we learn that both couples have 15-year-old sons who committed a horrific act that started a police investigation, and eventually all social niceties give way as civility and friendship disintegrates.
10. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
After her last novel—the post-9/11 masterpiece “The Emperors Children”—Messud’s fans have waiting to see what she comes up with next, and the result is this gorgeously-written story.
What it’s about: 37-year-old Nora Eldridge is a lonely elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts who gave up her dream of being a successful artist. When an alluring, glamorous family moves to town, Nora finds herself getting sucked into their world and falling in love with them. Notable themes include art, fulfillment, and desire.
Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois
If you found yourself glued to the Amanda Knox case, this is the novel for you.
What it’s about: Largely inspired by the super-publicized Knox case, Dubois introduced readers to Lily Hayes, a young American charged with the brutal murder of her roommate Katy Kellers while is studying abroad in Buenos Aires. Lily’s presumed guilty because—during a break in her interrogation—she does a cartwheel. Most plot points—which are told in a non-linear style—are pretty much carbon-copies of the Knox case, including Lily’s relationship with a handsome, intriguing local, the fact that Lily works in a bar, and key points raised during Lily’s defense.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Fans of Tartt were beyond thrilled when they heard that the author—who only seems to release novels once every decade—was releasing her third, following 2002’s “The Little Friend,” and 1992’s instant cult classic “The Secret History.”
What it’s about: Unlike her other tales, which are set in moody places like the deep south or collegiate New England, The Goldfinch is set in New York City and follows Theo Decker, a young boy who survives an accident that kills his single mom. Theo—alone and desperate to avoid being taken in by the city as an orphan—crashes in the apartments of various friends and on the city streets. In the years that follow, he becomes entranced by the one thing that reminds him of his mother: a small mysterious painting that draws him into the art underworld.
The Circle by Dave Eggers
Author, activist, and publisher Eggers’ novel is a biting tech-world satire set at a dystopian fictional company called The Circle, but might as well be called Schmoogle or Basebook for obvious reasons.
What it’s about: Basically a big middle finger to Silicon Valley giants and social media, the novel follows Mae, a millennial who gets a job at The Circle (on its sprawling idyllic California campus with its nap rooms and ranging parties.) Eventually, Mae is questioned about her lack of social media presence, and is enticed into wearing a headset that lets her “zing” about her every mundane feeling, thought, or action all day (she can also “smile” or “frown” at her co-workers’ zings, natch.) As the novel progresses, Mae is forced to wear a camera around her neck that, in effect, broadcasts her life 24/7 to millions of online users.
As the Washington Post so perfectly puts it: “At 500 pages, this relentless broadside against the corrosive effects of the connected life is as subtle as a sponsored tweet. Make no mistake: Eggers has seen the Facebook effect, and he does not ‘like’ it.”
Lookaway Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt
A satirical story set in Charlotte, North Carolina, this novel got positive reviews from readers all year.
What it’s about: The witty novel focuses on a high-society family, where old Southern money—and older Southern secrets—meet the new wealth of bankers, boom-era speculators, and social climbers. Barnhardt delves deep into southern dysfunction, changing societies, what it means to be a family, and juicy scandals with laugh-out-loud humor.
Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta
Perotta can best be described as a suburb-skewering satirist, having written a number of compulsively readable novels such as “Election,” “Little Children,” and the excellent “The Abstinence Teacher,” all of which are set in seemingly idyllic suburbia. This book—a collection of short stories—is no different.
What it’s about: Whether he’s writing about a sad-sack cheating husband becoming obsessed with playing guitar while going through a divorce, or a brainy high school senior getting paid to take the SATS for slackers, these stories are tightly written and highly relatable.
The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell
This is Woodrell’s first novel since Winter’s Bone (which was made into a movie, scoring Jennifer Lawrence an Oscar nod in 2010), and he returns to the Ozarks to tell this story.
What it’s about: In 1929, a maid works for a prominent Missouri family and loses her beloved younger sister when she’s one of 42 people killed in an explosion at the local dance hall. From there, the maid sets out to discover who’s to blame. Buzz around this book has been strong all year, with critics and readers saying it’s excellent.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl
Pessl first got the literary world’s attention seven years ago with her “It” book “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” and her new twisty novel is being called “elaborately plotted” and “addictive.”
What it’s about: The daughter of a reclusive horror film director is found dead, and a disgraced journalist and two sidekicks become obsessed with uncovering the truth of her death and the true identity of her infamous father, whose terrifying films (banned from theaters and found only via underground methods) depict what is “graphic and dark and gorgeous about life, thereby conquering the monsters of your mind.” It’s a starred book on Amazon, which reviews gave it a rave this year.
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simison
The protagonist of this sharp, funny book is named Don Tillman and he’s rightfully being compared to awkward genius Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory.”
What it’s about: Don is a brainy genetics professor and can’t find a girlfriend. To fix this, he creates what he calls the Wife Project, which essentially is a 16-page questionnaire that asks female prospects to answer a host of crazy questions and personal info. Naturally, he meets a woman who doesn’t fit the project at all, a cool bartender named Rosie, whom Don eliminates as wife candidate but company he finds himself enjoying anyway.
Longbourn by Jo Baker
Fans of Pride and Prejudice take note: Baker’s novel is an imagined downstairs answer to the Jane Austen classic, in which the servants in the Bennet estate take center stage.
What it’s about: Readers are deeply drawn into the domain and the lives of the help, and the issues the lower classes face in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars. The novel also will definitely appeal to fans of buzzy British period TV shows like “Downton Abbey and “Upstairs, Downstairs.”
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lahiri’s novel was a contender for the prestigious Booker Prize, and follows two very different brothers.
What it’s about: Udayan is younger by 15 months, and is full of is passion and idealism, and gets involved with political rebellion in 1960s India. Subhash is the “good brother, who goes to study and teach in America. Without spoiling too much, Udayan ends up a victim of political violence, Subhash returns to marry his dead brother’s pregnant wife, though he soon becomes a victim of his good deed. Themes include from sibling rivalry, beliefs, and family, and it’s a really engaging read.
11. Maya’s Notebook by Isabelle Allende
What it’s about: After being abandoned by her parents, Maya grew up in a rambling house in California with her immigrant grandmother Nini, and her astronomer grandfather Popo. After Popo dies, Maya goes nuts and—along with a group of friends known as “the vampires”— she turns to drugs, alcohol, and petty crime, which eventually leads her to Las Vegas and its dangerous underworld. Nini steps in and ships Maya off to a remote island, where she starts to record her story in her notebook, and make sense of her family and her life.
12. A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon
What it’s about: Ed Cantowitz and Hugh Shipley meet in their final year at Harvard in 1962. One is rich and privileged but lazy; the other comes from a humble background but possesses drive and ambition. These two form a close friendship, but their paths eventually diverge—one rising on Wall Street, the other becoming global humanitarian—and their friendship ends abruptly. Spanning from the Cuban Missile Crisis to today’s stock market collapse, Hershow’s novel follows two very different men and the complicated women in their lives.